Dedication and Devotion: Durham Academy’s Retiring Teachers

Written by Rebecca Urato, ‘21

After a combined 150 years of hard work, dedication and devotion, Durham Academy will bid farewell to four Upper School teachers. Edith Keene, Dennis Cullen, Jim Speir and Margarita Throop have profoundly impacted Durham Academy students and faculty in their own ways. While their teaching careers may have concluded, their legacies will always remain an integral part of the Durham Academy community. And, their recognition is long overdue.

When Latin teacher Ms. Keene looks back on the profession she chose four decades ago, she never would have imagined that it would blossom into a 39-year teaching career. She recalls, “For a few years after I graduated from college as an art history major, I worked in a museum because I thought I wanted to go into museum work. However, it just wasn’t fulfilling, and, as I did it, I realized more and more that what I really wanted to do was teach.” Mrs. Keene started her teaching career in 1980 as a French teacher at Durham Academy. But, as the years passed, she began teaching Latin courses. Nowadays, Mrs. Keene only teaches Latin, but she has discovered another aspect of teaching that is much more meaningful to her than the language: “My favorite thing about teaching is just the students. The interactions, connections, and time you spend with them is what I’m going to miss most.”  

For Keene, teaching has never been about the acknowledgement she receives or the expertise she has gained. “After getting my degree, I realized what I had been missing,” said Mrs. Keene. “I got to teach for the first time in graduate school, and that was what really captivated me; it was way more than just a scholarship.” After retirement, Mrs. Keene plans on sleeping late, working in her yard and taking Tai Chi.

Mr. Cullen, DA’s beloved cross country coach and Upper School math teacher, will also retire after 43 years of teaching at Durham Academy. Mr. Cullen, who got his first teaching job in New Jersey in 1973, always knew he wanted to be a teacher. “I’ve always enjoyed being with kids; when I was a child, and through my adult life, I’ve loved to be around them. I like the math part of things, but I really enjoy joking with the kids, and sometime poking a little bit of fun at them,” said Cullen. Mr. Cullen’s unparalleled passion for teaching and dedication to his students is evident among the generations of students he has taught. He said, “A lot of the students I had 20 or 30 years ago I am still in communication with and share stories with 30 years later, and those relationships are really the most meaningful part of being a teacher.”

Although Mr. Cullen will miss his fellow students and faculty, he is looking forward to doing constructive volunteer work and spending time with his family: “I would like to work on something with either gerrymandering or gun control legislation; those are two things that are very important to our future, and I want to make an influence on it.” He added, “However, that means I’ll probably end up sitting in front of a television watching Spongebob Squarepants.” Mr. Cullen’s bountiful humor will be greatly missed, but his bequest will never be forgotten.

As English teacher Mr. Speir closes out his 40th year at Durham Academy, he is spending it doing what he loves — working with his group of exceptionally creative, insightful and intelligent students. “It makes teaching fun,” said Mr. Speir. “It’s an enjoyable thing to be able to work with such talented individuals. I’m really lucky.” Speir began teaching history in Southern California and working as a swimming and waterpolo coach. In 1979, Speir found his way to Durham Academy and has served as the DA Director of Admissions, Interim Headmaster, Associate Headmaster, and Middle School Director only to become a history teacher 20 years later.

Coming out of grad school, all Mr. Speir knew was that he loved literature and that he “really didn’t have a preference between teaching English or history.” His favorite part about teaching isn’t the subject—it’s the relationships he develops with his students and his ability to watch them grow as both people and scholars. “The most meaningful thing has just been able to see students later in life, to see what we have created as a school and how we follow our admissions so closely,” Mr. Speir said. “I get to see my graduates to some pretty amazing things.” After retirement, Mr. Speir looks forward to traveling to Portugal with his wife, planning his son’s wedding and spending time with his grandson.

When Spanish teacher Sra. Throop left Argentina as a 16-year-old, she felt like she had lost contact with her culture. However, through teaching, she’s reclaimed her cultural identity and developed a newfound passion for her students. “I didn’t plan on being a teacher, but there was an opening to teach Spanish at Greensboro Day School, so I decided to just try it for a year or two,” said Throop. “I immediately fell in love with it, and I’ve been doing it for 35 years now.” For Throop, her passion for teaching is twofold: “On one hand, teaching Spanish allows me to continuously add to my own knowledge base and keep up on current event,” she explained. “On the other hand, the best part about teaching is really just the students.” Throop, who teaches multiple Spanish levels, meets a new group of students every year, and she thinks each one is as good as the last. She said, “I just love the kids, they really do keep me young and spirited. And, although people always ask me how I continue to teach teenagers year after year, I can’t get enough of it.”

After retirement, Throop looks forward to spending time with her three-month-old granddaughter, catching up on her reading, and hopefully doing community work that pertains to Spanish. Nonetheless, Throop knows that she will miss her students dearly. “I can continue to read and keep up with Spanish Literature on my own, but it makes me sad that I won’t have any students to share it with. The kids are really important to me,” said Throop.

Each one of these teachers has worked tirelessly to create the best possible future for Durham Academy and their students. With a mere five weeks of school remaining, Durham Academy is in preparation for a bittersweet goodbye.