DA’s new headmaster envisions ‘engine of human flowering’
“It’s a very different school,” said Michael Ulku-Steiner. “It’s not your father’s Durham Academy.”
He’s the new head of school for Durham Academy and has been working closely with his faculty and staff as they prepared for their first day of school, which is Tuesday.
Ulku-Steiner spent the part of last week meeting with teachers, making sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to meeting the needs of each DA student.
Although new to the position, Ulku-Steiner is not new to Durham Academy. He started at DA in 1992, teaching English and Spanish after graduating from University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Until 2000, he was a teacher, adviser, coach and interim director of studies. He also served as the Upper School Director for DA from 2003-2008.
Most recently, Ulku-Steiner was headmaster of The American School in Switzerland, where he managed a budget of more than $20 million, recruited 75 teachers and revised the contract-building system to allow for greater equity and transparency.
Even with his deep ties to DA and the Durham community, Ulku-Steiner knows that things have changed.
“I know the school pretty deeply in a lot of ways and from a lot of angles,” he said. “But as the saying goes, you never step in the same river twice. I really want to get a sense of things and not presume to know everything.”
To this end, Ulku-Steiner will have roundtable sessions where he and DA students, parents and alumni can speak candidly about what DA does best, what it can do better and what he needs to know to best serve the school and its students.
“People love this place and they are eager to help out,” he said.
He added that he will need their help as he makes sense of how the community views DA and how DA works within the community.
In his office, collected pictures hang in a frame behind Ulku-Steiner’s chair, featuring images of various people who have had an impact on him, professionally and personally.
From a photo with his grandfather and Roberto Clemente and one of his former professors, Robert Kirkpatrick, to one of TASIS founder M. Crist Fleming and Albuquerque Priest Father Jose Rodriguez, Ulku-Steiner believes in remembering the contributions of the past.
“Having an attitude of humility, not just of this place and the resources we’ve been blessed with, but to also know that this is not an accident,” he said. “I’d like to do my part and help the school become its best self.”
Ulku-Steiner has set a few goals for himself as he heads into his first year as the head of DA and some expectations for the school community.
“I’ll be learning the school, building relationships,” he said. “You have to invest time with students, go into their classrooms and get to know them. I’ll be building community both within the school and outside. I’ll work to get all of the sites to work as one organism.
“I’ll also be reimagining Durham Academy’s role in the larger community. Our job is to be an engine for good in Durham. The Hill Center, the service learning academy and Student U, these are all place where we’re not consuming but producing for Durham.”
Ulku-Steiner said that there is the perception among some that DA is a school sitting on top of a pile of privilege and resources. He wants to use that privilege as leverage to help the greater Durham community.
DA has grown past its history, Ulku-Steiner added, noting that 30 percent of the school’s students are of color, diminishing the image of DA as a “white-flight” school.
Ulku-Steiner hopes to nurture a focused environment within DA with two overarching ideas.
“Honesty,” he said. “A culture of truth telling where we can look squarely at one another and say that this is what we’re good at and look squarely at one another and say this is what we need to work on. It’s hard for us sometimes to say that we need to get better at something.
“We want everyone at DA and in the community to strive to be their better self, for the good of the students and the parental body but also the community. We need to be an engine of human flowering.”