A New Home for Alumni Teachers

At Duke TeachHouse, beginning teachers learn and live together

It’s 5:30 p.m. and inside a graceful turn-of the century home in East Durham, six Duke graduates are clustered in the den discussing tests, classroom behavior and poetry.

“I read that Rudyard Kipling poem you recommended to my class,” Scott Ellis says to fellow teacher Shannon Potter. “They loved it.”

Ellis, Potter and the others are part of an education experiment called Duke TeachHouse. The new living and learning community, which celebrated its official opening on Wednesday, brings new and experienced teachers together under one roof. 

Duke TeachHouse represents a novel approach to a vexing national problem: How to keep talented beginning teachers in the classroom. Nationally, nearly half of all teachers leave the field within their first five years, said program director and co-founder Jan Riggsbee, who teaches in the Duke Program in Education.

“Beginning teachers need mentoring support,” Riggsbee says. “We see TeachHouse as one important way to recruit and retain highly qualified teachers.”

Teach House

A dining table conversation: The six alumni teachers along with Professor Jan Riggsbee discuss teaching strategies 

At TeachHouse, two experienced teachers live alongside four brand-new ones, serving as mentors. Along with the informal support that comes from living side-by-side, the house offers more structured programs, including dinners with local educators and visiting policymakers.

It’s one of the first programs of its kind in the country, says TeachHouse co-founder Christopher Gergen.

“Isolation is a big problem for new teachers,” Gergen says. “At TeachHouse, teachers will be able to turn to each other for guidance and support.”

Gergen learned something about teacher isolation when his wife taught for Teach for America in the Bronx. These days, Gergen serves as a fellow in Duke’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative and as CEO of the consulting firm Forward Impact.

For Gergen, TeachHouse represents a natural extension of previous projects. His company recently launched a similar living and learning community for young entrepreneurs in Raleigh called ThinkHouse.

Riggsbee, meanwhile, has dreamed for years of creating a community like Duke TeachHouse. A former classroom teacher and administrator, she well knows the challenges early career teachers face. She has taught at Duke for 25 years, training and mentoring aspiring teachers.

She and Gergen have launched the new program with support from the Duke Program in Education, Trinity College, Duke’s Office of Durham & Regional Affairs, Duke’s Social Science Research Institute’s Education and Human Development Incubator, Forward Impact and the Durham Public Schools.

“I really feel that this is the direction teacher education needs to go,” Riggsbee says. ”We can’t just push graduates out into challenging schools and expect them to stay. We need to give them support and the opportunity to grow.”

Ashley Pollard, Trinity ’15, appreciates the support. Like all TeachHouse residents, Pollard received her teacher training at Duke and now teaches in a local public school 

When Pollard stepped into her second grade classroom at Pearsontown Magnet Elementary School for the first time in July, it was comforting to know she would end the day back at TeachHouse.

Scott Ellis in classroom

Teacher/TeachHouse mentor Scott Ellis works in his classroom

“It’s great coming home to a group of teachers,” Pollard says. “They understand the sorts of things that you’re dealing with during your day. So the support is huge.”

For mentor Scott Ellis, meanwhile, it’s a pleasure to help new teachers get off on the right foot. Early in his own career, financial pressures caused Ellis, Trinity ‘93, to leave the classroom. He taught for three years, then left to become a dentist.

Ten years later, he found he still missed teaching.

Ellis paid off his student loans, sold his dental practice and moved back to North Carolina -- and back to the classroom.

Now he revels in the chance to compare notes with other educators each evening. He helps the new teachers with lesson plans, classroom strategy and more. But he’s learning, too.

“We share strategies for how to continue to grow,” Ellis says. “It helps me reset for the next day. 

“We’re constantly talking about teaching and learning. It’s such a gift, what this house has created.”

Below: President Richard H. Brodhead talks to the residents of TeachHouse at a ceremony unveiling the residence Wednesday. Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke Photography

President at TeachHouse