Scott Ellis’s enthusiasm for teaching is clear. As a third grade teacher at The Expedition School in Hillsborough, N.C., he’s one of few men making that career choice. With 10 years in the profession, his love for it has only grown stronger.
But Ellis wasn’t always a teacher. For nearly a decade he was a dentist in Washington, D.C. While dentistry and teaching wouldn’t appear to have much in common at first glance, both careers appealed to him because of his family and upbringing.
From a tight-knit community in western North Carolina, Ellis always dreamt of achieving big things that would make his family proud. With both sets of grandparents living within a one-mile radius, he had plenty of family encouraging his academic development.
“No one in my family had gone to college,” Ellis said. “So my parents were really passionate about making sure [my brother and I] could get the best education possible. We were fortunate to have family members that really wanted us to succeed.”
This family encouragement would play a big role in his college education as well. Realizing his parents and grandparents’ hopes, both he and his older brother graduated from college. And both of them went to Duke.
As a pre-med undergraduate with a heavy science-based course load, his brother suggested taking an education class for academic balance. It was a decision that would introduce him to his future career.
“There was a requirement that you had to go into the public schools and volunteer in the classroom,” Ellis said. “I was in a third grade classroom at Burton Elementary. I think I had to visit four times, but I kept going back.”
During that time, he noticed the lack of male role models for the students. It was an observation that led him into the classroom after graduation, first in Marietta, Ga., where he was named Novice Teacher of the Year for his entire school system.
After two years he returned to North Carolina, teaching elementary students in Raleigh for a year. But despite feeling fulfilled by the work, he still felt the draw of medicine and achieving a higher degree.
Dentistry, like teaching, appealed to him because it meant caring for others. He was still able to make a difference in people’s lives, and the paychecks made it easier to make ends meet.
Working with his patients, though, just wasn’t the same feeling as being in the classroom and teaching children. Though dentistry was a respected field, the day-to-day left him wanting something more from his work.
“I wanted to be of service to my community, but I didn’t feel like I had found a way of doing that with dentistry,” said Ellis.
After ten years maintaining a practice, and paying off student loans, he decided to return to teaching and his home state.
As a teacher, Ellis feels a keen sense of purpose with his work. Acting as an advocate for his students and their families, his role is to demonstrate to children that curiosity and learning have a power of their own.
It’s something his family taught him well.
He doesn’t take this role for granted, especially considering the low number of male teachers in elementary schools. And recent policy changes have made teaching even less appealing to college graduates.
With the state ranked 49th in teacher pay and education often the subject of political debate, it’s no surprise that attracting new educators is difficult and teachers are leaving the industry at record rates.
For Ellis, this trend is a call to action. Selected as the Duke TeachHouse mentor by Director Jan Riggsbee, he’s on the front lines with early career teachers as they begin navigating the profession and its demands.
Located in a historic home in Durham’s Cleveland-Holloway neighborhood near downtown, it currently houses six fellows teaching in public schools across the Triangle, with two other non-resident fellows. All of the fellows are first or second year teachers.
It’s an innovative effort meant to attract and keep quality teachers in North Carolina’s public schools by supporting them from the very beginning of their careers.
Ellis’s involvement has been crucial to the success of TeachHouse. He helped Riggsbee launch the program in fall 2015 and his love of teaching and commitment to learning has shaped the culture of the house.
“He sees and understands each child as an individual, and through modeling and support, facilitates a learning community that is a safe space for discovery and risk-taking,” Riggsbee said. “He’s passionate, caring, insightful, inspiring, innovative, and nurturing—an advocate for all children and all teachers.”
In short, he’s exactly the right person to lead the TeachHouse efforts as mentor.
Sharing their knowledge and experiences, the fellows regularly talk about best practices and how to apply them in the classroom. Conversations over dinner include strategies they can use to manage their workload, like using dedicated planning time in school to do their grading instead.
“It’s a lot easier to bring home your lesson planning book than it is 40 papers,” Ellis said.
It may sound like a simple fix, but these insights come from years of experience. With Ellis in the house as mentor, his younger colleagues can benefit from his 10 years teaching, learning what gets results in the classroom and what doesn’t.
For young teachers straight from college, this guidance can help translate knowledge into practice. There’s plenty to navigate after graduation from college, so the advice and camaraderie at TeachHouse helps this transition go smoothly.
Teacher burnout is preventable, Ellis said, but it takes committed teachers helping guide those who are new to the profession.
That support can mean the difference between a new teacher floundering or flourishing in their first classroom. Successful teachers are rarely isolated. Like Ellis, they’re products of their family, education, and community. With him as Duke TeachHouse mentor, there’s hope that more Duke graduates will choose to teach and stay in the classroom too