Independent Spirit: Derek Porter

Summer 2022

BE42E610-192D-414E-B622-E5767866005A_1_100_o.jpgDerek Porter
Faculty Research Coordinator, Social Studies Teacher
St. Christopher’s School (VA)

Photo by Destiny Martinez
Growing up in the public schools of Minnesota, I first became aware of independent schools through a high school friend who attended one—but she wanted nothing to do with them. This introduction and my friend’s struggle to belong left me disinterested in learning more about them. I changed my mind several years later at the age of 20. Unprompted, a friend from college told me about the Institute for Responsible Citizenship’s Washington Program, a two-year fellowship that sends elite African American male college students to Washington, DC, for internships, courses, and meetings with prominent private and public sector leaders, as well as professional development and mentorship. This experience opened my eyes to opportunities that I didn’t know existed for me, including teaching in an independent school.
In 2010, as I prepared for my first job, teaching history and directing the arts programming at the Washington Jesuit Academy (DC), I nervously wondered whether I was prepared to work with middle school boys of color from disenfranchised backgrounds, whom donors were sponsoring to be at the school. Almost as soon as I walked through the doors, however, I was reassured by friendly brown faces and shortly thereafter found myself impressed with the benefits of single-sex private education. The curriculum was not limited to preset resources. Even more surprising, the students thought it was cool to think critically and perform well. The boys were polite, accepting, and took more courageous intellectual risks than I was ready to venture at their age.
That first year of teaching was demanding, full of 12-hour days and compulsory summer school. It was intense, exhausting, and humbling. I had phenomenal Black male mentors who modeled a tireless dedication in the field of education and informed my decision to attend Yale University.
After graduate school, where I studied ministry and educational leadership, I accepted a new position as a middle school social studies teacher at St. Christopher’s School (VA) and was tasked with replacing a traditional world geography curriculum with a course that would build globally minded students. Over the past decade, I’ve been given the latitude to iterate with the curriculum to keep pace with current events, and I’ve received administrative support as I “failed forward”—a necessary part of learning that has helped me become an effective teacher.
When I joined the faculty at St. Christopher’s—a predominately white institution in the former capital of the Confederacy—I initially saw lines of difference. I didn’t feel that any of my colleagues saw me as a resource to improve their practice, and I thought students liked me because of my youth and my passion for rapping. But I have matured in my educational philosophy and my sense of how to add value in the independent school context. This year, I earned my doctorate in education from the College of William & Mary. Each day, I have been my whole self—never settling for simply fitting in—while opening my heart, mind, and classroom to those around me. 

What’s your independent school story? Share it with us. Send a note to [email protected].