Duke TeachHouse UnConference Event for Educators


Two of the central tenets of the Duke TeachHouse model are community and teacher voice

TeachHouse fellows, all of whom are pre-service and/or practicing early career teachers, live in community in the house. Be it sharing a meal together, grading papers at the kitchen table, or debriefing their teaching day while walking along Durham’s 9th Street, many fellows remark that this informal, organic community building directly impacts their well-being as they navigate the complexities of becoming a teacher. 

Equally important, through personal and professional development programming, fellows also connect with the broader education communities of Durham, North Carolina, and beyond. Through dinners and talks with local education leaders, regional conferences, and even national and international education-focused travel (pre-COVID), fellows broaden their understanding of the education system locally and globally. 

However, as the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 immediately and fundamentally altered education, TeachHouse wondered: how can we continue to safely bring educators together to discuss and problem-solve the urgent education issues of today? 

Bryan Proffitt delivers his keynote speech at the 2nd Annual TeachHouse UnConference.
Bryan Proffitt delivers his keynote speech at the 2nd Annual TeachHouse UnConference.

At the start of the 2020-2021 school year, two undergraduate pre-service teacher-leaders in Duke’s Program in Education – Alejandra Gómez and David Conlin – asked the same question. As Duke seniors, they were immersed in their clinical experiences and capstone coursework in the Teacher Preparation Program. In addition, they served as advocates and mentors through Student U., a local organization that provides a year-long mentoring and support program for middle and high school students in Durham.

At the same time that they were learning the craft of teaching, they were also hearing the perspectives of students and families around the critical shortfalls of virtual learning. As future educators they wanted to know what classroom teachers were thinking and feeling about these changes. They immediately thought of TeachHouse co-founder and Duke professor Jan Riggsbee, a teacher educator and advocate who is committed to empowering teacher voice.

Alejandra reached out to Dr. Riggsbee in late September and scheduled a time for all three to meet—outdoors, socially distanced, on the picnic tables in the garden of a local Durham elementary school. The chance to catch up after months of virtual life (and Dr. Riggsbee’s gift of Monuts’ lunch) made it a true celebration! Alejandra and David left energized and excited by an idea Dr. Riggsbee had planted—an UnConference, which would present an innovative approach for problem sharing and problem solving that students were seeking. 

Principal Art Mola of DC Public Schools delivers his EdTalk at the Annual TeachHouse UnConference in April 2022.
Principal Art Mola of DC Public Schools delivers his EdTalk at the Annual TeachHouse UnConference in April 2022.

After a follow-up meeting with TeachHouse alumna Savannah Windham, an instructional designer and education consultant and Langley Ellmann, a Duke alumna and TeachHouse community/partnership liaison, the idea began to take shape into a virtual event scheduled for the following month. David and Alejandra reached out to their pre-service teacher cohorts and realized the extent to which other future teachers wanted to get involved as activist-educators and engage in dialogues around the expectations and realities of COVID and its impact on schools, teachers, students, and families. 

Through the leadership and vision of Alejandra, David, Langley, and Savannah and the work of the TeachHouse technology team led by TeachHouse Resident Innovation Fellow Carter Zenke and Undergraduate Innovation Fellow Jacob Rubin, the first annual Duke TeachHouse UnConference was launched in October 2020. 

Continue on to read more about the traditional “unconference” model, Duke TeachHouse’s innovative touches, and the impact these annual events have had on the ever-broadening TeachHouse community.