Dahlgren School welcomes a new principal this year. Dr. Jeffrey Duncan has a wealth of experience as an educator, most recently working as an instructional technologist for the Department of Defense Education Activity in New York, Virginia and Puerto Rico district.
Duncan’s professional career began when he enlisted in the Army with the goal of using his GI Bill to attain a college degree. He served in Panama and was later accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Upon graduation he was commissioned and served as an armor officer in Germany. Nine days before the Berlin Wall fell, Duncan left the service to become a teacher, returning to his native Iowa.
Duncan earned a Master’s degree from the University of Iowa in arts and teaching in science education. “I liked the east coast so I was going to come out to Virginia and then go to New York and be a teacher there,” he said. “I’ve been here 20 years and I haven’t left Virginia yet.”
Duncan has taught science at Culpeper Middle School and Courtland High School, where he later became the science department chair. His first role as a school administrator came when he accepted an assistant principal position for Henrico County school system. “Then an opportunity came for me to be able to stay in science and work for [DoDEA] as a secondary science specialist,” he said.
His work at DoDEA soon brought him to Dahlgren School. “I visited Dahlgren on a number of occasions and worked for the school in [science, technology, engineering and math] and other efforts,” said Duncan. “I worked with science teachers and students and even read books to first graders in the library; unbeknownst to me, I would be coming back and putting on the admin hat to serve as the principal.”
On the eve of his 21st year as an educator, Duncan remains passionate about his profession. “I like learning,” he explained. “They have that line about being a life-long learner, but I really like it. Whether it was teaching my fellow enlisted soldiers in the Army, or later as a platoon commander and company [executive officer], I really enjoyed teaching different skills. Being an educator now, I like teaching. I like being in there with the students. There’s nothing like going into a classroom and sharing a love of science and seeing the light bulbs turn on in students.”
The teachers and students at Dahlgren School impressed Duncan during his visits, most recently with fourth graders for an advanced science project. “These guys were just loving science and loving education,” he said. “We had a great conversation about it and yet I wasn’t talking to high school kids. These were fourth graders. They could have held their own with any high school kid.”
Awakening that kind of intellectual curiosity in young people never gets old for Duncan. “That’s rewarding to me,” he said. “I was never in education for the pay; I just like sharing my knowledge and continuing to gain knowledge. Hearing their feedback. that keeps me going.”
The small size of Dahlgren School and its wide range of student ages is an advantage, said Duncan. “Here we have eighth grade, seventh grade and sixth grade students being models for younger students about how to act in school, how to talk and lead things as a student to a student. In Dahlgren, I saw third graders participating in STEM activities with fourth and fifth graders, almost seeming like they were already middle school kids. That’s the beauty of Dahlgren being small. Students don’t mind taking over and leading something. I look forward to continuing and building that so all the students are comfortable taking over and leading.”
That kind of focused, close-knit education environment is critical for military children, who must transition to new schools regularly. “It’s perhaps a little bit easier [for students] to go from a military school to a military school, but we’re working on those transitions outside the gate,” said Duncan. “We’re working on those public school transitions so we can help those schools understand where military kids are coming from. Military children are totally different from regular public school students. These are children whose parents are deployed, have been deployed or will be deployed.”
Military children have much to offer public schools, said Duncan. “The majority of the kids in public school were born and raised near the school. Military kids have lived all around the world, whether they are Navy, Marines, Army or Air Force. So they have a wealth of world experience that most public school students don’t have.”
Duncan also looks forward to continuing his work with teachers at Dahlgren School. “They were open and asked me to share my ideas. I would elicit what they would like me to do and ask them how I could support them. For me, that’s going to continue. My role as the building principal is to support them and their role of teaching, and the students’ role in learning. These teachers are very professional; they’re not set in their ways. We’ve got to learn as we get new technologies, new ideas, and ways of teaching and doing things. If we run into challenges or road blocks, it will be my task to help teachers overcome them.”