Cameron Pollack / Sun Senior Photographer

Bryan Duff, senior lecturer in horticulture, encouraged students to appreciate the impact teachers have.

February 10, 2016

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | Bryan Duff Discusses Rewards of Being an Educator

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Teaching was always a part of life for Bryan Duff, a senior lecturer in horticulture and the coordinator of the undergraduate education minor.

His mother was a preschool and elementary school teacher, and his father was an army doctor who also taught medical students. Still, it took Duff some time to realize that his love for learning would lead him down the same road as his parents. Duff said his path to realizing his true calling began on Jun. 4, 1996 — the day he graduated from Princeton University.

Duff was named valedictorian of his class and only had three minutes to speak at graduation because he had to share the stage with that year’s high-profile guest speaker — then President Bill Clinton.

“What I talked about in that three-minute speech was how lucky we were to have such great teachers and mentors. I should have taken a hint from my speech that my heart was in teaching, but I didn’t,” Duff said. “It took me a couple more years of tutoring and doing some part-time teaching work to realize that I was a teacher.”

Duff attributed some of this delay to the fact that many consider teaching “respected, [but] not prestigious.”

“I was influenced by that cultural value,” he said.

His “kick in the pants” moment, as Duff describes it, was reading a letter to the editor written by a fellow Princeton alum, which he said he found on the back of a magazine. The alum wrote about why she taught elementary school even though she had a degree from such a prestigious university. “Well, who else would you want teaching your kids?” she asked in the letter.

“There is a certain arrogance about that statement I don’t like, but the basic sentiment that we want really bright, ambitious, motivated, kind people to work with kids — that I fully buy into,” Duff said.

Duff said he started out as a high school math teacher, where he was able to work closely with 80 students a year as the director of the senior class project — when seniors research and develop practical uses for something they have learned.

“What a privilege and a pleasure to help guide students in applying academic skills to something they had chosen,” Duff said. “There was great power in that. That’s how I got into teaching.”

After that experience, Duff realized he wanted to work with young people in a capacity that would have a similar impact. He began teaching education, where he could inspire some of his students to pursue teaching careers as well.

At Cornell, Duff’s courses focus heavily on the application of knowledge and connecting undergraduates with young children. He and his students work together to create after-school learning programs for Ithaca’s local schools and travel as a class to implement them.

Duff said he sees the opportunity to work with the younger students as a privilege for both himself and his students.

“I think I have the best job in the world at Cornell,” Duff said. “As a senior lecturer, I get to focus on teaching and advising. On top of that, I have the resources of a university like Cornell. I have had so many opportunities to develop courses that give undergraduates really cool opportunities.”

This year, Duff received a grant to develop a course called “Crossing Borders in Education: The Case of Myanmar.” The objective of the course is to explore how the sizable group of Burmese refugees in Ithaca has adjusted to the different education system in the United States, he said.

To prepare for the class, Duff traveled to Burma last summer and visited half a dozen schools, where he noted the increased respect students showed teachers.

According to Duff, the education system needs to grow to allow students to pursue what they are good at and what they are passionate about.

Duff hopes that “one day our society will catch up and put the resources and the salaries behind teaching that it deserves,” he said.

“If I had a goal, I guess I’d want students at Cornell and I’d want the public, more broadly, to see teaching and that work is incredibly challenging intellectually,” he said. “What’s more important than helping the next generation do better than we’re doing in caring for each other, in caring for the planet, in making the most of their talents, whatever they are?”