Reflecting on a Fulfilling 28 Years: A Conversation with Ms. Heath

The idea of this article came to me in May of 2022, when I walked around campus with Debby Heath, upper school Spanish teacher and my advisor. Ms. Heath showed me the pottery graveyard, the patch of grass behind Pigott which houses  abandoned student works and preserves beauty in debris — one of the many nooks and crannies of Lakeside that she somehow knows all about. Ms. Heath has taught at Lakeside for 28 years, seen three heads of schools, and witnessed the many ups and downs of Lakeside. What began as my intention to learn about niche Lakeside facts turned into a two hour-long, heartfelt conversation in the basement of Fix, with Ms. Heath unraveling the series of events that has led to her dedicating almost three decades of her life to this school. 


HX: How did you begin working at Lakeside?

DH: I got a job offer in the summer of 1994, but I declined to teach Spanish for a semester in Switzerland. When I returned from that job, a position opened up, and Lakeside reached out to me.  I was hired in January 1995. I was 31, just married, and began teaching in the middle of that school year. 

HX: And you have stayed here ever since. 

DH: The funny thing is, when I first came to Lakeside, I was shocked to see teachers stay for 25 or more years. That seemed like a long time to be in school, and here I am, 28 years later. The reason why I’ve stayed all these years is because I’ve never felt like I was not being challenged. Every year feels like a fresh journey for the students and for me. As a teacher, there is nothing more satisfying than to look around your classroom and realize every single person is here because they want to be there. They are invested and interested in your class, especially at the higher levels, and they radiate infectious diligence and a love for learning.  

HX: Have you always wanted to be a teacher? 

DH: Quite the contrary: it was the last thing on my mind throughout my time in high school and most of college. Up until that point in my life, all I knew was school, which became the thing I wanted to get away from. Instead, I wanted to join the Peace Corps, partially encouraged by the culture at Carleton College and partially driven by my love of adventure and travel. So that’s what I did, moving to Honduras. I worked with an orphanage, teaching the kids about gardening and nutrition. More and more, I realized how much fun I was having. I loved teaching! The classroom, though open-aired and on the side of a goat farm, seemed like my natural environment. That was the first time the light bulb went on, and continuing teaching when I returned to the U.S. confirmed this realization. 

HX: What was a challenge you encountered during your time at Lakeside? 

DH: When I first came to Lakeside, everybody worked in silos — everyone got assigned a classroom that was their office and seldom communicated with each other. Every class, depending on what teacher you had, was very different. I, by nature, am very collaborative, so the “individualistic” teaching culture and the fact that almost all my colleagues were older made my first years feel isolating. This changed when Bernie became the Head of School. Department offices were born, increased collaboration was implemented, and the Spanish curriculum, as I imagine has happened for all subjects, has significantly benefited from the diverse perspectives, knowledge, and experiences each teacher brings. For instance, as a non-native Spanish speaker, I understood why certain concepts were challenging because I also went through the same process as language learning. The diverse background of our language department brings many different things to the table.

HX: What has been the biggest change, curriculum or culture wise, during your time here? 

DH: There are so many, but I will start with the most significant — Lakeside is way more diverse, not only in terms of race but also socio-economic levels. To give you an idea, there was a fall tradition where the seniors used to drive their cars around the track, which used to just be a field. They would speed around, make big noises, and show off. It was messy and created havoc for the maintenance people. This “tradition” was banned in 2002, but it was one of those things that “we do at Lakeside,” and nobody questioned it. We still have a lot to do in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but we have progressed significantly from 1995. The changes in the language department are a microcosm of the changes at Lakeside. When I first came, the Spanish language had just been added to the curriculum (before that it was just French, German, and Latin), and there were only two teachers, including me. Now there are five of us and we are all overenrolled. The Spanish speaking world is a huge, diverse diaspora, and my colleagues and I have worked to bring in voices from as many countries as we can — Puerto Rico, Mexico, Spain, Colombia, Argentina, the Dominican Republic, and more.

HX: What are you most proud of? 

DH: I am really proud of the work I did to bring the immigration-centric lens for Spanish IV. As a part of the class, students conduct 15-minute interviews with immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries and make it into a podcast. There used to also be a banquet where the students invited their interviewees for an evening of cultural exchange and learning. Speaking with and learning from a native speaker who is not a Lakeside teacher has always been a very enriching experience for the students. 

HX: How have you personally evolved during your time at Lakeside?

DH: I have grown so much as a teacher — it seems like the only way to become better at something is to do it continuously, to improve from feedback and communication. If I could distill teaching down to one word, it would be listening. Listening to students, to colleagues, to current events. Teaching is the most undull job — every year, the students and what they are exposed to evolve, so you have to change your curriculum accordingly. So perhaps my takeaway is this: finding and learning through the power of listening and observation. 


This conversation has been edited for clarity.