Lessons from the Kitchen Table
David Auerbach Talks Retirement after Two Decades of Teaching at Cardigan
By Emily Magnus
Science teacher David Auerbach H’14, P’11 knew that he wanted this to be his last year of teaching. But after 23 years at Cardigan, he could never have imagined he would end his career instructing his students from his kitchen table.
“It’s definitely a weird way to end my career,” says Mr. Auerbach sitting in front of his computer screen miles away from where I sit at my desk. It is late May and COVID-19 stay-at-home protocol has become routine; he joins me in my home via Zoom.
Normally, Mr. Auerbach would be in his classroom by this time on a Monday morning, circulating between groups of students, answering their questions, offering input on their projects, using every moment of class time for teachable moments, no matter the subject. Instead he is at home, reaching out to his students and granting interview requests through Zoom sessions. For someone who has dedicated his career to hands-on learning, to helping students problem-solve and grow through doing, spending the last two months teaching virtually is definitely out of character.
But with COVID-19 spreading rapidly throughout the world, consistency has been thrown out the window and connections are made the only way they can be—virtually. Our conversation is lovely, filled with laughter and joy; I especially love the moments when Mr. Auerbach’s wife Suzanne chimes in, prompting her husband with memories of her own. I get a sense of what’s next for Mr. Auerbach, this summer and into the fall; most days he will be at home, tinkering away at one project or another with Suzanne as his sometimes partner in crime; he will also, however, continue to be available to Cardigan, a place he isn’t ready to leave, not just yet anyway.
“You can never leave a place you love,” he admits.
Mr. Auerbach began working at Cardigan in 1996 after six years of teaching in public schools in Arizona and Washington. Cardigan was expanding its science curriculum, and as the new department chair, Mr. Auerbach was charged with developing, “a fuller and more rounded science program which focused on a comprehensive study of the fundamentals of physical science and on ecological and environmental concerns” (Cardigan Chronicle, Fall 1996). Shortly thereafter, under Mr. Auerbach’s guidance, the Living Laboratory was built, providing students with a place to observe the habits and habitats of several animals and learn how to respect and care for them. Mr. Auerbach has also been involved in the Charles C. Gates Invention & Innovation Competition, encouraging the students to ask “what if?” and guiding them through the creative process.
“When I arrived 15 years ago,” says English teacher Marty Wennik P ’15,’16, “David welcomed me into his classroom as a colleague...His genuine compassion for the student learner and making sure that his approach was authentic and not canned was something that I immediately tried to emulate in my classroom.”
Part of that authenticity came from Mr. Auerbach’s own passion for learning and his desire to bring his own experiences into the classroom. Participating in professional development opportunities whenever he could, Mr. Auerbach’s training included certification in lego robotics from Carnegie Mellon, a fellowship with Siemens Corporation, and two Space Academy experiences with Honeywell Corporation at the U.S. Space and Rocketry Center. He has also been a Honeywell Space Academy worldwide ambassador and completed a week-long NuVu studio innovation course at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Determined to provide students with as much real life and hands-on learning as possible, Mr. Auerbach also sought out grants and funding for projects at Cardigan. In 2011, for example, he applied for and received a $10,000-grant from Toyota Motors U.S.A. that allowed him and his students to study turtles in Canaan Street Lake. A Chronicle article from that time shared, “By studying lake-water samples and capturing (and marking, then releasing) turtles in the lake, David hopes to teach his students to gather and assess data and then develop hypotheses regarding factors that affect the turtle population.” (Cardigan Chronicle, Fall 2011).
Mr. Auerbach is the first to point out, however, that his job at Cardigan has entailed far more than just classroom instruction. When he interviewed at Cardigan in 1996, he recalls with a smile, he was told that his day would start at 7:00 am and end at 11:00 pm. “I cast that off, thinking they were mistaken,” Mr. Auerbach chuckles. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.” Since then, in addition to teaching life, earth, and physical sciences, biology, geometry, woodshop, and industrial arts, he has coached sailing, soccer, skiing, and cross-country running; he has organized the rocket-building club, participated in student plays, been a resource for Jewish students, joined the Summer Session staff, and advised both his students and peers.
Then there were all the ancillary jobs that weren’t included in his contract but were just a routine part of taking care of middle school boys. “Years ago one Sunday duty was ‘letter checker;’” he tells me. “Every Sunday night we had to make sure the boys had written letters home to their parents and not just stuffed envelopes full of blank paper. I also remember a job in the dining hall I called ‘butter boy;’ for each meal there was one faculty member who was in charge of making sure every table had butter and then was also in charge of removing the butter at the end of the meal.”
Mr. Auerbach also recalls a time when the night before Commencement the ninth-grade students were allowed to stay up all night and hang out with their friends. That meant that the faculty, of course, had to take turns staying awake as well. “One of the traditions on that night was an all-night cookout near the athletic facilities,” he recalls. “Burgers and hot dogs on the grill with students and faculty hanging out together—it was one of the traditions that rang true to me...Ski Holidays and Head’s Holidays and Founder’s Days...Those have always had an allure as well. I love seeing the boys faces light up when they find out.”
David’s handwriting is art. Each letter is beautifully written and the time and care he takes writing either class notes on the board or a note to a colleague or student is truly a gift. I have always refused to erase his handwritten messages on the chalk boards and whiteboards in the classrooms.Al Gray H’12,P’14,’16, English Teacher
“When I taught in public school, we would start work at eight and watch the clock all day until we checked out at four,” he continues. “At Cardigan, as I’ve often said over the years, we’re with the boys from the moment they wake up until the moment they wake up. But at the same time, I’ve never watched the clock.” It’s an environment in which Mr. Auerbach thrived as a self-professed workaholic.
In his 23 years at Cardigan, Mr. Auerbach has worked alongside countless faculty and staff, many of whom have become role models, mentors, and lifelong friends. The feelings are mutual. “When I think of Dave,” says Assistant Dean of Academics and PEAKs Department Chair Jarrod Caprow, “I think of a lifelong learn- er, someone who is always ready to give his best and encourage others to do the same. He is a kid at heart but has high standards for himself, the boys, and all of the rest of us.”
English teacher Al Gray H’12, P’14,’16 agrees: “I have always appreciated his willingness to coach any sport, regardless of his experience or interest level. He always manages to make the season fun and valuable for the student-athletes.”
As Mr. Auerbach and I finish our conversation, I find myself wishing our interview could have taken place under different circumstances. I am certain much has been lost. I remember the kind smiles he directed my way in the dining hall during the first months that I worked at Cardigan last year; they were sincere and genuine. Virtual conversations, while better than nothing, can’t replace the connections made over real cups of coffee.
Fortunately, this probably won’t be my last conversation with Mr. Auerbach. While he is retiring so that he can spend more time reading (Pompeii by Robert Harris is at the top of his reading list) and tinkering (he’s looking forward to setting up his floor loom and sewing machine) and traveling (this plan has been put on hold for a bit), he also wants to stay in touch with Cardigan. “If someone calls me at 7:00 am and needs my help covering a class,” he says, “I’ll do it.” I think I can speak for the rest of the community in saying that I will look forward to these visits.