Head of High School Sue Nellis

Head of high school steps down to teach freshmen

Sue Nellis, head of high school, announced on Nov. 15 that she will be resigning from her administrative position at the beginning of the next school year.

She will instead return to full-time teaching and take over retiring teacher Daniel Neukom’s position as the freshman history teacher and history department chair; Neukom will continue teaching AP European History.

Nellis came to the school in 1982 as a history teacher, and she has taught everything from seventh- to 11th-grade history, though never a senior class.

She said she had been hoping to move back to the classroom for some time.

“I kind of happened into administration—it wasn’t a particular goal of mine,” Nellis said. “When I started doing it, I realized that at some point before retiring, I wanted to go back into the classroom.

“It’s not like history jobs open up very often at Country Day—if I was going to go back into the classroom, this was the time for me to do it.”

So when Neukom announced his retirement earlier this year, Nellis jumped on the opening before the school started looking for someone to replace him.

“Normally, when a position is available, we conduct a full search,” headmaster Stephen Repsher said. “But in this case of a long-standing, well-respected teacher in a position of leadership, we respect that teacher’s right to move into the position that suits them.

“I’m delighted for Ms. Nellis that she has an opportunity to continue at Country Day doing what she loves most.”

She first served as head of high school in 1993-94 as an interim before returning to teaching.

Then from 1997-2006, the head of high school position was split into three, and Nellis was the “academic dean.”

Finally, she became the lone head of high school in 2006.

Throughout this whole period, Nellis has always taught at least one class—it’s been AP United States History (APUSH) since 1993.

“I really didn’t want to lose the classroom,” Nellis said. “Teaching a class reminded me what the teachers deal with every day, and I think that’s helpful in a decision-making process. And I think it made me a better administrator.”

Next year, Nellis will teach freshman history as well as APUSH. Her freshman class may not be the same as Neukom’s Ancient/Medieval History class, although Nellis said she is not yet sure what she’ll do instead.

“I’ve just started thinking about it and done some research on what other independent schools are doing in the ninth grade,” Nellis said. “I want it to fit in with what I’m most interested in teaching.”

Nellis said her favorite branch of history is U.S. history because it is “more accessible,” meaning “you can visit places more easily,” but U.S. history is reserved for 11th grade.

With Nellis leaving administration, the school must now search for a new head of high school.

SCDS has posted the vacancy with Carney, Sandoe & Associates, a hiring agency for independent schools.

Applicants can come from all around the nation, and current employees are allowed to apply as well. Repsher said he has about 15 candidates so far, though no current faculty members have applied as of yet.

The final decision will be Repsher’s, but students, teachers and faculty will have input, Nellis said.

Committees of students and parents will be selected to interview the applicants and share their thoughts afterwards, and teachers will meet with applicants as well.

“It’s a process we’ve followed since we started the school,” Repsher said. “We want to make sure we give everyone their due and give everyone their voice.”

Repsher said that the interviewing could take place before Winter Break, though he might not be ready at that point.

At the earliest, the decision will be made by the end of January, Repsher said.

Nellis said that she is looking forward to returning to teaching, but she will still miss parts of her job as head of high school.

“I’ll miss the contact I have with the students and teachers—I’ll be more isolated being a classroom teacher,” she said. “This job allows me to touch every part of this place, and I won’t have that anymore.

“I think we have great collegiality in the faculty, and I think that’s been a really wonderful part of my work here.”

Teacher Kellie Whited will miss Nellis’s support.

“She’s someone you can go to with any problem,” Whited said. “When I came here, I had a five-week-old baby and was a brand new high-school teacher, so it was a rough transition. But she was just so supportive every step of the way.”

Teacher Patricia Dias, who had her first experience with teaching here 10 years ago, agrees. She said she likes Nellis’s open-door policy.

“I always felt like she was more of a mentor than my boss,” she said.

Dias noted that when she was pregnant with her first child, Nellis threw a baby shower for her and invited the whole faculty.

“At that time I wasn’t married, and other parts of my life weren’t so great,” Dias said. “I had only worked here for a couple of years, but it made me feel that Country Day had a really supportive atmosphere.

“And I credit a lot of that to Ms. Nellis for creating that atmosphere for the faculty.”

Dias said that she will miss Nellis as head of high school but is happy for her to be able to return to teaching.

Senior Charlie Johnson, who took Nellis’s APUSH class last year, said that Nellis will do well teaching a freshman class.

“She’s a great teacher, and I think the freshmen will really enjoy her class,” he said. “I felt engaged during her classes.”

Repsher agrees.

“Ms. Nellis embodies what is essential in great teachers,” he said. “She has a passion for the subject, she cares deeply about the students and their success, and she is very good at preparing them.”

Dias shared a classroom with Nellis one year and said that she really liked her teaching style.

“There were days when I would sit at my desk doing work (while Nellis was teaching),” she said. “I loved her teaching style because she never elevates her voice or gets sassy with her students. I learned a lot.”

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