Duncan keeps her students’ best interests at heart

Susan Duncan, center, stands with students from one of her fall 2018 AP Chemistry class periods. Her favorite aspect of teaching is the opportunity to build relationships with students. (Photo used by permission of Susan Duncan)

The reputation of Susan Duncan, a chemistry teacher at Leesville, precedes her. Every summer, Leesville students rejoice to see the name “Duncan, Susan Spangler” on their class schedules for the upcoming school year; they have heard the stories of Duncan’s kindness and the penchant for effectively explaining complicated concepts.

Duncan graduated from North Carolina State University in 1981 with a double major in chemistry and science education, but she did not enter college planning to become a teacher. She adopted teaching after deciding that she no longer wanted to attend four years of veterinary school.

Her choice of subject, chemistry, was clear thanks to the influence of one of her high school teachers and her stellar college professors.

From 1981 to 1993, Duncan taught chemistry at Millbrook High School. She left Millbrook to teach part-time at NC State while taking care of her two sons. Then, in 2001, she returned to teaching high school chemistry here at Leesville.

Even though she did not initially want to be a teacher, Duncan is happy with her career choice. She thrives on daily interactions with students and hearing about how Leesville alumni use science after high school.

“[My favorite part about teaching is] getting to know the kids and seeing what they do,” said Duncan.

Her main objective is to teach her students chemistry; nevertheless, Duncan hopes that they learn from her class something far more than the elements on the Periodic Table.

“I hope that they see that I cared and that there was somebody that was pulling for them and that they felt like they were a part of something…more than just coming in and taking notes and learning,” she said.

And Duncan did just that. Taylor Speri, a Leesville senior who had Duncan for both Chemistry Honors and AP Chemistry, found it easy to form a relationship with her teacher.

“Since [Duncan] was just so friendly and sweet to everyone in her class, she made it so easy to talk to her,” said Speri. “I enjoyed going in there frequently for lunch and just getting help but also getting to know her as a person.”

As a result, Speri now values not only friendships with her peers but also connections with her teachers.

Duncan influenced Matthew Panizza, a senior at Leesville, in a different way. In college, he intends to study math or science. After having taken AP Chemistry, he feels more prepared to tackle difficult college-level science courses.

“I am planning on going to college for some sort of math or science, so she did a good job in challenging us in the science aspect,” Panizza said. “It’ll help me in my college career, in my college classes.”

Along with Speri, Panizza thinks very highly of Duncan’s teaching abilities and appreciates the relationship he has formed with her.

“She was one of the greatest teachers that I’ve had here at Leesville. She offered me a lot of opportunities,” said Panizza. “This semester, now that I don’t have her, I’ve been helping her tutor her honors kids, and she always lets me set up the labs.”

Duncan has impressed current students at Leesville, but, as aforementioned, her teaching career extends back to the 1980s. One Leesville social studies teacher, Angela Scioli, attended Millbrook High School while Duncan taught there. During her senior year in 1989, she took AP Chemistry with Duncan, and Duncan’s dedication to serving her students stood out to Scioli.

“Her commitment to her students’ best interest, even when it might be repetitive or boring for her from her perspective, is something I’ve always tried to keep in mind, that it’s really not about us [teachers], it’s about [the students], and clearly she always kept that at the forefront of her mind,” Scioli said.

Furthermore, Duncan’s class imparted a lesson upon Scioli that she will never forget—not one about redox reactions or entropy but one about grace.

“I learned a lot of grace. She granted a lot of grace to her students. She meets people where they’re at, and then she tries to work with them from there, wherever you’re at.…She will help you be successful,” said Scioli. “To me, that level of grace is inspiring.”

Today, Scioli teaches at Leesville alongside Duncan, due in part to her former teacher’s influence. Like Duncan, Scioli had not planned on teaching as a career. However, during her senior year, someone suggested she look into a teaching career, and Scioli’s teachers—including Ms. Duncan—inspired her to follow in their footsteps.

“I had so many really great teachers who were role models of what patience and service to society and to the younger generation…could look like, and so when someone approached me that year about being a teacher, when I had never thought about being a teacher before, I suddenly could look around and see a bunch of people I wanted to be like, and…Ms. Duncan, is definitely one of those people,” Scioli said.

Scioli and many of Duncan’s former students highly respect Duncan as both a teacher and as a person and continue to look up to her.

“She is a role model of how to live a worthy life,” said Scioli.

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