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‘A teacher of teachers’

Dan Huff retires after 32 years teaching music and more at Carolina
Dan Huff cover image

After a 32-year career at Carolina helping young people discover their voices, Dan Huff is retiring.

Huff, a clinical associate professor who worked as program director of the K-12 bachelor’s in music education program at the School of Education, is widely known as director of the Men’s Glee Club at UNC and for the music camps he has led every year he’s taught at Carolina. He also taught in the MAT program for more than 15 years.

“It’s bittersweet,” Huff said about his retirement. “When you do something as long as I’ve done it, you define yourself that way as a human being.”

Huff joined Carolina in 1985 with dual appointments in the School of Education and the Department of Music. In addition to leading the K-12 music education program, Huff directed the Men’s Glee Club, regularly touring with the group across the South and twice to Europe. He led summer music camps for more than 30 years and regularly directed music festivals featuring young singers across North Carolina.

But there’s more to Huff than the music, said Lynda Stone, who taught with Huff in the School of Education’s MAT program for more than 15 years.

“He’s really famous for all the music he did over the state but there’s more to Dan than just ‘the choral director,’” she said. “It’s really important to understand that.

“He’s really a teaching scholar,” she said. “He’s a scholar about his teaching.”

Huff’s work has changed lives.

Seeing education as a journey

Adam Mitchell (’13 BM) came to Carolina intending to pursue a career in pharmacy. But he loved to sing and asked his high school choir director who he should see if he wanted to join a music group at UNC. The answer: Dan Huff.

“The short story is, I walked into a Men’s Glee Club rehearsal in fall 2008 and I never left,” Mitchell said.

Today, Mitchell is a music teacher at Cash Elementary School in Kernersville, serving in the role since 2014. He sometimes walks the halls with a guitar — which Huff encouraged him to use in his teaching — slung across his back. “It’s a trademark of mine,” he said. “I’m sort of a roving minstrel.”

“I found Dan, as many others find Dan, as being incredibly engaging and approachable and really passionate about growing people and growing musicians,” Mitchell said. “I came into Carolina intending to do pharmacy and I was not a really super literate musician. But the way Dan teaches, regardless of whether or not music is your career path, you learn.

“Dan is a teacher of teachers.”

Huff’s approach, Mitchell said, was that education is a journey. For example, Mitchell said he was not as prepared as some of his peers for pursuing a career centered in music. But Huff worked with him, showing him the way, he said.

“My experiences working with Dan and his group shaped the rest of my life, to be honest,” Mitchell said, adding that he met the woman who would become his wife on a Glee Club tour. The influence goes farther.

Mitchell said he has the largest elementary school choir in his town, to which he gives credit to Huff. “The way I approach teaching voice and making sound is a lot like the way Dan teaches his choirs to make sound.

“I don’t know if it’s a magic secret, but a lot of what I do is drawn from Dan’s teaching technique that I experienced. His influence influences my students every day.”

A scholar about his teaching

Stone, the Samuel M. Holton Distinguished Professor at the School of Education, worked closely with Huff as they team-taught two MAT capstone courses each summer — one in advanced pedagogy and another in curriculum leadership.

“He’s a consummate teacher,” Stone said, adding that Huff has a way of connecting with his students, learning and caring about them and their interests. “He’s one of the best teachers I’ve ever seen.”

Huff earned his Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Stone pointed out. He also spent 10 years teaching in elementary and high schools before entering his doctoral program.

Stone, who has a Ph.D. in curriculum and teacher education from Stanford University, said the two of them combined forces to help MAT students understand the foundations of education and the systems and the cultures within which they would work as educators.

“We were giving them really advanced theory in the master’s program,” Stone said. “And that was the idea of it. We wanted them to think more broadly about their work and the setting in which it was a part.”

A key component of the courses Huff and Stone taught together were the projects they assigned to students, such as designing what the students considered to be model schools.

“Our aim was to give them one experience where they had to get out of their disciplinary silos and work across disciplines together,” Stone said.

Marveling at his students

Huff said he loved working in the MAT program, helping prepare young people to go into the world as educators.

“The bottom line is pretty simple: Teachers are committed people who believe it is necessary for us to pass on what we value to the generation that follows us,” Huff said. “That’s my interest in curriculum and that’s what we set out to do. It was fascinating work.”

Huff said he and Stone worked to take the problems students described having in their teaching internships and then learn from them.

“Our belief was whatever you encounter has its roots in something,” he said. “If you understand what that is, you can understand why you are playing the role you are supposed to play in it and why the kids are playing the roles they are supposed to play in it. Then if you can understand those two things and see them as culturally constructed phenomena, then you change the construction.

“That was one of our crusading points. We taught educational reform as a personal action.”

He marvels at what his students have done.

“When I go out and watch them work, what I see is what I consider to be an essential humanity,” he said. “They succeed at things that I wouldn’t have been able to predict if I’d used traditional ways to assess what they could do at the moment that I had them.”

A legacy of educators

Huff, who talked on the phone for this interview from a KOA campsite near Boone, said he and his wife looked forward to spending more time traveling and camping in their RV. His wife, Ann, retired two years ago from teaching as choral director at Enloe Magnet High School in Raleigh. The Pacific Northwest is on top of their bucket list, with a trip planned there for the fall.

Huff said it’s bittersweet to be leaving his teaching career, but that he appreciated having the opportunities he had at Carolina to pursue his varied interests in music and teaching.

He said his approach with students was straightforward.

“It wasn’t rocket science. They come to me. I get to spend some time with them. And then they go on about the rest of their lives,” Huff said. “In the interim I try to do whatever I’m trying to do with them in that moment in my designated function. And that’s true of all of them. The teachers, the musicians, the MAT students.

“That’s just all I tried to do was to live their life with them.”

He leaves a legacy of educators and others who benefited from his example.

Mitchell, the elementary school music teacher, said he’s one.

“Dan has made such an impact on so many lives,” he said. “There are countless folks in the same situation I am. They do what they do because they first experienced it with him.”

Those types of sentiments are seen in the messages alumni and others have posted about Huff online.

“I feel like I owe a lot to Dan,” Mitchell said. “He definitely helped mold me. He allowed me to make mistakes that I probably shouldn’t have been making,” he said with a chuckle. “And I’ve grown from them immensely. I’m just so grateful for the time I was able to spend under his wing and watching him teach.”

He continued.

“He’s just so approachable and so knowledgeable about what he does. And he takes great care.

“He’s the kind of teacher I would want my daughter to have.”

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By Michael Hobbs