A conversation with Mr.Burmester...
Daniel Burmester has been an educator for thirteen years and a student of the arts his whole life. His mother was a ballerina and his father a professional actor; his sister began her career as a painter in high school. Daniel received his B.S. in acting from SUNY New Paltz. He discovered his love of teaching in Vermont with his first professional teaching jobs at New England Youth Theatre in Brattleboro, VT, and then at Vermont Academy. Vermont Academy faculty inspired him to want to know more about the art and science of teaching. As a young teacher at VA, his experience motivated him to take a job at Emerson College as the Performing Arts Department’s Production Manager. Over five years, he oversaw production on approximately 60 shows. While he served in this position, he was accepted into the Masters in Theatre Education program at Emerson. Upon receiving his Masters, he decided he wanted to continue learning about education and was accepted into the Ph.D. in Educational Studies program at Lesley University. He then accepted a full-time faculty position at Emerson College in the theatre studies program, where he taught courses in theatre theory and acting.
He and his wife, Amy, a VA nurse he met at Vermont Academy, currently live in Proctor house with their three cats, Elsie, Doris, Bob, and their dog Bella. Dan runs Vermont Academy’s theatre program, coordinates Vermont Academy’s strategic plan, and teaches in the English department. He also continues in his role as a teaching fellow in the Ph.D. program at Lesley University, where he teaches theory. As a Ph.D. student, he is writing his dissertation on the emotion awe and meaningful learning in adolescent experience.
When did you know you wanted to start teaching?
I recently had a phone conversation with a cousin of mine who I have not spoken with in quite some time. We were talking about what we were doing with our lives. She said to me, “Daniel, one thing that I always remembered about you as a little kid is our parents one day were asking us what we wanted to be when we grew up, and you specifically said you wanted to be a teacher.” So, I have known since I was a little kid that I wanted to be an educator. I can remember studying theater and acting throughout my college career, saying I want to teach this one day.
What is your Vermont Academy story?
When I was 25 years old, I had a theater company in Brooklyn. One summer, my partners and I moved to Vermont to create a play and made the worst piece of theatre I have ever made in my life. But through that experience, we met Mary Hepburn, a Vermont Academy faculty member and a fixture of the southern Vermont artistic community for decades. VA had just built the Horowitz Performing Arts Hall, the beautiful facility we have here on campus. VA needed people to teach theater and manage the building. The school hired our theater company for the job. Slowly the group split, but I stayed at VA.
What was cool about being here was that I got to be around really great teachers who made me understand there were art and science to teaching that I didn’t yet understand. After three years at VA, I was pursued by a friend and mentor I had worked with on and off-broadway to be the Production Manager of Emerson Stage, the Performing Arts Department’s producing entity at Emerson College. My incredible wife Amy and I, who I met at VA and married at Mary Hepburn’s house right here in Saxtons River, moved to Boston. I took the Emerson job and pursued my master’s in theater education while Amy pursued her nursing degree.
I left VA with the goal of becoming a better educator. I worked at Emerson College for seven years, five years as the performing arts production manager, while completing my Master’s in theatre education. Then, I entered a Ph.D. program in educational studies at Lesley University. When this happened, Emerson offered me a full-time faculty appointment in the theater studies program, where I taught two sections of a theater theory and an acting class.
At this point, my wife had become a nurse, and we began to open ourselves up to other opportunities if they came around. A dear friend at Vermont Academy called me and said they were looking for a theater teacher and a nurse. This was such a cool moment for Amy and me because we love Vermont, and we love Vermont Academy -- this is where we fell in love and the place we both discovered what we wanted to be, she a nurse and me an educator. We chose to return to VA that year.
How do you feel the arts integrate into the VA community?
We have robust course offerings in the arts, so much so that when you look at a graduating senior’s transcripts whose interest was in the arts, it seems as though they attended an art high school. VA provides incredible opportunities for kids to study art. In addition to that, creativity and art is now a part of our sacred VA traditions, right up there with Wildcat games, Winter Carnival, and Earth Day. Our 24-hour Play Festival and Spring Arts Weekend are fantastic opportunities because students from every corner of campus and every social group participate. When given a chance to own it and do it themselves, you can see that our students want to participate in the arts. It goes right along with the students’ spirit we have here: if you give them the reins, they will take them!
What do you think is the most challenging aspect of being an educator?
I think that two things are challenging about being an educator right now: systemic racism and the impacts of social media and digital platforms on development and learning.
If you want to be in education right now, you have to be willing to dive into all of the conversations around systematic racism and social justice with an open heart and an open mind. Our students, colleagues, family members, and friends we love and care about tell us in clear voices this is real. Therefore, educators have to be willing to take the time to analyze how you may have contributed to these issues and then learn how to better yourself and your practices. We must recognize that our own identity may have been a part of unfavorable circumstances for students at some point. We must all take time to ensure we create brave and joyful spaces where our students can learn. This cannot occur if we don’t acknowledge and analyze how we as educators might be a part of the problem that prevents effective, brave, and joyful learning spaces from manifesting.
Another challenge is that we need to look into how social media and technology impact young people’s development. As educators, we need to understand instant gratification and how technology has found a way to be continuously personalized, affecting us as people and humans and how we converse with each other. Sadly, I think the use of social media and some technology erodes discourse, empathy, respect, and, quite frankly, the wonder that goes into understanding things outside of your worldview. As educators, we need to do some soul-searching in this area and then develop practices that give our students space away from social media and digital information. We are just now seeing research come out on this and topics related to it, some of the effects are not as bad as we might think, and there are benefits, but some of it is and perhaps worse. This is a problem that needs more serious attention.
What does it mean to be a successful student at VA?
To leave here able to pursue knowledge independently and understand how to use knowledge to make something real. Successful students have confidence, are creative, empathetic, know how they learn and understand how to collaborate on a team.
Talk about Vermont Academy’s long-term strategic plan and your part in that?
VA is well aware that students’ needs right now are not what they were ten years ago, or maybe even three years ago, and that is something our head of school is acutely aware of and sensitive to. Everything we are doing within the strategic plan gears towards ensuring that we serve the students in the most effective way possible within the programs that Vermont Academy holds dear and will continue to develop. Vermont Academy has conducted a research process that has provided us with insights about who our students are, how they want to be taught, and what resources they need available to them. We are moving towards learning methods that will ensure that we teach them how they want to learn and support them to understand themselves. My job is to collaborate with our head of school, academic dean, and director of the center for learning to provide the systems and structure for us to be successful in accomplishing these goals and implementing what we create.
What are your favorite teaching methods?
I love giving kids the circumstances to do something on their own. I prefer giving my students one large assignment where they can apply their knowledge and have agency. When kids see themselves taking small steps towards making something big, they own the process far more and want the final product to be great.
I approach many of my classes with an inch-wide-mile-deep attitude; I want my students to do one thing very well. I see so much more value than feeling the need to cover several things for surface understanding. This is how I run my acting and research, writing classes. I teach them tools and techniques and then give them circumstances to put those tools into practice by putting on a play or doing a real social science research project.
I love creating spaces where students feel confident of arriving in the classroom and learning independently. When I arrive in a classroom and have to do very little, I know I am doing my job effectively.
This interview is one in a series spotlighting Vermont Academy educators, their unique and innovative classroom approaches, what makes their classrooms successful and what challenges them, and what it means to live and learn at Vermont Academy.