Photo and story by Kerry Phelps Dale
John Daum’s fifth-grade classroom looks like a museum of sorts—an eclectic collection curated by someone with varied interests, experiences and a sense of humor. A feast for the eyes and inspiration are found in every nook and cranny of the space he’s occupied at The Hill School in Middleburg for the past 21 years.
A 3-foot marble statue of “David,” of which John is very fond, stands atop a bookcase; images from the art history classes he teaches paper the walls, and a life-size armor suit stands at the door like a sentinel. Castle models, sculptures, architectural renderings and beautiful art books line the shelves.
In the corner of his classroom is a full-size foosball table. It may not be on the same academic level as the rest of the room’s contents, but it’s educational, nonetheless.
“Kids come in early and play. It brings groups together, teaches them fraternity or sorority skills they may need later,” muses John.
There is also a tabletop hockey game situated beside a bust of Socrates and a framed print of Mona Lisa. Serious objects are juxtaposed with items of amusement in every section of the room. Lurking in a corner behind Socrates is a figure of one of the Knights Who Say Ni from “Monty Python And The Holy Grail.” A tiny bust of Van Gogh sits at the edge of John’s desk flanked by a rubber severed ear (“earaser”), sans blood and not remotely to scale.
It’s clear that John is the fun teacher; his energy and enthusiasm match that of his class of 10- and 11-year-olds. But the true magic of a Daum education lies in the way he imparts to his students more knowledge, inspiration and perspective than most kids will receive in their entire primary and secondary education.
“Introducing them to art and architecture is an invitation to a better world. Art is what makes people human,” says John. “People have always had a need to express themselves—back to the cave drawings.”
John’s academic focus on these expressions of self and greater society “makes kids more aware of other cultures. I try to look for a good story or angle and bury things that I think will be good hooks.”
John uses the same philosophy for his unique boutique travel business, Daum Adventures, which has grown out of his teaching profession and personal travels. Several times a year John takes families, usually of current or former students, to various destinations of their choosing. He researches and plans venues and experiences off the beaten path as well as the must do’s and see’s. A trip to Italy will most certainly include the Colosseum in Rome, but it might also spotlight a visit to Bologna’s Gelato University, where the family can make six different kinds of gelato.
Daum Adventure’s motto is: “I do all the work, you just show up and enjoy.” Making lifelong travelers out of the children and giving families memories that stick are John’s primary goals with his family adventures.
He says he has no particular favorite city, instead, “My favorite city is whatever city I’m in.” The lifelong ardent traveler figures he has taken about 25 families on trips in addition to traveling with his own family every summer.
A self-professed beer-lover, but more precisely an aficionado, borderline expert, John has made a name for himself locally writing for a Fauquier magazine and giving lectures on his beverage of choice. The explosion of microbreweries in the area has served to enhance his free time when not teaching or traveling, and he has several favorites: Dirt Farm Brewery in Bluemont for the view, Adroit Theory in Purcellville for their barrel-aged beers and Crooked Run Brewery in Leesburg for their IPAs, just to name a few.
John, with wife Kasia, first moved to the Middleburg area and The Hill School in 1997, the year after he received Teacher of the Year honors in Los Angeles.
“That was a long time ago,” says John. “I could have taught anywhere in the Washington area, but I chose The Hill School because they place a high value on the wonder of childhood.”
Kasia is a school psychologist and therapist and works both privately and with The Hill School. Their children—Jacob, a freshman at the College of William and Mary, and Julia, a junior at Highland High School—are graduates of John’s class and of The Hill School.
“I love coming to work every day,” says John, still enthusiastic after all these years.
In teaching, John finds his passions at play in shaping children to see a larger world, be inspired by it, and in turn become more compassionate and well rounded.
And, he has a heck of a lot of fun doing it. ML