Burghardt and Barr: A Saturday Morning’s Discourse About GDS


Every Saturday morning, English teacher John Burghardt and Associate Head of School Kevin Barr have breakfast together at Old Georgetown Grille in downtown Bethesda. They discuss intellectual matters, tell each other about their lives or give each other advice while enjoying eggs Benedict—with potatoes for Burghardt.

Their weekly ritual—which began almost 40 years ago—was once at Tastee Diner, but they changed due to Tastee’s poor quality, increasing prices and bothersome and ungracious waiters.

While their Saturday breakfast tradition is still going strong, some things must come to an end. On December 3, Head of School Russell Shaw announced in an email to parents, faculty and alumni that Barr will retire at the end of this school year. Shaw wrote, “We will not be filling the Associate Head of School role in the immediate future, given that Kevin embodies a set of skills and experience that is not easily replaced.”

When Burghardt and Barr first passed through GDS’ doors, the Berlin Wall was more than a decade from its fall. Together, the pair has more than  80 years of experience at the school.

Both men came to GDS from backgrounds of stricter, Catholic schooling. “This school was so different than any school I had ever experienced,” Barr said, “either as a student, or graduate student or even an instructor.”

When he arrived, Burghardt said he thought GDS “was like heaven.” He added, “There wasn’t any oppressive presence of anything—of unwelcome rules, of critical fault-finding scrutiny, of bullying and obvious modes of marginalization. It just seemed like the least likely place on earth.”

According to Barr, “the roof leaked,” “the classrooms were tiny and nasty” and “we didn’t have a gym.” He described GDS of the 1970s and early 80s as “raggedy.” Burghardt—perhaps hyperbolically—said that at the time, GDS was “the cheapest school in the District.” 

“It had a very modest physical plan,” Burghardt said. “The rooms were falling apart, but the brains were firing on all eight cylinders.” 

Burghardt said a desire, if not a need, to increase the school’s market share and remain viable led to the improvement of its offerings and facilities.

One important element of the school’s physical growth was the construction of the current Tenleytown high school campus, a project which required a large amount of capital. However, Barr explained that at the time of the building’s construction, GDS thought fundraising was “unseemly.” 

Therefore, the school greatly increased tuition to fund the building project. “It drove out lots of middle class families,” Barr said. “By not raising money, we shot ourselves in the foot.”

The student population lost much of its racial and socioeconomic diversity and became composed primarily of wealthy students and a few students on financial aid. “For a good 15 years, we have worked assiduously to get back what we lost,” Barr said. 

Other improvements—including the high school building’s expansion—particularly during Head of School Peter Branch’s tenure (1996 to 2010) also required the school to ask members of the community to donate money. GDS has grown far from its past aversion to fundraising; the annual operations of the school now rely on donations given through campaigns such as the Hopper Fund, a rebranding of the former Annual Fund.

Burghardt sees these changes to the school’s financial management as having created a “customer-service attitude” at the school. “The faculty [is] there to not just give the kids the best education possible, but to give them the best experience possible,” Burghardt said. “The happiness of the GDS community [is] expressed in the flow of checks.”

Barr posited that GDS’ practice of investing in financial aid using funds donated by the community is the only way for the school to continue to exist as it does. 

“We didn’t raise money,” Barr recalled, “because they really saw themselves as the scrappy little ‘do it yourself’ place—which is lovely. But not if it gets so expensive that people can’t come.”

In Burghardt’s view, the students prevent the less desirable effects of the school’s growth from hurting the school. “The kids actually want good classes,” Burghardt said. “That, I think, keeps the school academically integral.”

Another change since Burghardt and Barr arrived at GDS is the expansion of the school’s curricular offerings. GDS was once almost exclusively focused on humanities, the arts and, to a lesser extent, math. “When I got here, there were almost no science courses and kids were required to take eight full year English courses—four literature courses, four writing courses,” Barr said.

Barr and Burghardt both arrived at GDS early in their careers. After pursuing a PhD at Michigan and a year of teaching at Flint Hill School in nearby Virginia, Burghardt began to work as a substitute teacher for GDS. He was hired to teach humanities at the middle school starting in the fall of 1975. 

After five years at the middle school, Burghardt recalled, “Everybody agreed that I probably would do better with older kids.” Since then, with the exception of a short stint as director of diversity and his former position as “keeper of attendance,” Burghardt has been a high school English teacher.

Barr, using a Shakespearean reference Burghardt might use in his English classroom, compared Burghardt’s “capacious” brain to Hamlet’s “globe.” Barr also described Burghardt as “a real empath” and “extremely humble.”

Barr arrived at GDS one year later than Burghardt, but immediately began his career at the school in the high school English department. Unlike Burghardt, Barr has held a plethora of roles at the school over the years—English teacher; English department chair; director of college counseling; director of studies, supervising curriculum and hiring; high school principal; assistant head of school and, now, associate head of school. 

In his current post, Barr oversees hiring and provides the administration with historical context to guide the school’s decisions. 

Russell Shaw, who arrived at the school a decade ago, said that Barr “has a huge heart,” “is a beautiful writer” and is “incredible at hiring people.” 

“He was and has been just incredibly supportive of me,” Shaw said. 

In some of their early years at GDS, Burghardt and Barr shared a home: the high school English department, which Barr described as “a lively, encouraging place.”

“There was just an incredible sort of intellectual affinity that people in that department felt for one another at the time,” Barr recalled. 

Burghardt described the “intellectual growth” teachers experienced from their work teaching the English department’s “great books” curriculum of that period. “The students weren’t teaching us,” Burghardt said, “but we weren’t all that far ahead of them.”

In those days, Barr noted, he and Burghardt would join the maintenance crew in the summers and paint the school building. The high school—founded in 1970—was then located at 4880 MacArthur Boulevard in the building inhabited today by The River School.

Through their years of work at GDS, Burghardt and Barr have built not only strong ties to the school, but also friendship with each other.  “I can’t remember a time when we weren’t friends,” Burghardt said. “I can’t think of this place at all without him in it.”

“They’re so cute,” Burghardt’s daughter Nora ‘05 said about the pair of GDS old-timers. 

According to Burghardt, their relationship has been defined partly by the literature they have each connected with and explored through their work at GDS. Barr connects in particular with the classic American novel Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. “Year after year as he mined it, it mined him and it became part of who he is,” Burghardt observed. 

Shaw described Barr’s relationship with Moby-Dick as a “longstanding obsession.”

For Burghardt, “the big education” was reading, teaching and, at points, performing in Shakespeare’s plays.

Burghardt wakes up each week day morning at five o’clock, finishes his “preps,” walks the Rhodesian Ridgeback dog his son left behind when he moved to California and, if the weather permits and he doesn’t succumb to laziness in the cold, rides his bike to school. 

Burghardt begins his classes with a summary or video before asking questions to guide a discussion with his students—this year, sophomores and juniors, as well as upperclassmen in his elective class “The Age of Shakespeare.”

Even after decades teaching English, “I never teach the lesson I thought I was going to teach,” Bughardt said. “I teach a lot of the same books year after year, but I never teach the same books.”

“He is continually thinking and reading and rereading and finding new little gems in the reading that he’s doing and is excited by the gems that his students notice and that bring things to life for him,” English Department Chair Sarah Redmond said. “So I know that he’s not bored.”

“Especially since I’m not doing much dad stuff anymore,” Burghardt said, “I’m kind of a workaholic.”

When asked about his commitment to GDS over such a long time, Burghardt responded, “I just never really saw any reason not to be thrilled about getting up in the mornings and coming here.”

Burghardt and Barr—who were in their twenties when they started working at the school—are now 73 and 67, respectively.

Both Shaw and Burghardt said that for the past few years, Barr had mentioned with increasing frequency but varying levels of seriousness the possibility of stepping down. Shaw said that Barr did not make his final decision, deciding to move on after having spent two-thirds of his life dedicatedly working at GDS, until this fall. 

“I know that I’m approaching physical limits, that this can’t go on forever,” Burghardt acknowledged. “The future to me is pretty short-term—it’s next week—because what I’m doing is meaningful and satisfying.”

As to whether Barr’s retirement will have any effect on the continuance of Burghardt’s teaching at the school, Burghardt said he doesn’t know. However, Burghardt admitted, “I certainly have less keeping me here.”

In talking about his and Burghardt’s Saturday breakfast tradition, Barr said before his retirement was announced, “I would hope it would continue long after neither of us work at this school anymore.”

 Shaw reported saying at a recent event for the Alumni Faculty Staff Association, “I am incredibly fortunate, because my job is really to steward an institution, for a period of time, that was made great by generations before me, whose shoulders I stand on.”

In the end, according to Barr, both Burghardt and the institution at which they have spent most of their lives have a deep and core belief in the worth and ability of students. Over time, Barr said, “we have become even clearer in our understanding of how to get the best out of children.” 

Burghardt and Barr pose in Barr’s office. Photo by Margaret Tilmes. 
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