Coming Home

Coming Home
Coming Home
By Sacha Zimmerman

The journey back to Sidwell Friends gives new perspective to these alumni faculty.

Sometimes life really does come full circle. Sidwell Friends has 151 fulltime faculty members across the three divisions, and they bring a dizzying array of backgrounds, experiences, and academic interests to the School. But some teachers have a special connection— as alumni. And for each of them, the return journey was a unique one. Some thought they would never end up back at Sidwell Friends. Others saw it as a goal. Some are lifers; some attended only briefly. Some graduated a generation ago; some are only recently out of college. Almost all describe working at the School as a “dream job.” Sidwell Friends Magazine talked to several of the teachers about how they ended up becoming Quakers fans all over again—and what that experience is like today.

Dominic Lee '00
Upper School Math

The school has definitely changed over the years, but at this point, it just feels like home. - Dominic Lee '00

Dominic Lee ’00 knew he wanted to teach at Sidwell Friends nearly 25 years ago—during his junior year at the Upper School. That was the year he met math teacher Daniel Rubenstein. “He changed the way I thought about math,” Lee says. “He cared about my development as a math student. Honestly, ever since my junior year of high school, I was trying to come back to Sidwell. He inspired me to teach here.”

By 2012, after getting his bachelor’s from Bates College, working at the Smithsonian, and teaching at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Lee was teaching Upper School math at Sidwell Friends. “I try to mimic the good teachers I’ve had,” he says. Those good teachers include former environmental science teacher Paula Wang, former English and Spanish teacher Erika Berry, former history teacher James Senger, and of course, former math teacher Dan Rubenstein. “Mr. Rubenstein was obviously the most influential for me,” Lee says. A few of his former teachers were still at Sidwell Friends when Lee joined the faculty. “So, the teachers here kind of got to know me as a student,” he says, “before they got to know me as a teacher.”

A few of his contemporaries are at Sidwell Friends, too, including Director of Equity, Justice, and Community Natalie Randolph ’98, who was two years ahead of Lee. “Natalie Randolph was the superstar,” he says, “the athlete to look up to when I was a student. She was so accomplished and cool. Just her vibe was something to strive for when I was a kid.”

Lee is just as effusive over his fellow colleagues. “I love my department,” Lee says. “My department is legitimately amazing.” As are the kids: “My favorite thing is just talking with kids, seeing their development, seeing them mature over the years, seeing how they change and work through difficulties and overcome challenges.” His work with kids isn’t limited to the classroom: Lee is the coach of the golf team—which he really loves.

Lee says the student body at the School has changed a lot over the years. “It is much, much more diverse,” he says, adding that a lot of people don’t appreciate that. “The perception is different from the reality,” he says. “If you look at the School in 1994 versus now, it is much more diverse in every respect.” That difference only enhances Lee’s feelings about Sidwell Friends. “The School has definitely changed over the years,” he says, “but at this point, it just feels like home.”

Marilena Siegel '14
3rd Grade

Marilena Siegel ’14 has fond memories from her short time at Sidwell Friends. But pre-K, kindergarten, and 1st grade, the three years Siegel spent at Sidwell Friends, were upended by a diagnosis of dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and dyslexia. “The best gift that Sidwell gave me,” Siegel says, “was the opportunity to go to a school that was a better fit for me and the right environment for me.”

But Siegel’s connection to Sidwell Friends wouldn’t end at 1st grade—she just didn’t know it yet. Siegel got the early childhood education bug as a Hebrew school teacher while getting her undergraduate degree at Davidson College. Next, she did master’s degrees in special and general education at Relay Graduate School of Education in New York before starting to teach at a charter school in Brooklyn. That is when Sidwell Friends came back on the scene.

Siegel’s sister was also in early childhood education—as a student. Nora ’31 and Siegel may have a 17-year age gap, but the affection between the sisters is strong. So, Siegel started traveling to DC more, and while she was in town, she also popped into Nora’s Sidwell Friends classroom. “I loved what I was experiencing coming to visit my sister and seeing her classroom,” Siegel says. Looking at the School through adult eyes (and those of a teacher) made an impact on her.

“I really enjoy the social-emotional aspect of teaching,” Siegel says. And at the Lower School, she saw children wrestling with how to live their Quaker values with integrity while creating meaningful friendships. “It’s not always an easy space to navigate,” she says. “There’s a lot of vulnerability.” She says the experience showed her how Sidwell Friends had evolved as an institution, including by fully embracing social-emotional learning.

Before long, she reached out and introduced herself to Lower School Principal Adele Paynter. When a position for 3rd grade—Siegel’s preferred class— became available for the 2022/23 academic year, it felt like serendipity. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she says. “It was a no-brainer!”

In her first year at Sidwell Friends, Siegel taught 3rd grade across the hall from her little sister’s 4th grade classroom. “Seeing the diversity in the students and their educational needs and being able to support them and offer my perspective is amazing,” Siegel says. “I don’t ever pretend to have every answer. I just say, ‘That is a challenge. Let’s try to figure out some options.’”

Now Nora is in 5th grade in the Middle School, and Siegel is once more making a home in Washington. “It has all been wonderful and kind of full-circle for me,” she says. “The administration is so supportive. It has been very positive—like happy endings everywhere!”

Jake Watson '18
Upper and Middle School Latin

“By the time I was a senior, I thought that teaching here would be a really cool thing to do,” says Latin and classics teacher Jake Watson ’18. “But I never thought it was possible or I thought, Maybe later in life… It was like a dream job.” In fact, he thinks his high school self would be amazed that “later in life” turned out to be his first year out of Yale University in the fall of 2022. Now in his second year, he’s the School’s youngest faculty member.

“My teachers seemed so knowledgeable, organized, and leaps and bounds ahead of me,” Watson says. “For me to reach that level after only four years of college seemed impossible. It was amazing to think about ever being a teacher here, so then when it happened, I was like, Oh my god, that’s happening now; I have to be that person!

A Sidwell Friends lifer, Watson started to learn Latin beginning in 7th grade and continued on throughout high school and college, where he majored in classics and studied ancient Greek in addition to Latin. After four years at Yale, Watson came right back to Sidwell Friends—with just a summer in between. “I felt so grateful and lucky that the opportunity was there,” Watson says, “and that I had support from my colleagues.”

Teaching classics and Latin anywhere else just wouldn’t be the same. “I love the community here,” he says. “And I know so many people—plenty of teachers who I knew when I was a student. It’s really cool to be colleagues with them now.” With such deep roots, Watson has thrown himself back into the community. He now teaches at both the Upper and Middle Schools, and he coaches field hockey and softball as well. Through sports, he gets to meet with kids regardless of their affinity for Latin. “I get to know a lot of different students,” he says, “which is one of my favorite things about teaching here.”

Now officially in the middle of his second year of teaching at Sidwell Friends, is it still the dream job he once imagined it would be? “I love the material I get to teach; it’s really engaging,” Watson says. “There is always something new that I want to try— teaching in a different way or finding something to improve upon. And there’s always something fun happening at the School. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing.”

Edith Zhang ’81 & Carson Miller ’13
4th Grade

I felt really called to let my life speak–and I wasn't feeling that at all in business and marketing. - Edith Zhang '81Edith Zhang ’81 never thought she would wind up teaching at Sidwell Friends. “There’s no question!” she says. “I had this whole other life planned out.” Indeed, after graduating from Sidwell Friends, Zhang she majored in Chinese language and East Asian studies at Middlebury. She then moved to Hong Kong for a while, came back to the States for her MBA at the University of Virginia, and pursued the life she’d imagined back in high school.

Zhang got married, worked in business and marketing using her Chinese-language skills, and started a family. Naturally, she and her husband sent their kids to Sidwell Friends, which at the time had no Chinese program in the Lower School. It was when her son was in 4th grade that things began to change for Zhang. “I heard they were studying ancient China,” she says. “So, I went in, and I said, ‘How can you teach about ancient China but not even touch the language?” That’s when the principal and teachers invited her to come in and teach it herself. The School paid for Zhang to spearhead some courses and teach language education part-time.

In the meantime, Zhang was beginning to reevaluate her life. “I still had those values from when I was at Sidwell,” she says. “I felt really called to let my life speak—and I wasn’t feeling that at all in business and marketing.” So, when there was an opening for a Lower School teacher, Zhang went for it. “They took a chance on me,” she says. “I ended up getting a master’s in education from Johns Hopkins through Sidwell while I was teaching full-time with my kids there.” Despite the hectic schedule, Zhang received a Sidwell Friends professional development grant and broke up the coursework for her degree into manageable parts. She says it was like the Quaker saying: “Proceed, and the way will open.”

The degree “revolutionized how I felt about myself in the classroom,” she says. But, more importantly, reconnecting with Sidwell Friends values spoke to her desire to do something meaningful. “I always tell parents when they’re applying to Sidwell, ‘You need to really look into these Quaker values,’” she says. “‘Those values really need to be okay for you because they will go into your children, and they will become a part of who they are. The values are in everything.’”

At Sidwell, everybody's voice matters–people from different backgrounds and perspectives. - Carson Miller, '13

That is something Zhang has come to appreciate even more in the last year as she has started team teaching with another alum, Carson Miller ’13. Despite graduating more than 30 years apart, the pair have a common language. “There’s a shared understanding that just makes the classroom different,” says Zhang. “Carson’s a million years younger than me, and yet we have the same passion underneath about why we teach.”

Miller agrees. “I love the idea that you can create this space where kindness is so important and everybody feels valued and safe,” she says. “It gives you a lot of hope about the world and the people in it.” Miller didn’t know what she would become after high school. “It’s actually not so much that I wanted to be a teacher and work at Sidwell,” she says. “It was more like, when I decided that I wanted to be a teacher, I immediately thought of Sidwell.” So, when she graduated from American University, she then pursued a master’s in education, also at American.

Miller has always loved working with and connecting with kids. “I just really like that I can use that feeling to make an impact,” she says. “At Sidwell, everybody’s voice matters—people from different backgrounds and perspectives.” Plus, Quaker values gave Miller a template—both for how to look at the world and how to teach.

Zhang and Miller each put a premium on Sidwell’s commitment to an interesting curriculum as well as social-emotional learning. “I feel so lucky to be in a place where everyone is so supportive,” says Zhang. “And to be teaching at Sidwell with someone from Sidwell—it’s amazing and so unexpected.”

Dolores Hamilton '90
Upper School Math

When Dolores Hamilton ’90 graduated from Sidwell Friends, she had an inkling that it might be cool to work at the School, but she wasn’t planning on being a teacher, and even if she were, she suspected openings would be few and far between because “nobody leaves!”

She wasn’t far off. After studying math at Syracuse University, Hamilton reached out to the Black Student Fund, the DC equity organization that, among other goals, aims to increase racial diversity in area independent schools. “I had no idea what to do with a math degree that didn’t require me to sit by myself and be antisocial and just work with numbers all day,” Hamilton says. “That was when the presidents of the Black Student Fund said, ‘You need to teach, and you need to get back into the independent schools.’” She jumped on the idea and soon became a math teacher, and ultimately department chair, at the National Cathedral School (NCS). She immediately loved being in the classroom and remained at NCS for 26 years.

Still, she kept her eye on her alma mater, teaching summer school at Sidwell Friends for a few years and staying in touch with people at the School. During the pandemic, Hamilton left NCS and moved to rural Virginia. But as the world got back to normal, “That’s when I thought, I want to get my foot in the door teaching at Sidwell,” Hamilton recalls. She sent Upper School Principal Mamadou Guèye a joking text saying, “I’m coming back to DC, I need job—ha ha.” Then Guèye quickly picked up the phone and called her. “He said, ‘There’s an opening that’s meant to be,’” Hamilton remembers. She is now entering her third year as a teacher at Sidwell Friends.

She says the School’s warm, welcoming vibe is much the same as it was in her high school days. “The kids especially are as welcoming as they were when I came in the 10th grade,” Hamilton says. “Starting at Sidwell as a sophomore, I didn’t come in with a batch of 20 other kids, but in every class, everyone was just open and inclusive. I find that same behavior now in my classes. The students work collaboratively and consistently elevate each other.” It’s a trait she finds in the faculty, too. “My math colleagues,” she says, “are some of the best, talented, and welcoming people on the planet.”

Something else she particularly appreciates about Sidwell Friends is the School’s ability to get the most out of students by playing to their passions. “Whether your interests lie in arts, sports, chess, robotics—we got you!” she says. For Hamilton, doing well in school meant being able to play sports. She even broke her own older sister’s 100-meter dash track record—though she too was surpassed not long after. “I just give kudos to all my coaches and the Athletic Department,” she says. “They dangle the carrot that gives you the incentive to do everything else."

Cecilia LaGuarda '13
Upper School Science

“Senior year, the alumni office had us do a time capsule,” says Upper School science teacher Cecilia Laguarda ’13. “One of the questions on the time capsule form was, ‘Where do you think you’ll be in five years?’ And I wrote, ‘Teaching.’ Then I promptly forgot all about it.” For the first couple years of her college career at Harvard University, Laguarda says, education was not on her mind as a field to go into. She didn’t even remember writing “teaching” down on the time-capsule form. But she did ultimately pursue a master’s in education, also at Harvard, before moving to Colorado to teach.

“I went back to Sidwell for my fifth Reunion, which was at the end of my first year of teaching,” she says, “and I opened up the form and saw that I had in fact predicted I would be teaching, which was a realsurprise to me.”

Laguarda also never imagined teaching at Sidwell Friends—even once she was a teacher. Though the idea appealed to her, like Dolores Hamilton, she never really believed an opening would become available. But then, four years after she began teaching, Darby Thompson, the director of Upper School Technology and Computer Science at Sidwell Friends, got involved. Thompson, who knew Laguarda was teaching science, approached Laguarda’s youngest sister, who was a senior in the Upper School at the time, and said, “Can you forward this position to Cecilia?”

Laguarda had been teaching in a public-charter Middle School in Colorado and was already casting about for options—particularly at the high school level. “I figured, this is kind of a dream job opening,” she says, “let me apply and see what happens.” What happened is that Upper School Principal Mamadou Guèye hired her. Now, Laguarda says, “Darby and Mamadou argue a little bit about who deserves the credit for bringing me back to Sidwell!”

Laguarda teaches biology and physics at the Upper School, where her colleagues were a big draw for her in coming back to Sidwell Friends. “The Science Department was thinking so deeply about how best to teach science,” she says. “I knew I wanted to join a group of people who were thinking really critically about how to teach science. I really, really admire my colleagues a lot.”

Though a lot of the teachers who were at the School when Laguarda was a student have moved on, Laguarda’s physics teacher Julie Langenbrunner is still at the Upper School. “I like to joke that if I ever mess up anything with physics, it’s all Julie’s fault,” she says. “We all know who taught me physics!”

Laguarda, who was classmates with Lower School teacher Carson Miller ’13, likes getting to know her colleagues as an adult. She says that one thing that didn’t exist at her previous teaching job was seeing alumni of the school coming back to teach. “That’s something that’s very special that I think is not true of a lot of schools,” she says “Having alumni teach at the School is wonderful. I have friends who teach all over the country and to have this many alumni at a school is really special.”

More Recent Articles...

Fresh Ink: Spring Books

A history of the Han Dynasty at war, a history of war via global finance, and a history of America through the eyes of a Black dynasty. Plus, the life of a landlord and two children’s books that point to the beauty in cross-cultural exchanges.

Reef Encounters

Ben Charo ’14 has dedicated his life to coral—with some help from Sidwell Friends.

The Calling

Mamadou Guèye on the value of oral history, multilingualism, Quaker pedagogy, diversity, and joy.

On the Books

A roundtable discussion about the new wave of  American censorship.


Sidwell Friends Alumni Magazine is published three times a year for the community. It features School news, stories, profiles, and alumni Class Notes.

Email with story ideas or letters to the editor.