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Q & A: Brian Li

Brian Li became the third person named to the Downing/Williams Endowed Chair of Teaching Excellence, a position he holds for the 2021-22 academic year. The endowment was established in 2018 with the philanthropic support of alumni parents Nancy and Bruce Downing, parents of Yates ’12, Charlotte ’14, Tommy ’17, and Michael ’19. Endowed Chairs are synonymous with exceptional faculty and teaching excellence. The recipient receives a stipend and a professional development award.

QWhat was your path to working at Providence Day?

I grew up in Cheraw, a small country town in South Carolina, and went to a very rural high school. From there, I went to Wake Forest University where I double-majored in mathematics and anthropology. When I didn’t get into graduate school for anthropology, I decided to move to Charlotte and give teaching a try. I taught Pre-Algebra, Algebra, and Calculus during my first year at a local high school. It was an incredibly difficult experience, but looking back it makes me really appreciate being at a school like Providence Day.

After I survived that year, I applied to all the local private schools here in town, and serendipitously, PD called me back. The interview went well and I will forever be grateful to [former Head of Middle School] Sam Caudill for rolling the dice on a very inexperienced teacher and for believing in the potential he saw in me. I can’t talk about my time at PD without mentioning [25-year former teacher] Beth Ralston. She was such a legendary Charger who patiently took me under her wing and constantly gave me guidance. She was so influential in my growth as a teacher. So long story short, I have been at Providence Day since 2004!

Q: What roles have you had at Providence Day?

During my time at PD, I’ve been fortunate enough to be given a variety of opportunities to serve the community. Some roles I’ve played include Middle School soccer coach, Middle School golf coach, Middle School math team, student council, diversity club, and a variety of school-related committees. I’ve also had the pleasure of serving as the Middle School Diversity Coordinator. In that role, I was able to learn so much working alongside Dr. Nadia Johnson [the 2016-21 Director of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion]. She was an amazing mentor and friend. Looking back, I am really proud of how far we have grown as a school in regards to equity and diversity.

As far as the classroom goes, I have taught 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade math classes, personal finance, and even 12th-grade calculus here at PD. My favorite role is and always will be being in front of the classroom with the students.

QHow has Providence Day impacted you and your family?

Providence Day is really all I’ve known in my adult life. So the impact PD has on me is very large in terms of the community and the people I have gotten to know over the years. Besides my one year at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, PD has been it for me. It has had a huge impact on shaping me into who I am today. When I first got here I barely knew how to pay the bills and buy groceries and now I’m married with a first grader and a fourth grader. When I think about PD, I’ve really grown up in this community and it’s shaped me into who I am today.

Q: What are some of your most memorable moments as a teacher?

Last year, the hybrid year, was so difficult for everybody. It really makes me appreciate what was considered a normal year and I will never take that for granted again. I’ll always remember how amazing the kids did – they did really well with everything we threw at them – and the school did a really admirable job rolling with the punches and evolving on the fly.

I would also have to say the part that is most memorable for me involves my own kids. Having my younger son here is the most rewarding thing – being a teacher and having my son here. With my older son not being at PD, it’s something I really appreciate and will never take for granted. He loves it and his teachers have been great. Seeing him on campus is everything I had envisioned, and while in life expectations rarely match reality, this is one of the times where the experience has been everything I hoped it would be. The journey we have had with Erin Harper and the Lower School/Extended Day family so far has been absolutely phenomenal. They are such a special group of educators.

Q: What is unique about the students and the community you interact with at PD?

I’ve always been my most authentic self when I’m in front of the classroom interacting with the students. They have always brought the best out of me, not the other way around, and that’s something really special and unique about the PD community. In this community, just walking around campus, and students of all ages will say ‘Hi’ to you. Forging those relationships and watching these kids grow up has been the best part of the job. And when they graduate and alumni come back to visit, it’s surreal for me. Where else would people come back to see their 6th-grade math teacher? What’s unique about PD for me is definitely the families and students.

Q: What was your reaction when your name was called as the winner of the Downing/Williams Endowed Chair of Teaching Excellence?

That was really special and it’s a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Looking back now I still can’t believe I won the award. It was truly a career-defining moment for me and something I’ll treasure forever. To be awarded this honor on the school’s 50th year anniversary and in front of the Class of 2021, a group that has such a special place in my heart, was a dream come true. The icing on top was the surprise of my wife Mira being there in attendance and also having the award handed to me by Randy Sienkowski, a friend, mentor, and colleague who I regard as being one of the absolute best teachers I have ever worked with and someone I’ve always looked up to. That was a really cool moment for me.

Q: How do you plan to use the award?

I was so excited about it that I made my proposal for using the stipend that Monday immediately following Commencement! While details are still being worked out, my initial plan is to utilize the money to start an investment fund where future earnings will be used to directly support student-led entrepreneurship initiatives. I’m really excited about it and cannot wait to see where this leads down the road.

Q: What do you enjoy doing outside of PD?

Spending time with my family is the No. 1 priority for me. I also enjoy working out and I try to read as much as I can about finance, math, and philosophy – a lot of nonfiction.

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