Rabun Gap Stories

Faculty Feature: Derek Sanders, Religious Studies

"When I visited the campus for my interview, I fell in love with the student body. I had never been at a school where the students were so diverse, lively, caring, and eager to learn. As someone who teaches religious studies, I was excited at the prospect of teaching a class with so many different perspectives and backgrounds represented."
Derek Sanders is one of our religious studies teachers in the Upper School. He and his wife Nina, who is the Upper School math department chair, came to Rabun Gap from Houston, Texas where they taught. Mr. Sanders was born in Lewisville, Texas but grew up in Peachtree City, GA and in St. Charles, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He has a Bachelor of Arts from Baylor University in religion, with minors in biology and chemistry and earned his Master of Arts in religion from Yale Divinity School. He helps to coach the Varsity cross country team and is in his eighth year of teaching. A dedicated runner, he can often be found traversing the campus and surrounding areas while training.
What made you choose to work at Rabun Gap?
When I visited the campus for my interview, I fell in love with the student body. I had never been at a school where the students were so diverse, lively, caring, and eager to learn. As someone who teaches religious studies, I was excited at the prospect of teaching a class with so many different perspectives and backgrounds represented. I also love the mountains and natural beauty of the area.
What were you doing before coming to Rabun Gap? 
I was teaching and coaching at an independent day school in Houston, Texas - Episcopal High School. I worked there for five years before coming to Rabun Gap.
Why did you decide to become a religion teacher?  
It was a long process. When I was in college, I wanted to become a doctor. I was a pre-med student for three years, but I was also earning a minor in religion. After I had completed all of the required courses for my religion minor, I was sad that I wouldn’t have the time in my schedule to take any more religion classes. After some serious self-reflection, I realized how much more I enjoyed engaging the deep, philosophical questions that religion raises and exploring the different ways that religious belief and practice have unfolded around the world. 
I changed my major to religion and went to graduate school thinking that I would eventually earn a Ph.D. in religious studies and work at a university. While I was in graduate school, however, I became a little disenchanted with the “ivory tower” of academia. I saw a number of excellent professors who were integral parts of our school community get passed over for tenure because they either were not publishing enough or what they were publishing was not as well-received within the scholarly community as the school would like. I realized just how competitive and cutthroat this career path would be, and eventually realized that it really wouldn’t be for me. I found that what I cared most about was engaging interesting questions with others, not writing cutting-edge research papers and keeping abreast of current scholarship on many subjects that were, quite frankly, isolated and detached from the lives of most people. As I looked at the world I thought, how important it is for us to know about religion - how it works, how it has developed, and how it has shaped and continues to shape our world. My mentor finally suggested that I consider teaching in high school, and here I am today.
What is your philosophy toward education?  
This is a big question! I think education is about much more than just remembering facts and being able to recite them on an assessment. Of course it is important to know about the world, but it is perhaps more important to know how to think, how to wrestle with hard questions, and how to interact with others. At its best, I think that education should provide an arena for students to engage with life’s most challenging questions. Instead of giving students answers to memorize, education should encourage students to think for themselves and to weigh the merits of other positions. I strive to create such an environment in my classes.
What were you like in high school?
I was not the ideal student, but I did well. I was very quiet in class, preferring to sit back and absorb rather than engage in discussion. I wanted to do well, but I was more concerned with grades/performance than actually learning. I was a three-sport athlete throughout high school, so I was constantly either in the gym or on the football field.
What interests do you pursue outside of the classroom?  
I am an avid runner and spend a lot of time after school training. I am also a huge fly fisherman and love getting out on the mountain streams around here. I really just love being outside, so hiking or any other outdoor activity is right up my alley.
What makes Rabun Gap special?
Many things make Rabun Gap special, but the most special thing for me is the student body. We have an amazing group of young people here. Our students come from all over the world and from a variety of different backgrounds, and they bring their unique traditions and perspectives with them to form one community. They are genuinely kind, curious, and want to make the world a better place. Rabun Gap students are really a breath of fresh air for me.
What’s the most interesting thing about you that we wouldn’t learn from your resume alone? 
I’m not sure about the “most” interesting thing, but here are a few fun facts about me:
  • I have been to 44 of the 50 states.
  • I really love food! My wife and I consider ourselves “foodies” and love to try new, exotic, and ambitious restaurants/cuisines.
  • I have recently become quite interested in grilling. I’m still an amateur, but I’m getting better!
  • I have two furry children: my dogs Schenley (4) and Aspen (1).
  • I enjoy climbing tall mountains, but I am scared of heights…
  • Since I enjoy fishing, I can’t pass a body of water without analyzing it and determining where the fish would likely be.
What do you like about working with high schoolers? 
Even though we do the same thing every day, no two days are ever the same. High schoolers always keep you on your feet. You never know what new question they will come up with or how they will respond to a lesson you have planned. I love that I am constantly having to reflect on my work and revise what I do. It’s hard, exhausting work, but it keeps me intellectually fresh.
Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School is a private, coeducational day and boarding school for grades Pre-K through 12. Centrally located between Atlanta, GA, Greenville, SC, and Asheville, NC, we prepare young people for college, career, and a lifetime of leadership and service.