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El Morro Elementary Principal Christopher Duddy captains a winning team


Photos by Mary Hurlbut

It cannot be coincidence that each school Christopher Duddy serves is soon anointed academic recognition by the State of California. Since his arrival at El Morro Elementary in 2004, the school has enjoyed a string of successes. It received the Distinguished School Award in 2008 and again in 2014, and was granted California’s coveted Gold Ribbon Award in 2016. It’s up for national Blue Ribbon recognition this year. 

El Morro isn’t the only school Chris has gifted with his golden touch. Thurston Middle School, where Chris served as both Assistant Principal (from 1998 to 2001) and Principal (from 2001 through 2004), was designated a Distinguished School in 2003.

Chris is a team player, and he’s the first to acknowledge that institutional success requires a great deal of teamwork and collaboration. But he’s also the team’s steadfast captain, and his example sets the course. It doesn’t take long in Chris’s company to understand why his approach works so well. “We have all the ingredients to have a high performing school,” he says. “Wonderful resources, excellent teachers, eager students, and active parent involvement. Plus, the surroundings are beautiful.” Still, what is that elusive mix of personality traits that makes a successful captain?

El Morro awards

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Principal Christopher Duddy holding the many awards bestowed on El Morro Elementary by the State of California. Note the California Gold Ribbon Schools Award was created to honor schools in place of the California Distinguished Schools Program, which remains on hiatus while the state implements its new assessment and accountability systems.

Life lessons learned on the basketball courts

Chris will tell you he wasn’t always an eager student. “To tell you the truth, I didn’t really like school. I was a decent student, but studying wasn’t my favorite thing as a kid.” Basketball, however, was his favorite thing and he was fortunate to have a high school coach who taught him the importance of hard work and the benefits of focusing on his studies. “My high school basketball coach had a huge impact on my life,” Chris says. “He was really dedicated and provided structure. Eventually, I decided I wanted to help kids the way he helped me.”

Chris played basketball throughout high school and into college, both at Fullerton College and then at Cal State Fullerton. He continued playing well into his 40s, on a recreational league and also with his son. “Now,” he laughs, “I don’t want to get hurt.” But the practice taught Chris a lot about teamwork, hard work, practice, and dedication. 

“Show up to every practice as though you’re playing in a game,” he says. “If you’re really specific and intentional about your practice and bring the same intensity you’d bring to the game, you’ll perform.” The same is true for everything else, he’s learned. “If students do their homework as though they’re taking the final test, they won’t need to step up or try harder on exam days. They’ll be prepared. The test is the game.” 

Chris combines that mixture of focus and dedication with a calm and empathetic personality. “I don’t get too riled up,” he says. “I rarely ever yell. I try to look at both sides of whatever the issue is – from a parent’s, teacher’s or child’s perspective – and figure out the best course of action for the kid.” And students clearly appreciate that quiet foundation. When Chris steps out onto the playground, children flock around him. Whatever the barriers one often expects between adults and children, principals and students, they don’t seem to exist with Chris.

El Morro fist pump

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El Morro students naturally gravitate toward Chris Duddy’s accessible and empathetic style

Some of his philosophies may come from another basketball idol – Coach John Wooden. Chris’s office library is peppered with Wooden’s books. He pulls a copy of Inch and Miles: The Journey to Success from his shelf. “I love John Wooden,” he says. Wooden’s motivational quotes are so inspiring, they became known as “Woodenisms” and have become guiding principles for educators and coaches alike. “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” asks Wooden. A few more notable ones – “Make each day your masterpiece,” “The best competition I have is against myself to become better,” and “Young people need models, not critics.” 

Chris puts these aphorisms into action on El Morro’s campus, inspiring students to be kind over competitive, and bring their A-game every day. Mistakes, he says, are opportunities for growth. They’re not to be feared or avoided.

Perspectives about education across time

Much of this gentle guidance may also stem from mere longevity in the field, and the quiet confidence that grows with perspective. Chris has been in education since the 1980s, beginning as an English teacher at Brea Olinda High, where he himself had attended school. After five years of teaching, Chris worked as a guidance specialist in Brea Junior High. He came to the Laguna Beach Unified School District in 1998 as an Assistant Principal at Thurston, quickly advancing to his position as Principal in 2001, and has served as El Morro’s Principal since 2004.

“Each position has given me a new perspective on the bigger picture,” says Chris. “Having children of my own drastically shifted my perspective again. I realized anew the importance of school and education, of entrusting the school with my most loved asset. It’s a different perspective, growing from being a teacher to an administrator, and that other perspective as a parent.”

Though his two children are now grown, Chris still carries that visceral parental feeling with him every day and respects the responsibility with which he’s been entrusted. 

Teaching through turmoil

Chris also arrived at each new position in a time of external turmoil. Laguna was still recovering from the devastating 1993 fire and subsequent floods when Chris came to Thurston. Part of the school itself had burned. The loss of so many homes also impacted the school’s budget, which didn’t have as much property tax revenue to draw from and impacted the bottom line. 

“It was a hard time for Laguna Beach,” Chris says. “But after so much hard work, after the community pulled together and rebuilt, look at the schools now. We rebuilt bigger, better, and stronger than we were before.” 

El Morro door

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El Morro’s campus, like other Laguna Beach Schools, is warm and welcoming

And he will never forget where he was on September 11th, having just begun his role as Thurston’s new principal the prior week. “It was a strange feeling,” he recalls. “We tried to keep things as normal as possible, but we had a lot of follow-up discussions with kids in their classrooms. We made them understand they were safe, that we would carry on with our lives, and that we had to move forward together.” 

Once Thurston’s remodel was complete in 2004 – with a new gym and black box theater – Chris didn’t remain to enjoy the fruits of all that labor. He accepted a position at El Morro, where he has remained ever since.

Enjoying the journey

But even without catastrophic outside events, a lot has changed since 2004, both in education and the world in general. Chris recalls teaching in a time without cell phones. “Students talked to their teachers a lot more,” he says. “We had to have conversations because kids couldn’t simply look things up on their phones or text each other assignments.” This has led, he believes, to a need for instant gratification. “I try telling students the journey is the cool part. Not the destination. What did you learn? How did you build up to something more long-term and satisfying? That’s the key to life. Enjoy the journey.”

To that end, the school has started the Wait-Until-8 campaign for cell phones (“eight” means 8th grade, not 8 years old). “Kids don’t need cell phones in elementary school,” he says. “Be a kid. Not having a cell phone allows kids to enjoy that time.” 

El Morro closeup

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Principal Chris Duddy in his second home at El Morro Elementary

His other advice for enjoying the journey: reading. “I recommend for parents of elementary kids – find a book they like, any book, and read to their kids. This is especially important in the primary grades. Books about going to school, or the playground bully, they like reading about things relevant to their lives. It’s important to find the kids’ interests and what they want to learn about.”

Understanding the need for downtime

Chris himself enjoys the journey by unplugging on Saturday mornings and hitting the surf. “There’s no better feeling than paddling off and leaving your troubles on land,” he says. “The water cleanses you. If you catch a great wave, all the better, but just being out there is a release from everyday pressures. No one can call or email you. There’s no cell phones in the ocean.” The ritual centers and calms him at the beginning of the weekend so he can enjoy his days off.

Chris acknowledges the importance of that time off, with the increase in anxiety and stress among students and adults alike. El Morro has woven social-emotional learning into their curriculum to teach students how to handle stress. “School has changed a lot in that regard,” he says. “There used to not be much instruction on the social-emotional part. Now it’s embedded into the curriculum.” He’s become a good role model for students and faculty on the importance of unplugging and self-care.

Family man

If it’s true for children that success begins at home, that may also account for Chris’s calm and steady nature at work. His parents, ages 84 and 82, celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary this year, and live in nearby Laguna Woods. Chris and his wife, Teri, celebrated 30 years of marriage this August. And they’re both very close with their two adult children, Taylor and Paige, who also live in Orange County. The family enjoys summer fishing trips and close connections. “It doesn’t hurt that Dad pays for the trips,” Chris laughs. “But we’re a tight family unit.” 

A success salad

To keep all these ingredients for success in mind, Chris often references the “success salad.” “So many things go into creating a successful school,” he says. It starts with a supportive and actively involved community who willingly provide resources – time, talent, and financial support. It requires dedicated and enthusiastic teachers. It benefits from an eager and curious student body. And it’s all guided by strong and steady leadership.

The El Morro administration puts this metaphor into practice by frequently collaborating and building the “friendship salad” together. “I bring the lettuce. Someone brings chicken or avocados or whatever. We toss it all in a bowl and no matter what people have brought, it tastes really good.” 

Metaphors aside, Chris’s leadership style has a proven track record. The proof is in not only the students’ success and their kindness towards one another, but in the endless stream of smiles across campus. It’s a place where you can’t help but feel welcome and happy and safe.