Cristina J. Baptista, PhD, English
1. How did you end up teaching at Convent of the Sacred Heart School (CSH)?
I first learned about the opportunity through Dr. Julie Kim, who was Fordham English's Director of Professional Placement at the time. CSH had sent out their job advertisement for an American Literature teacher with a creative writing background (so that the teacher could also moderate the school’s literary magazine), and Julie passed it along. Plus, I am a Connecticutter by birth, and Greenwich is close to where I was living at the time (in Bronx). It seemed like a no-brainer that I would apply, even though I had not given much thought to teaching anything aside from university-level before.
I remember applying on a Thursday and getting asked for an interview by the following Monday!
2. When, and at what level, did you begin teaching at CSH? What were your responsibilities at that point?
When I began teaching in August 2012, my responsibilities included teaching every Junior at the school. There were about 62 students in total, and I taught two sections of Honors American Literature (also an AP Examination in Language & Composition Course) and two sections of College Preparation American Literature. Additionally, I began my role as the moderator of Perspectives, the student literature and arts magazine. I was also a co-Advisor for the Class of 2014—which meant that I had a group of 11 Juniors I co-mentored with another faculty member. “Advisory” meets three times per eight-day-cycle and, essentially, I was serving as a counselor as well as a teacher. Other responsibilities involved having lunch duty once per cycle, attending Upper School Division Meetings twice a month, attending English Department Meetings twice a month, and coordinating (with CSH students) a Writers Festival cohosted by Greenwich Academy and Brunswick School. Simultaneously, I was expected to be attending conferences and meetings that offered professional development. I was also meeting with students before and after school, mentoring some budding creative writing students who were submitting to Scholastic Awards and the like. I also had “New Faculty” meetings about once a month, as well as a Faculty Mentor with whom I met bi-weekly or so to ensure that I was fitting in.
3. What is your current position at CSH? What are your current responsibilities?
I continue to be an Upper School Instructor in the Department of English, and this is my fourth year of teaching American Literature to Juniors. Class sizes have increased since I began, so I am no longer the only American Literature teacher at the school, teaching 4 out of 5 sections. Last year, when the English Department Chair (Dr. William Mottolese, who also holds a PhD from Fordham University) went on sabbatical, I picked up the extra course section and wound up, once again, teaching every Junior student at CSH. So, one responsibility is to be flexible, willing to pitch in where needed, and up for anything!
This year, I teach three sections of Honors and one College Preparation section of American Literature. I continue to be the Perspectives arts & literature faculty mentor, and I am still an Advisor. However, as of my second year at CSH, I was given my own Advisory (instead of co-advising with a coworker) and now am Advisor to the Class of 2017. I have also continued to coordinate with students at CSH and students and teachers at nearby Greenwich Academy and Brunswick School in preparation for the Writers Festival that will take place in 2016. This year, I am also a Faculty Mentor—a mentor to Dr. Allison Alberts, who was hired to teach Freshman and Sophomore year English. Dr. Alberts also earned her PhD from Fordham, so, 3 out of 5 Upper School English Department faculty members at CSH are Fordham graduates, all of us graduates of Dr. Moshe Gold’s pedagogy.
Furthermore, teachers like myself meet with parents, talk with parents on the phone, and keep in touch with our advisees’ parents, in case concerns arise. We attend Back to School Night and Open Houses—during the week and sometimes on weekends. I have presented what I do in American Literature and with Perspectives to both parents and prospective students before. In Fall 2013, at one weekend Open House, I was also on a “Communications” panel, offering examples of skills and assessments used in relation to verbal and written communications skills at Convent of the Sacred Heart. I worked in collaboration with the Middle School, serving as a representative for the Upper School in order to showcase to prospective students and their families how Middle School education feeds into that of the Upper School curriculum. Consequently, each teacher’s responsibility is to be at least partially microcosmic of the school and its offerings.
Each year, I write 28-40 or so college recommendation letters for former students, in addition to completing teacher recommendation forms for each college applicant, too. The Fall of each Academic Year, in fact, and because I teach Juniors, I find my time more consumed with helping Seniors, who are my former students, with their college materials, as well as writing letters for them. I also write a fair-share of scholarship, volunteer program, and summer program letters. I think English teachers in particular are constantly sought because students know we can write a strong letter!
Now in my fourth year at CSH, I have also become more involved in the professional and traditional life of the school and its Sacred Heart network. For the past couple of years, CSH has been going simultaneously through the Sacred Heart Network’s Commission on Goals (SHCOG) and the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) processes of assessment, so the commitment to these processes has been constant. I was asked to co-chair one of the NEASC committees, so I essentially spent a year working on one area of the final report. There was lots of planning, delegating, researching, collaborating, writing, meeting, and revising involved in this elaborate process. What is more, since Spring 2013, I have been a proactive member of the Center for Research, Teaching, and Learning Committee Member (CRTL). As part of this CSH-based group, I have partaken in the following groups: Student Research Development, Sustainability, Use of the Maker-Space, and “Creative Collaborators.” These groups allow teachers across divisions and disciplines to forge a network of professional development within our school community, as well as work proactively to enhance our school’s learning environment.
As a CSH teacher, too, you are constantly asked questions that find their way into articles for the King Street Chronicle or are interviewed and filmed for a monthly news program Today for the Heart. Teachers are highly-visible on campus, and our students enjoy interacting with teachers and learning about our passions, backgrounds, and how our experiences are brought into the classroom. I have been interviewed and/or filmed about being a new teacher at CSH, being a poet (during National Poetry Month), what I thought about Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) adaptation, what it was like to spend a summer sailing on and researching the last remaining whale-ship in the world, the use of Google Docs vs. Microsoft Word documents, and so forth. In short: the responsibilities of a CSH teacher do not end and the longer you are at the school, the more you are known and seen as an approachable presence.
I also find myself engaging more personally in Convent of the Sacred Heart life. I have been asked to do reading, write reflections for, or write and read prayers for various Chapel services at the school. In June and July of 2015, I traveled with twelve other CSH faculty members to Joigny and Paris, France, where we followed in the footsteps of Saint Madeleine Sophie Barat, our school’s founder. Being accepted to go on this ten-day pilgrimage was a sign that I “belonged” to the Sacred Heart Network at last, as I had to apply and write an essay about what this journey would mean to me, as a member of the CSH community. Last year, I was invited as a guest speaker during Senior Seminar’s panel on “What Makes a Strong Woman in the 21st Century?” This year, I shared a bit about my Portuguese heritage and ancestry for an upcoming World Languages video. This year, I was fortunate to be able to invite historian, writer, and journalist Alexander Rose to CSH to talk to our students about what he does. His book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring has been turned into AMC’s television show TURN: Washington’s Spies and, thus, I was able to plan, promote, and moderate a Q&A panel with Mr. Rose. Responsibilities like these have allowed me to feel more independent and more like a leader within the English Department and school.
Similarly, since I am a writer and poet, in addition to being a teacher, I have been encouraged by my superiors to bring more of my creative inclinations into the school’s community—among both faculty and students. I have read poetry to both my own students and was invited into a colleague’s class to read poetry during National Poetry Month last year. I have presented research and creative work to my fellow coworkers during Division Meetings. I was interviewed by the Portuguese American Journal and worked with Mystic Seaport: The Museum of America and the Sea recently on an ongoing whaling and the Portuguese experience project, and I was asked to share my work (and read some poetry) for the Upper School faculty. We have a very supportive, collaborative environment and our Division and Department meetings are always times in which we are asked to share Professional Development ideas and experiences.
4. What’s your favorite thing about teaching at the high school level?
Truly, working at a high school has allowed me to become a better teacher: I can honestly say that I know my American Literature material better now than I ever did in graduate school because I am often teaching it to multiple sections at the same time, and, thus, able to engage with students on a more meaningful level because I am not simply lecturing. I keep getting better and better with what I do each year, and students really respond to passionate and enthusiastic teachers. At Fordham, my “main area” was Modern American Literature—everything post-Civil War to the present. Now, at CSH, I teach everything! My knowledge of Colonial and Romantic American writers has never been stronger, and high school students are so full of energy that they fuel my interest and desire to really dig into the material and have fun with it.
Additionally, because I get to teach these exceptional students for a full year, as opposed to a semester, I have the luxury of taking more risks with what and how I teach. I truly challenge myself to craft innovative, fun, and inspiring projects. In a similar sense, I also find myself contriving ways to convey my passion for literature to students who are not necessarily going to be English Majors. Because there is more time spent with these students, we can have a variety of projects—from slide shows to short films to the traditional research paper. Teaching high school keeps the mind sharp and the material fresh because you have so many more opportunities to experiment with teaching.
Also, I feel revitalized in my passion for American Literature, for instance, when I’m able to engage fully with students about a particular text. For the most part, students are eager to learn and engage. Part of it may be the desire to do well and be accepted into a top college but I also think high schoolers are still at an age of intellectual curiosity that can be deepened and encouraged in a promising way.
Another fulfilling aspect about teaching at a high school is that you forge strong relationships with your students and really feel like you’re making a difference in their education and experience. Meeting with students frequently, having them an entire year, and really sharing each and every day with them within the same community, I feel like I have truly built a camaraderie that deepens my own love of teaching and encourages students to be invested in the material, too.
Finally, high school students are more apt to send you thankful notes or emails at the end of the year; to keep in touch their Senior years or when they are in college; and to say “thank you for enriching my love of literature” or “thank you for being so patient with me, even though I have never been a strong writer before.” Sometimes, college students don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to say that simple “thank you”—not because they are indifferent but because they have so many other responsibilities and likely only see you once or twice a week for half a year. Teaching high schoolers, I feel more connected to what and who I teach. It is a great mental and emotional boost!
5. What skills from your PhD coursework and/or dissertation research are proving most useful in your high school teaching?
In general, PhD coursework has helped me be specialized enough to teach American Literature in a way that is truly offering students a “college preparation” or “honors/AP-level” experience. As our school really is designed to prepare students for university settings, I feel as if my skills are well-used and applied on a daily basis. Yet, it is my experience in Dr. Gold’s pedagogy at Fordham University that has truly allowed me to be a precise, innovative, and effective teacher. From the lessons on grammar to the construction of three-paragraph essays that use inductive or deductive reasoning skills, I am still “pilfering,” if you will, from Dr. Gold’s rhetoric and composition tool kit. Because I feel confident about the clarity and precision of academic writing skills I address, my students also become confident, focused, and self-reliant in their work.
In another sense, because I have the luxury of only focusing on American Literature, I never feel spread thin like those colleagues who may teach two or three different courses. My situation is a rare one, and I know how lucky I am to be able to still specialize at a high school! But knowing my material well means that I can plunge deeply into context, biography, and “fun facts” about different authors and texts that a teacher who is more of a generalist would not necessarily be equipped to do.
Thus, being a “specialist” of American Literature has been helpful in simply engaging students. They see how committed I am to reading, writing, and American literature and, thus, they come to grow more curious about the materials. I also treat them like I did my college Composition and Texts & Contexts Students. I run a Harkness-style classroom and I allow students to select their own Research Paper topics and craft their own theses. In the end, I think my PhD experience has allowed me to recognize that true scholarship comes from being flexible with ideas yet demanding of students. I treat them like the college students they will be one day and they really rise to the challenge.
6. What advice do you have for graduate students considering jobs at the high school level?
I think any graduate student committed to his or her field, who has pedagogical training, and is willing to become a strong teacher would make an excellent high school instructor. Graduate students considering jobs at the high school level should remember that each high school is going to offer a totally different experience. I am teaching at a private, all-girls, Catholic school in Greenwich, CT. Certainly, a co-education public high school out in Helena, Montana, or Anchorage, Alaska, or Savannah, Georgia (or anywhere else) is going to offer a different experience. Yet, if you can find the right fit for you, especially a college-preparation-type school like CSH, you will find just how little you really have to adapt, in terms of your teaching interests and style, because many private schools really are looking for PhD-holding teachers to give their young scholars a “college experience.”
I was once asked by a friend, “why would you want to teach at a high school when you have a PhD? Isn’t high school more for people with Education degree?” The truth is, once again, each school is different. CSH’s five English Department faculty members are all professionals—three with doctorates. We have PhD-holding members in our Science and Math Departments, too. Our school employs people who have worked for professional television production companies, who have been lawyers, and who have extensive backgrounds in a variety of fields. If you are dedicated to using your professional experiences to help professionalize students, this is a worthwhile career for you.
That being said, high school teaching is mentally taxing, emotionally draining, and even physically-exhausting. Challenges to teaching high school include getting accustomed to the 7-or-8 a.m.-to-4-or-5 p.m. schedule, which is always longer for an English teacher with plenty of papers to grade; learning to engage in a meaningful way with parents while still allowing the students to navigate themselves through high school; and filling out lots of paperwork (interims, trimester reports, comments on a myriad of assignments, etc.) that will—I promise you—be never-ending. It is exhausting but meaningful work for the reasons above.
Why we keep teaching, despite the hurdles and long hours (because, even after leaving work at 5 or later, I’m at home working into the night), is because our students are respectful, invested, eager to learn, and ready to be fueled by our own passions. If you really want to feel like a successful teacher—if you want to feel as if you are noticed, appreciated, and matter to others—teaching at a high school is for you.
Furthermore, if you find the right school, you may be pleasantly surprised how you will be encouraged to attend conferences, present papers, and engage in other Professional Development experiences—all without the insistence upon publishing anything. CSH offers such extensive support for faculty members; our Professional Development experiences and opportunities definitely rival those of many U.S. colleges and universities. To continue, the camaraderie among teachers (who are all, more or less, in the same position as you are) can also be a sweet balm in sometimes exhausting days: never overlook the power of collegial support. My co-workers are some of the most intelligent, nicest, thoughtful, and empowering people I know. They are no small part of the reason I can get up in the morning, looking forward to stepping on campus again.
So, why not apply and see what happens? I definitely think graduate students worried about their futures or not wanting to lose momentum with their field of interest—or who are committed to being better teachers—ought to apply to a high school, visit, talk to the faculty, and get a feel for the environment to see if it is right for them. A job like this won’t be right for everyone—but you will never know unless you give it a chance.