Digital Humanities in Independent Schools (feat. Chris Meatto)
Alumni Aloud Episode 27
Chris Meatto is an alumnus of the Graduate Center’s MALS program. His concentration was digital humanities with a focus in history. He teaches history and global studies at Greens Farms Academy, an independent school in Connecticut.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Chris sheds light on the hiring process of independent schools and explains what he enjoys most about developing curriculum, working with teenagers, and collaborating with fellow teachers.
This episode’s interview was conducted by Abbie Turner. The music is “Corporate (Success)” by Scott Holmes.
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VOICE OVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with a GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
ABBIE TURNER, HOST: I’m Abbie Turner, a PhD candidate in Educational Psychology at the Graduate Center. I work in our Office of Career Planning & Professional Development and interviewed Chris Meatto about what it’s like to be a teacher at an independent school. Chris got his Masters in Liberal Studies and the Digital Humanities with a concentration in History from the Graduate Center.
I’m here with Chris Meatto on a call, and we’re going to talk about his experience teaching in independent schools. We recently had an event at the Graduate Center where we had a panel of alumni talk about their experiences teaching in independent schools, and though I invited Chris, he was unable to make it, so we scheduled a phone call.
So, hi Chris, thanks for joining me.
CHRIS MEATTO, GUEST: Hey, it’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
TURNER: Great, so why don’t you start us off and tell us the different independent schools you’ve been in and what brought you to teaching at independent schools.
MEATTO: Sure, so I’m in my fifth year of teaching at an independent high school. The first school that I was at was a school in Manhattan called Avenues, and I was there for four years. And this most recent academic year I moved up to another school in Connecticut called Greens Farms Academy. Both of them are pre-k-12 independent schools, serving about the same number of students. I guess Avenues has a little more—around 1300 kids pre-k-12—and Greens Farms is more 800 or 900. I think what generally brought me to independents schools is that I went to an independent school and had a lot of teachers who shaped who I became and how I learned to think at an early age. Sot that was always a career I wanted to be involved in—teaching. And I got back to it after working in libraries and archives because I really wanted to be involved in the exchange of ideas and information that happens in the classroom.
TURNER: So you have your first Masters in Library Science, so that’s what you were doing— your libraries and archives work. And then after you were at Avenues, you started your Masters of Arts at the Graduate Center in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Digital Humanities. Is that right?
MEATTO: That’s right. Sort of. I started a History program at Hunter College the year before I started teaching. So I was taking night classes at Hunter a couple times a week and really loved it, and then started teaching at Avenues and continued my studies, but shifted down to the Graduate Center—in part because I really wanted to work with certain faculty at the Graduate Center in the Digital Humanities program, and I also needed to be closer to the school I was teaching at in Chelsea. So thankfully, the Graduate Center has an amazing program that I was able to transfer into and sort of resume all the things I was really interested in by being there.
TURNER: So tell us a little about the hiring process of getting into your two schools. I know independent schools have kind of a unique hiring process?
MEATTO: Yeah, they were very different. The first thing is just that schools want people who are passionate and really want to work with kids and also are really well-versed in the material they could be teaching. So I think I cleared all those hurdles in my interviews, but the hiring processes themselves were very different just because schools can be kind of chaotic places. So the first school I worked at, Avenues, I was almost like a leave replacement of sorts. They had a hole in their teaching staff over the summer. My wife worked in the school and I was in grad school at the time studying History and really wanted to teach History, and they had an opening for someone to come and teach one section. So I was able to make that work and to do some other stuff in the school in their libraries to make ends meet.
But I went in for a series of interviews in August—the summer before I started—and managed to land a job that way. And I think that happens at schools more often than you might think. People leave, stuff comes up in everyone’s lives, but opening day still has to happen in September. And so that’s sometimes how people get hired. Anyway, that’s how I got started there, and then continued for another three years after that and it was a really great experience.
Getting hired at Greens Farms was the complete opposite—probably for a number of reasons—but I started the job search through a couple different search agencies. Hiring season starts around December or January for independent schools. Often they ask people to start sending out their resumes online around December or January and jobs start to come online around January or February. So I was working with a couple different search firms and eventually the Greens Farms job came online and I went through two phone interviews with them that were each over an hour.
TURNER: With the agency or the school?
MEATTO: The schools. The agencies I probably talked to a couple times on the phone to get accepted as their client. But once I started interviewing with Greens Farms, I had a couple different phone interviews with heads of school and department heads and future colleagues and then was invited onto campus to teach and do a full day of interviews. I’m sure people on your panel a few weeks ago talked about this, but at independent schools the hiring process looks like eventually you get asked to do a demo lesson—where you are probably teaching a class you’d be teaching the following year should you be hired. They just want to see what your style is like and how you prepare and reflect on the material you’re teaching. So I did that and then I had a lot of interviews—like eight or nine separate interviews with people or teams of people, which was a lot, but it was really amazing because it allowed me to get a sense of what the school was all about.
TURNER: Great. And I’m guessing they were very interested in your Digital Humanities work. Are you using that a lot in your teaching now?
MEATTO: Yeah, you know, I am. I mean the History stuff is obviously always there because it’s what I teach. But the research into the digital humanities pieces that I worked on a lot at CUNY and as a Library Science person are coming back a lot. A couple examples—one of the classes I’m co-teaching right now is a thesis class in the Global Studies department that seniors are taking and basically they’re doing college-level original research. They’re developing research questions and problems and writing thesis-length papers to present at the end of the year. And a couple of the students I’m working with are starting to explore the idea of doing close-reading and textual analysis, but through some digital humanities programs. We’re looking at some programs that are things I used a couple years ago on projects with different classmates, and it’s interesting to show them that these tools exist. Because otherwise, the digital humanities stuff never comes up in a high school setting unless you bring it there, and then students can be blown away by the possibilities of what they can do with the traditional humanities stuff.
TURNER: Was that really attractive to your hiring committees that you had these alternative ways of presenting information?
MEATTO: I think it was. I remember talking to them about this class in particular and how they felt like it could be applicable. I think schools right now are in a position where they’re looking to carve out niches for themselves in terms of what the 21st century school and classroom looks like, and thinking about things like networked learning, using different mapping software that I’ve used, or different ways to analyze traditional humanities information. I think that was attractive to them and hopefully I get to use more and more of it as time goes on.
TURNER: And what kinds of classes do you currently teach at your school?
MEATTO: So I teach in two different departments at my current school. I teach in the History department and the Global Studies department, which is sort of contemporary issues and international relations. And so in the History department I teach the 9th grade Foundations of World History class and in the Global Studies department I teach, also in the 9th grade, a class called Big Histories, which is sort of an adapted version of David Christian’s interdisciplinary science plus history plus anthropology course. That’s really fun. And I also co-teach with two other teachers a senior class called Global Thesis. And at my school, kids have the option to graduate with a specific concentration. And in order to fulfill that, the final step for them as seniors is to spend a year writing a thesis of original research and then present it at the end of the year. So those are the three classes I teach.
TURNER: So it sounds like you’re able to really challenge them academically at a level that’s satisfying to you, too, since they’re having original research projects?
MEATTO: Yes. It is like upper-college-level work. And sometimes they’re kind of freaked out by it, but they’re working really hard and are super into it. And the stuff they’re doing is incredible, and it keeps me and my colleagues on our toes every day because there’s seventeen research projects that we might have some experience or background going into some of them, but definitely not all, and we’re learning with them… It’s amazing.
TURNER: So how about the environment where you work? Namely, what’s it like with your coworkers and is there a lot of opportunity for collaboration in your experience?
MEATTO: Yeah, there’s a lot of collaboration. In both the schools I’ve worked in it’s really a rich area for learning from and working with your colleagues. I’d definitely recommend anyone who’s interested in collaborating to give independent schools a serious look in terms of working at. Collaborating in schools usually takes the form of planning meetings where you take a look at the curriculum ahead and the goals you’re trying to hit and what the best ways to get there are. And that’s a really really fun prospect if you enjoy thinking about curriculum and backwards planning and thinking about how the students can really get the material. That to me is really really fun. Sitting down with colleagues who are super passionate and really smart and see everything the way you do, but also have their different take on it is a really unique opportunity. And I don’t know how often people get to do that in the wider professional world or in college-level teaching. And it’s not a criticism of what goes on in higher education, I just think it’s different. Friends of mine who are junior professors love what they do, but it’s not always about sitting in a room talking about how to teach a specific thing for two hours. And I love that sort of craft and process angle of everything.
TURNER: And can you speak a little bit about what it’s like mentoring these younger students and how that might differ from teaching college classes? What kinds of qualities should you have or really be passionate about if you’re thinking about teaching in an independent school?
MEATTO: I think you need to be a good listener. Teenagers have hard lives for a lot of different reasons. And I think we as a culture don’t always get that, and it seems to be that the pressure that they feel seems to be increasing as the years go on. So I think to be a mentor you have to want to listen and be there for students and sort of hear them out and hear what they need in terms of advice or guidance and be okay in offering that. Sometimes that means just saying “go get ‘em,” and sometimes it means giving them a really specific road map for how to achieve something, and sometimes it means giving them a little tough advice.
But I think that they want mentorships, definitely. And independent schools typically offer that in a few different ways. They have their classroom teachers, and then at my school we have their advisers—which an advisory group is anywhere from 7-10 kids and you meet in an informal way, but get to bond and build a trusting relationship that way. We have, typically, deans or heads of grades. So kids are able to get support in a few different ways. I think that’s another appealing thing about working in independent schools. There’s enough support there and enough roles that people who want to support students can find. I also think other things that are probably not surprising to anyone who’s worked in a school or maybe has a kid: patience; persistence, joy. I think you have to bring joy every day to teaching.
TURNER: Can you speak at all to the benefits of working in an independent school versus working in the public schools for the Department of Ed?
MEATTO: Sure. I do have friends who have worked in public schools. My understanding is that one of the great advantages or selling points of working in an independent school is the amount of autonomy you get as a teacher in terms of planning curriculum, projects, field trips, guest speakers, everything. There’s a tremendous amount of trust on the part of the administration and department to sort of say, “Okay, the course is generally going to move from A to Z, but how you do that and the readings you choose and activities you plan and the assessments are by and large up to you.” And that’s amazing. I can’t speak highly enough about the experience. And really it means you get to design courses and assignments that meet the kids where they are while also challenging them. It also means that I get to learn every day. Even if I’m teaching thins I’ve taught before. I can think constantly about how to teach it better, what I can bring in to add to the conversation. That’s a real terrific benefit and something I’ve really enjoyed since I started teaching.
TURNER: So now I want to shift into thinking about the bonus benefits. So from our panel two weeks ago, well, all three of the panelists talked about travel the school has funded for them, whether chaperoning or even for their own research. Can you speak to any of that? Have you gotten the chance to travel with your school?
MEATTO: Yes, I have. I’ve traveled all around NYC for sure. I don’t know if that really counts as traveling. Professional development I think is what independent schools are famously supportive of. So I went to a week-long boot camp for learning how to run discussion a couple summers ago. The way that I’ve been trained and that both of my schools operate in is the method of student-led discussion. So I’ve done a lot of training with that and gone to other professional development opportunities. Independent schools really want teachers to keep growing and learning and then to bring that back and share it with the community. So I think that’s a real bonus. I’m not sure how that compares to public schools, but having been around private independent schools, it’s a real bonus.
TURNER: Have you gotten the chance to chaperone an international field trip?
MEATTO: Not yet, I hope to do so soon. I was supposed to go on a trip to Italy to run an Art History trip with a couple other teachers, but I got sick and wasn’t able to go. Both schools that I’ve been lucky enough to work at… Avenues, whose full name is Avenues of the World School, they were seriously dedicated to that. And Greens Farms has an entire department, Global Studies, and then also this umbrella ethos that sits on top of the school called the World’s Perspectives Programs. And they do a ton of work with sending kids and faculty abroad whether it’s one or two week trips, service learning, or entire semesters or years abroad and off-campus. I’d love to talk to them more about that because I know it’s a big part of what my current school is all about.
TURNER: Can you speak at all about the benefits of teaching at the school, meaning insurance. Because a lot of our students might look at teaching at an independent school as an alternative to the adjuncting hustle we all do at CUNY, and that does not offer a lot of great benefits unless you teach a certain course load. So would you say it’s a good alternative to a get a steady job at an independent school?
MEATTO: Yes, definitely. Benefits at independent schools are terrific. Both schools I’ve worked at have really comprehensive insurance benefits, retirement benefits, disability, and parental leave. All those things are real… and definitely is a check mark in the column for independent schools over adjuncting.
TURNER: Can you tell us about any of the search agencies you used and maybe name them if you’d recommend them?
MEATTO: Absolutely. There are two that I’ve worked with. The search firm that helped me get my current job in Connecticut is called Educator’s Ally. They’re in the New York area and I think they really specialize in placing people in NYC and the larger metropolitan area. But I think they also do national placements—I could be mistaken on that. But the other search firm people think of when they think about private school job searches is Carney Sandoe. They hold conferences in a couple locations in the country every year and those are usually good places to go to talk to potential employers and sort of get on the market. I’ve done that in the past. I went to one in Boston a couple years ago, which was fun and kind of interesting. And then basically the process is, you would submit application materials—a resume and statement of interest to these firms—and then they’d call you back and bring you on-board. Then you start talking about your preferences, and you have a whole online portfolio you can fill out. And then you sort of check-in with other schools and things like that. Those are the two firms; in particular, Educator’s Ally is a great place to work with.
TURNER: So, do you have any advice for students at the Graduate Center—possibly getting their Masters or our PhD students—any advice on what they might be doing in school now to prepare or is there a way to get some experience?
MEATTO: No. I don’t know just because I did slightly an alternative path. But I think the thing I’ve been thinking about throughout this conversation is that teaching in schools requires so much genuine energy and interest and passion for the work that you find out quickly if you want to keep working in schools. And it’s not necessarily something you can prepare for. There’s a level of instinct or aspect of it being a calling, I think. So I guess the advice I’d give to people thinking about it would be to ask yourself if you’re really passionate about the stuff you’re learning and you want to share that with kids. And if you’re interested in the holistic aspect of what it means to teach something. Those are like the first bars to clear. And then it’s all about the fit of a particular school. Oh, I was gonna say when you were talking about benefits, part of me wanted to say, don’t take this job for benefits. Because the stakes are too high and it’s a demanding situation. So it’s not the same as just showing up somewhere, doing your thing, and then leaving. It’s a whole world.
TURNER: Got it. And in your experience in your two schools, were there opportunities for substitute teaching that might give someone experience to show either the search firms or schools that they have experience working with teenagers? It can be hard to get that experience working with teenagers sometimes.
MEATTO: Definitely. I think every school does it a little differently. Some use agencies, some have a call list they build over time. But substitute teaching gigs do come up—maternity leaves/ paternity leaves definitely come online, and that’s a great way to get experience. I’d also say tutoring is something that appeals to some folks on hiring committees in terms of if you have an advanced degree but have also logged a bunch of hours doing writing tutoring or math or something like that. It could be decisive in terms of the people you’re talking to about a potential job.
The thing that makes classes work in part is your demeanor as a teacher in the room and working with teenagers. They pick up on everything, and this goes back to the beginning of our conversation about mentors and guidance, but my philosophy is to be myself and treat them with a ton of respect and equality, and I think that helps cultivate an atmosphere where we can all sit around a big circular table. And there will always be that imbalance where they look at me as an authority figure or someone who knows something and is trying to impart it to them, but the more that I can try to break that down to make it a conversation, the better. And they pick up on that. So that’s the thing I’m able to take and use for the entire year to make sure that the classroom is a good space for learning. If I walked in and were sort of trying to shout, “This is the one right answer. Learn it and spit it back out on a test,” they wouldn’t want to be there and they’d treat the class differently. So I think you’ve got to be aware of who you are and be aware of what that is and how it’s being received. And again that’s going back to the point of a no phony zone. The kids will expose that really quickly if you have any doubts.
TURNER: And just to learn about the logistics of how these jobs work, do you sign contracts at your schools? Every year?
MEATTO: Yeah, I believe it’s every year.
TURNER: Is there anything else you wanted to add?
MEATTO: I think we had talked about this a little before, but I think I’m a teacher first and foremost because I had great teachers throughout my life at various stages of being in school. I obviously went back to school twice after college because I loved it so much. And that very much continued for me at Hunter and the CUNY Grad Center. I was really psyched about working with the professors I got to hang out with. I’m not sure that always happens in grad school—just informally talking to friends and colleagues and stuff, sometimes it can feel a bit more transactional, but I really got the sense that the professors there really cared what we were up to and that was really across the board. And it gave me a lot of energy then as a teacher because I was teaching and going to school at night and just feeling what it was like on both sides of the desk. And having that be a really positive experience kept feeding into my teaching practices and the effort I put in to grad school. So I was really happy to go CUNY for grad school.
TURNER: Okay, great. Well I want to thank you for all the information you shared with us and for telling us about your personal experience. So we’ll say goodbye and thank you so much for helping.
MEATTO: No, thank you, this was great.
TURNER: Thanks again to Chris for telling us about his experiences with teaching in independent schools. This semester, we had a career panel where GC alumni spoke to students about their individual career paths that led to teaching in independent schools. If you want to attend one of these types of career events at the Graduate Center, you should check out our calendar of events on our website at cuny.is/careerplan. Or you can follow us on twitter @careerplangc. Thanks for listening.
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