Answering a Calling in a High School History Classroom

By Shana Melnysyn

Dr. Gene Cassidy is a high school history teacher at Miss Porter’s School. He received his PhD in History from U of M in 2015.

Every morning when he wakes up, Dr. Gene Cassidy feels like he “won the lottery.” He absolutely loves his job as a high school history teacher at the independent Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut. He describes it as his “calling,” and says it “fulfills [him] in ways that no other job ever could.” If he were rich, he says, this is what he would still choose to be doing.

Dr. Gene Cassidy

Dr. Cassidy typically teaches between 3 and 4 classes a day, starting at 8am. The biggest class he’s ever taught had 15 students, which was considered very large (most classes at Miss Porter’s have around 10-12 students). In between classes, he meets with advisees and students who need extra help. As with most independent schools, faculty contribute “community hours” in addition to their teaching responsibilities. Gene coaches volleyball and leads Model UN meetings. In August, his family will move onto campus and begin enjoying one of the many perks of teaching at an independent school: free housing! When he thinks about the future for his two children, Dr. Cassidy is thrilled about the fact that they will have the opportunity to enjoy tuition-free attendance at Miss Porter’s.

As an educator, Gene enjoys exposing his students to different opinions and guiding them through these views in a nuanced way so that they can understand positions that contrast with their own. Doctoral training as a humanist focuses on the development of superior analytical skills, which builds the capacity to hear different opinions and measure which ones are valid. Humanists are especially adept at dealing with nuance. Teaching students to apply this ability to the world outside of Miss Porter’s is an important part of the school’s mission of educating “young women to become informed, bold, resourceful and ethical global citizens.” Gene believes his background in the humanities helps him help his students develop the ability to see beyond their own opinions by having their own worldview challenged.

Dr. Cassidy had known since working on his MA that he was much more interested in teaching than research, but his MA advisor told him not to mention that in his PhD application materials. During summers as a graduate student, he worked for The Institute of Reading Development in Michigan and tutored students in AP and SAT prep at a Huntington Learning Center in Silver Spring, MD. Towards the end of his doctoral training, Dr. Cassidy was working on publishing his first article. In working to revise and polish the piece, he experienced more pain and anguish than joy. One day, while he was going for a run, he had a moment of clarity: He did not want to do that kind of work for the rest of his life. The History Department at U of M offers its PhD students the opportunity to design and teach their own undergraduate course focused on developing writing skills.  Dr. Cassidy’s course proposal was selected (a comparative study of race in the U.S. and Brazil), and this experience helped bulk up his resume. When he was interviewing for jobs at independent high schools, he successfully made the case that teaching college freshman to write like college students was a skill he could transfer to a high school classroom.

When he reflects on things he would have liked to have known earlier, Gene wishes that graduate students had some kind of specific training to help them prepare for what happens if they decide not to become professors. Lots of people graduate and go on to have postdoc after postdoc without landing in a tenure track position; others, like Dr. Cassidy, decide before finishing their degrees that they want to pursue other careers. When faculty disparage the idea that U of M would train PhD students for anything other than academia, it shuts down the conversation about other career outcomes that might be more desirable for some newly minted PhDs. The face of the academy has changed in recent years, and Gene believes that graduate programs need to change with it. One change that would be useful for those who go on to tenure track careers as well as those who pursue other teaching positions would be a course or a series of workshops on pedagogy. Gene felt that teaching his own course to U of M undergrads was a fantastic opportunity to develop his teaching skills, but wasn’t built into the program, nor was it available to all PhD students. Ultimately, he thinks it’s important for departments and the graduate school to show support for graduate students intending to pursue a variety of careers. Visits from alumni working outside the tenure track, which many departments have organized in recent years, are a helpful way to show that there is a world outside what PhD students in the humanities are generally trained to imagine for themselves. Seeing people thriving in other fields would help to dispel the notion that such people “couldn’t cut it” in academia by presenting career diversity as a choice rather than a failure.

Regardless of your goals, Dr. Cassidy believes graduate students should keep in mind the possibility of not going into the academy—and they should think about it more than six months before their dissertation defense. Keeping multiple possibilities in mind will help them to make the best decisions they can while still in school. If a teaching opportunity comes up, he emphasizes, take it. If you do make a decision to pursue career paths other than the tenure track, you have to wrestle with the personal implications of that transition, which is often difficult after years of building an identity as a scholar. If you’re planning to transition out of academia, he says, it’s important to start dealing with the sometimes painful reality of the identity shift as early as possible, so you can move towards a new career path with confidence. Dr. Cassidy has seen candidates with PhDs apply for teaching positions at Miss Porter’s who make it clear they still have one foot in the academy. Their cover letters focus on research interests and publications rather than pedagogy and classroom style, which puts them at a disadvantage relative to other candidates whose commitment to teaching is clearer.

Should you choose a humanities career path outside of the traditional tenure track, Dr. Cassidy suggests, do so with intention and focus. Think about why you are choosing a particular field or industry, and work on adapting your application materials in conjunction with your new professional identity. With lots of hard work and perseverance, you may end up like Dr. Cassidy, who often asks people who question his career choice: “Do you feel lucky every morning when you wake up? I do!”

 

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