Victoria Chatfield ’10 (Adolescence English) will be studying how UK national youth theatres cultivate multicultural communities at the University of Glasgow in Scotland via a grant from the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching Program.
How did you get interested in your research topic?
I’ve been interested in the UK’s national youth theatres since high school. Reading about how these organizations brought together students from such diverse geographic, racial/ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds to create original art was a major inspiration for me. I committed myself to creating a similar program in the US and, in 2012, I founded the National Theatre for Student Artists (NTSA). For the past three years, we’ve brought students from across the country to New York City to create world premiere off-Broadway productions together. However, managing this organization has been challenging and, having stagnated in terms of growth, I decided that now would be the best possible time to learn firsthand from our progenitors.
What do you hope to learn through your Fulbright research?
One of our biggest challenges at both NTSA and my school has been getting students from high-income and low-income communities to work together successfully. My school recently received a letter from an alum who enrolled in a private college upstate. She recounted how, on the first day of school, she was confronted with a situation she’d never been in before: being the only African-American student in the classroom. She struggled to fit in and even wrote that she’d been “robbed” of a good college experience because of what she looked like. This convinced me that we need to give our students more opportunities to collaborate with their peers from divergent backgrounds throughout elementary school, middle school, and high school. We don’t want them to be blindsided on their first day of college.
Through my observations at the UK’s national youth theatres (which have a strong tradition of integrating students from different social classes), I hope to learn how we can successfully expose US students to a broader population of their peers — both inside the classroom and through extracurricular programming. Specifically, I want to focus on how teachers can build meaningful partnerships with schools from other communities, facilitate discussion and decision-making processes that lead to thoughtful artistic and academic work, and resolve tensions that might arise between students based on cultural differences.
Why did you want to be a teacher? What motivated you to apply for Teach for America?
The Great Recession turned out to be a blessing in disguise for me. After years of studying business, I’d been convinced that I would start a bright career as a management consultant after graduation. But when all of the major firms started laying off their employees as opposed to hiring new ones, I started looking for temporary alternatives. Teach for America was only a two-year commitment, and I’d always been interested in working with young adults. So I signed up.
It only took a few months for me to realize that I wanted to stay in the classroom indefinitely. When my students brainstorm how to make a stop-motion phoenix fly through the clouds (and then execute their ideas with our industrial fan as a makeshift wind machine!) or choreograph and teach an entire dance routine to their classmates, I’m filled with such pride in their accomplishments. There’s not a single day when I don’t look forward to getting up and going to work.
What do you find most rewarding about teaching? Most challenging?
I stay in this profession because my students are endlessly creative and give me a mental workout. Whether it’s comparing Lois Lowry’s The Giver to the Garden of Eden mythos in reading class, or designing a 1920s feminist interpretation of Eurydice in drama class, I’m in awe of what my students come up with on a daily basis.
For me, my schedule has been the biggest challenge. I teach over 330 students, and I only see them once a week. No matter how committed I’ve been to making short films with them or producing a whole-school musical, the reality is that, sometimes, those end-of-year projects just don’t get off the ground. I see my students so infrequently that absences can put a huge glitch in a well-planned rehearsal. One cancelled class period can be the difference between a smooth opening night and an all-out disaster. It’s a tough predicament to explain to students, and some of them always close out the school year feeling disappointed with what we weren’t able to accomplish.
What qualities make a great teacher?
If you walked into my classroom, it might look like low-grade chaos to you. Students are out of their seats. They’re talking to one another. They’re taking materials from the supply closets without asking. But for all of that freedom, there are countless structures and systems in place that enable my students to be successful. Every great teacher needs to be a phenomenal operations manager. You need to be able to plan logistics down to the smallest detail. During my first year of teaching, my desks were organized in rows, hands were raised for every question, and each class had a structured packet. It really helped me get the basics (like classroom management) down. Nowadays, my students have much more autonomy and independence, but that’s because I’ve become a stronger planner, and my classroom systems have gotten much better.
What advice would you give to future Fordham GSE students?
Every year gets easier! I remember working 14-16 hour days as a first-year teacher. It used to take me hours to write a single lesson plan, and earning the respect of my students was a constant challenge.
Now, going into my ninth year, teaching still requires a lot of work — but nothing that I can’t manage during my prep periods. I’m able to have both a personal life and a successful classroom. So if the going gets tough during your first and second years, don’t quit! You’ll eventually hit your stride and never look back.