Susan Michalski MAT’18
“I am impressed, but not surprised, by the support I received from fellow boarding school teachers — at my school and beyond. They were wise, thoughtful, and humble, and though sometimes I did not know how they had the time do so, they were always willing to help.”
Susan Michalski completed her M.A.T.L. in 2018. She is currently a French teacher at the Williston Northampton School, an independent boarding school in Easthampton, MA. She currently teaches French 2, French 2H, French 3, French 3H, and AP French. She advises 9th graders, and lives with her family in the 9th grade dorm, where she is part of the dormitory supervision team. Sue was initially drawn to MHC’s MATL program because as a veteran teacher, she was excited to be part of the inaugural M.A.T.L. cohort for independent schools, to give feedback on the program, and to help tweak it to better support the unique needs of independent school candidates. Most importantly, as an immersion language teacher, she tries to encourage her students daily to take risks, to move out of their comfort zones, and to try what may not be immediately easy. When this M.A.T.L. opportunity arose, especially with generous support from her school, she knew that her example of going back to graduate school would be more powerful than her words alone.
For Sue, the most valuable aspects of the M.A.T.L. program were her M.A.T.L. colleagues, particularly those in her independent school cohort. She also came away with a much deeper understanding of her position as a boarding school teacher, not simply as a French teacher at a boarding school, as, she realized, she had previously thought. Her most enduring relationships with former students have been formed as much in the classroom as in the dormitory and beyond. She’s always known that the community at her school is the heart of the student experience, but thanks to her time in this M.A.T.L. program, she became more reflective of her 'in loco parentis' role in that community. Sue also added that “I am impressed, but not surprised, by the support I received from fellow boarding school teachers — at my school and beyond. They were wise, thoughtful, and humble, and though sometimes I did not know how they had the time do so, they were always willing to help.”
Of her ability to balance the demands of being a teacher and a graduate student, Sue said, “My 20-year career teaching in boarding schools has meant lots of practice with multi-tasking and having the unexpected be the norm. Both had been extremely helpful during the program. Also, I tried to plan ahead and divide tasks into smaller chunks when possible, and find pockets of time wherever I could (listening to audio textbooks while driving or doing homework during my daughter's sports practices, for example). I also woke up by 5 AM most days and made sure I exercised to stay sane. And, coffee.”
When asked how the M.A.T.L. program had affected her professional role, Sue said, “My role has not changed. I am a teacher, first and always. I cannot imagine not teaching. I am, however, more aware of the pace and demands of being a student. As such, I am more careful than ever to design work and give feedback that is timely, thoughtful, and meaningful.”
Sue wants to do and be her best for her students. She would like to see her capstone project come to fruition in some form. She would love to be involved with coaching/mentoring new faculty at her school, and would love to stay involved with MHC in some capacity.
For her Capstone project, Sue designed a virtual/online Boarding School Learning Community with a mentoring and academic coaching component, which will connect novice and veteran independent boarding school teachers, align with the typical boarding school calendar, address issues which are unique to boarding school teaching, and will be entirely absent of evaluation from supervisors. While some excellent summer boarding school 'boot camp' type programs exist (prior to the start of a teacher's first year), once the school year begins, most are still left largely on their own within their individual school communities, which can be exhausting and lonely. She hopes this initiative will support new boarding school teachers in their first year teaching, help them to develop a support network beyond their first school, and continue any summer orientation work they may have completed.
When asked about the inspiration for pursuing this project, Sue said, “Like so many, I fell into my 2 decades’ long boarding school career. I had no prior experience, was given a full contract, had no formal on the job classroom training, and was blindly tossed into dorm responsibilities. I learned as I went. The shell-shocked new teacher I was is exactly the teacher whom I hope to help through this project; the research I have done suggests that this “trial by fire” training/initiation model remains largely the norm in independent schools. I also believe there is a need for discussing the craft of teaching in the unique boarding school environment. It is not uncommon for boarding school teachers to work as many as 18 consecutive work days at the start of an academic year (between orientations, overnight trips, coaching, dorm responsibilities, teaching, and weekend duties). For a brand new teacher, this may also be when he must plan his first lessons. While a rigorous night and day schedule may be ‘the nature of the boarding school beast,’ I do not believe it needs to be unsustainable for new faculty. My hope is that the collective ‘we’ can draw on our expertise and improve the transition for those on their way up. The rewards of teaching in a boarding school are tremendous, but unfortunately, too many excellent people burnout before they fully experience them. I would like to help change that.” Sue’s coach was Monica Washington.