Historians in Secondary Education: a conversation with Dr. Shira Kohn (History faculty, The Dalton School, NYC)

August 21, 2019

In this thought-provoking conversation, Shira Kohn (Ph.D.) talks about the rewards and challenges of working as a historian in secondary education. She reflects on what it means to continue contributing to academia in this role and questions how the academy as a whole engages with historians working outside the university classroom. She also offers some crucial guidance to historians considering careers in secondary schools.

Shira finished her doctorate in History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies at NYU in 2013, while also working as an academic dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She later became the inaugural Taube/Koret Early Career Scholar the Center for Jewish History and worked as an adjunct in the NYC area. She has been a member of the History faculty at The Dalton School, an independent school in New York City, since 2017. She was co-editor of A Jewish Feminine Mystique? Jewish Women in Postwar America (Rutgers 2010) and is currently working on her book manuscript, Pledging Allegiance: Jewish Sororities and Civil Rights in Cold War America

Derek: As far as your professional identity goes, how do you see yourself?

Shira:I see myself both as an American historian who studies gender and American Jews, but also very much as a historian who happens to teach in a secondary school setting. When I describe myself to people, I do say "I am a historian," which is central to my job and professional identity. My identity is very much that of a historian.

Derek: How so?

Shira: In my professional life, I am constantly thinking about the content and the craft of history. In terms of whatnarratives should I be aware of and howshould I convey them to people in different contexts. 

Derek: Take us into that context at Dalton then. 

Shira: Dalton's mission is organized around the distinctive Dalton Plan (now in its 100th year): Lab, Assignment, and House. "House" means the student's homeroom and community, which includes faculty advisors, who all get together daily to foster community; "Assignment" is the contract between student and faculty, where I convey what my expectations are of the student, and it's up to them to decide how they want to complete the assignment; and "Lab" is perhaps the most innovative piece, where faculty and students engage with the substance of the course outside of the formal classroom structure.

DerekWhat is it like working as a historian there?

Shira: I was a bit intimidated when I first came aboard as a faculty member. I wasn't sure how I was going to implement the expectations of me. But the Dalton Plan gave me a very clear foundation for how to engage with students in my content area. For me as a historian, it really lays out a way of thinking about what I want students to study and how I want them to study it.

Advising is not something one is trained to do in graduate school, in this case being a faculty advisor to 20 or so students a year from 9th to 12th grade (along with another faculty member). How to co-advise with someone from a different department and twenty different kids was outside of my content area but has become very essential to me as a teacher.As a historian in any secondary school, looking to how clearly defined the mission is and how much they expect their faculty to uphold their mission in the classroom is very helpful.

Derek: How has this influenced your development as a historian?

Shira: It has made me a more energized history teacher on a daily basis. I see my students almost every day, which reminds me why I really wanted to teach and that I am excited to go to work each morning. It has reminded me of the joy of telling stories. I am constantly learning new material, often very outside my area(s) of expertise. I feel the joy of sharing that material with others; and if I don't care, they're not going to care. The environment, the amount of interface with students, and the structure through the Dalton Plan has made me a more energized and efficient historian.

Derek: Are there parts of your earlier professional experience as historian that just do not translate into this secondary school?

Shira: The two hardest challenges are time management and prestige. No one really discusses how difficult it can be to go from making your own hours to being accountable every single day till four o'clock, and usually in the same place. It was jarring. Even though I knew intellectually what I was getting into, experiencing it was different. 

The other thing that really needs to be talked about is the prestige issue. What I do is considered the "alt-ac career path". But I don't see myself in an alternative career. I see what I'm doing as living up to the career that I was trained in, and I think this position is more true to the lifestyle I wanted as a professional.  

I'm a historian. I do very much the same thing that my colleagues in college settings do: I read, I dialogue with my colleagues about what they're working on, I have one foot in publishing and scholarship. I have found it easier to publish with this job than when I worked as an adjunct, and I feel motivated to do so. I can more effectively funnel my thoughts and words into research and writing instead of hours producing job applications and just worrying about what my professional trajectory might – or might not – look like. Instead of thinking about alternative academic careers, I would love to see conversations about what it means to be a historian. I think that collaborating with other historians is the hardest part of this position. I see myself as a historian, but my colleagues don't necessarily. For instance, people are sometimes surprised to see me at scholarly conferences, and they often don't ask me about my research anymore, assuming that I am no longer engaged with it.

Derek: How could that conversation and dynamic change?

Shira: Just as societies and journals have started to think more about gender diversity and rank, for instance, I think it's vital to do outreach to people working outside of university contexts. For instance, within the Association for Jewish Studies, one of the learned societies in which I am active, the editors of the magazine, Perspectives, have begun asking for lessons plans and personal essays from contributors, including those not in university positions. These writings and teaching materials can be really instructive to members across sub-disciplines and professional work in the organization, including scholars in university settings. Who teaching history, whether global history or something more thematic or geographically-based, wouldn’t enjoy seeing a new lesson plan on American Empire or Mao's Long March? There may be something pedagogy that can be applied in their own teaching context, even if the content doesn’t overlap. I believe other magazines and more informal periodicals from learned societies are soliciting and publishing similarly diverse material. It better reflects the realities of what its members are creating and utilizing in different professional settings related to a particular field.

Societies can encourage diversity of professional setting on panels, explicitly asking for historians teaching outside of university settings, including as moderators or chairs. This reminds historians of the validity of colleagues working in other settings. It also gives people not in university settings the opportunity to opt out, rather than assuming that they are not interested or don't have a research agenda anymore.

In the past two years, a journal which I regularly read and have contributed to as a reviewer published a special issue on a topic directly related to my research. However, I didn't submit anything, as there wasn't explicit language encouraging people from different professional settings; in fact, the wording suggested the opposite, especially when “university affiliation” is listed as a requirement. When I don't have a college or university affiliation, I assume you don't want me to apply. Such changes, it should be noted, are all literally a budgetary zero.  

Derek: I hope that societies and journals hear that important message. Could you tell us about the courses you teach and the sort of learning objectives you aim for with your students--as well as the goals you set for yourself as a teaching historian?

Shira: I teach the common sequence, a three-year global history curriculum, plus senior electives based on my interests as an instructor. I think about content and skills. For content, that includes big ideas and how they manifest across the world. Everything is team-taught with my colleagues, so we teach the exact same sources. So, for example, we can't just teach about the Industrial Revolution in Britain, but must also ask why did it not emerge in China; or, how it reverberated around the world. We keep on making connections. 

DerekIs high school history instruction inherently just more global?

Shira: It's mandated in most states that some aspects of the high school curriculum be more “global,” at least to some degree, which is where I felt least prepared as a historian. You cannot be an expert in World History, so it's both the biggest challenge and an exciting opportunity as a secondary school teacher. 

Then it comes down to skills, and it's much more clearly defined what you need to do. We are constantly thinking about how to match up skills and the content we're presenting.

Derek: Could you tell us more about the collegial aspect? This might feel unfamiliar to historians who have only taught in universities.

Shira: We depend on each other. We cannot complete our core curriculum without each other. So, we have meetings throughout the year where we discuss which assignments make sense, or whether we should we change things going into next year. Whereas, in the university, your content is your intellectual property, you feel proprietary about it, and you are expected to craft everything by yourself.

For myself, I have two broad goals as a teaching historian. As I had no formal training in pedagogy, each year I experiment with new pedagogical models. For instance, in one activity I had each student become a Progressive reformer, and I acted as President Taft in a simulation meant to challenge students to consider what is meant by “progressivism,” and to what extent the proposals under consideration constituted what they deemed as “progress.” These are new techniques of classroom teaching to me, and each year, I try to broaden my toolbox. I also try to learn new material outside my interest, so that I know cutting-edge research in World History and find new scholarly resources and primary materials to bring into the classroom each year.

With the senior electives, it feels much more like a university seminar, based on my research interests. I've even taught my own scholarly article to students, so I get to share my work and interests with really good students.

Derek: So what have you learned through your mentorship of students?

Shira: I've learned to place much more of an emphasis on holistic learning and getting to know the students--to see where they are as scholars in training, but also who they are, and how I can use their interests to motivate their learning. The motivations of students are very different than in college. The stakes are higher in that it determines where they go to college. They really really want to do well, and in any case, they pretend to care. 

But students in high school require a lotmore scaffolding for skillbuilding. It's really about breaking down each skill into pieces, building them, and repeating over and over again. Secondary school teachers need to know how adolescent brains work: they can be irrational, impulsive, and extremely stressed. You need to understand adolescence, as well as appreciate the homework they have in seven subjects, their sports schedules, social media...how that affects them. I as an advisor need to help them navigate all that. And ideally, help them become self-advocates by the time they enter college!

Derek: As a last question geared toward historians who might be considering careers in schools like Dalton, what does it take to excel there that a historian trained in an American Ph.D. program might have missed? What is the skills gap? Or, to ask the question from another vantage point, what would you want from a colleague, or what would Dalton want from an employee?

Shira: You need to have flexibility in terms of content you will be teaching. You need to be willing to say: I've never thought of Latin America as a teaching topic, but ok, I will. The same goes for trying out new teaching techniques. You also need to be collegial, as it is much less siloed than a university. And you need to be amiable. Students don't need to love you, and you don't need to be an extrovert, but students need to trust you and know that they can turn to you. Also, consider what advising roles could you fill. Sports, music, languages, etc.; it always comes up in interviews, and you need to convey that you’re someone who is not just a classroom teacher, but invested in the school more generally.

For graduate students: take history classes outside of your topics of interest. Become comfortable being uncomfortable with content, because that's what secondary teaching is. And substitute teach! If you are at all interested in secondary teaching, see if you like it. And if you're not cut out for it, you can exit. You can look for what certification there is for public schools near you. Sometimes certification can be cost-neutral for public schools if you're in a graduate program. Find out for yourself: Can I hack it Monday to Friday? And find out before you are dependent on earning an income. 

Derek Kane O'Leary is the 2019-2020 AHA Career Diversity Graduate Fellow in the Department of History at Berkeley.