For the Love of Teaching
My Journey from Graduate School to High School
One day, during my first year of teaching ninth-grade history, a student asked, “Dr. Matro, no offense, but why are you teaching us, when you could be doing so many other things with all the degrees you have?” Another chimed in: “Yes! Why? I’m not kidding, I lie awake at night thinking about this!” What a teachable moment, handed to me on a platter. I flubbed it, I’m afraid. I blushed and mumbled something unconvincing about how there are many factors to consider when choosing a career, eliciting a chorus of sarcastic cheers. Yet there was so much more I could have said—teaching those girls was exactly what I wanted to be doing with my career.
When I entered graduate school 10 years ago, I would not have considered teaching high school history for a second. Although my undergraduate adviser warned me about the academic job market, I was confident that I would end up writing books, researching in archives, and teaching history at a small liberal arts college somewhere in New England. It did not take long, however, to realize how difficult and unlikely achieving that vision would be, no matter how well I did. I began to ask myself whether the academic career I thought I’d always wanted was feasible or even desirable. Was I prepared to move—with my husband and two young children—all over the country, from one job to the next, in the hopes of landing a tenure-track position? While I loved graduate school, I could not justify the sacrifices that academia demanded.
Fortunately, I discovered in graduate school that I loved teaching and that I was pretty good at it. I loved introducing students to new worlds, texts, and points of view, demonstrating the importance of studying history and helping them become better writers and critical thinkers. I poured a lot of effort and energy into teaching and remember leaving campus on Friday afternoons feeling accomplished and happy. When a recruiter from a nearby private high school contacted graduate students in the department, I realized that higher education was not the only place where historians who love to teach might work.
I realized that higher education was not the only place where historians who love to teach might work.
As I was finishing graduate school, I asked for an informational interview with the head of the history department at the school where I now work full time. He encouraged me to start filling in as a substitute teacher. I hesitated at first, anxious about finding the time to write while teaching on the side. I also worried that I was simultaneously overqualified and underqualified. On the one hand, what I’d learned in graduate school surely was “too much” history for the high school classroom. On the other, I had not studied education—I knew next to nothing about classroom management, differentiated learning strategies, or teenagers. I wasn’t sure why I would pursue a career that did not draw on my specific training and for which I had not specifically trained.
I stepped into my first high school classroom one morning in late October that year, with some notes about the French Revolution in hand, to find 19 tenth graders staring at me. My hesitation quickly dissipated. Teaching here would and could draw on my strengths and expertise. My love for teaching and learning would help me acquire the skills that I still lacked. That morning, I asked students the same questions I would have posed to undergraduates: Why does this matter? Why are we studying this? After spending the class unpacking the events, clarifying different versions of the narrative, and listening to students think out loud, I felt energized. Of course, I also struggled that day: two girls seated across the room from each other carried on a conversation using hand gestures, laughing intermittently. Another put her head on her arms and fell asleep. Some of the questions I asked drew blank stares and silence. But I knew these were challenges I could and wanted to overcome.
Almost three years later, I am still learning. I now know more about how teenagers learn. I check to make sure that students are comfortable with me and with one another, and that they trust the classroom to be a safe space for intellectual debate. I think more consciously about what I say and how I say it, and I teach my students how to read and process information. I have become a more patient teacher of writing and cast about for effective ways to teach it and give useful feedback.
As a high school teacher, I also feel a greater sense of responsibility to engage all students and to appeal to different kinds of learners. I know it is up to me to figure out how to have students buy into what I teach. So I try to be transparent about my objectives, explaining to students why we practice so much writing and read difficult primary sources and different texts about the same event. Teenagers might balk at memorization, but they enjoy thinking about the relevance of history to their own lives. I still struggle, however, with pacing class time and finding the right mix of lectures and student-centered activities. When I see my senior colleagues conduct a carefully planned 80-minute lesson without losing a single student’s attention, I am humbled and awed.
I wasn’t sure why I would pursue a career that did not draw on my specific training and for which I had not specifically trained.
Still, I am convinced that my background adds value to the classroom. Studies suggest that the most effective teachers are passionate about what they teach. My students know that I have great passion for history—I devoted almost a decade of my life to pursuing an advanced degree in the subject. They see my face flush with excitement when we talk about interpreting primary sources. My training helps me take the historical details that high school students must learn and draw out the larger questions that historians ask. This school year, I had my students compare different textbook accounts of Charlemagne’s reign—the thought that school textbooks could disagree baffled them. They were motivated by the fact that I was interested in their opinions about these texts, and that I saw them as critical readers not only of primary sources but of narratives. On a good day, students walk out of my classroom feeling like we have accomplished something and, as a result, they are motivated to continue learning. And when my students exhibit the same thrill at discovering stories from the past that I have felt since high school, I feel like I have made a difference and am exactly where I belong.
There are aspects of the job that have confirmed this sense of belonging. I have grown to appreciate the immense value of working on a team of dedicated, bright, funny, and warm colleagues who encourage me when I fail and cheer me on when I succeed. I work a lot every day, but I find the unrelenting pace of the school year, the hard work, and the creative demands of the job exhilarating. Teaching high school history has also pushed me to read widely outside of my field.
Then there are my students. When my ninth graders asked, “Why do you teach us?” they emphasized the word “us” in a way that made clear that they did not think of themselves as deserving objects of my efforts. Part of my role as a teacher at an all-girls high school has been to give teenage girls the confidence to take up more room in the world and, possibly, to change it for the better. Many of my students will not major in history in college, and some may not take any history classes at all. At this point, I could not feel more certain that teaching history to these students is vital. My department chair had us read Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny this summer. In the epilogue, Snyder writes, “To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the cocreator of another. History permits us to be responsible. . . . And to make history, young Americans will have to know some.” This is why I teach history to high school students.
Katharina Matro teaches world history and economics at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bethesda, Maryland. She graduated from Stanford University in 2015 with a PhD in modern eastern European and German history.
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