Elyssa Michael '10

What is your current occupation, and where are you located? 
I am the Chair of the English Department at The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, CT. Ethel Walker is an all-girls independent school, grades 6-12. I’ve taught grades 8-12 and this year I’m teaching 9th, 10th, and Advanced English.
 
What do you like about the work you do (or what are you most proud of)? 
I get to talk about books all day! It’s amazing! I love the work I do - teaching is hard but it is really fulfilling. I live for the moments when I can see an idea-epiphany light up a girl’s face; the “oh my God, I GET it!” moment. The girls do most of the work in the classroom but facilitating their learning and helping them in the right direction is such a fun and complex dance every day. I think I’m especially proud of working with my classes to build an atmosphere where the girls take the lead in discussion each class and are willing to be challenged by difficult texts. For the past two years I’ve read Toni Morrison’s Beloved with 10th graders which maybe seems like an insane idea but my girls have been incredible with such an emotionally and formally complex text. They have learned to take their time with intricate language, and I really feel we are expanding our “emotional IQ’s” / ability to empathize each day. As a Department Chair, I love working with my outstanding colleagues who are passionate about their field and about educating young women. Truthfully, I am just the voice for a department that is chock-full of brilliant minds. This year we all collaborated on and introduced a World Literature course that will use texts from all over the world to help make our already international student body even more globally conscious. We are also working on a half day, school-wide Global Theater program where each grade level will perform a scene from plays written around the world. It’s going to be a lot of work but we’re all very excited. There is always space to try new things where I work, which is great.     
 
Did you know, when you graduated from Trinity, the direction your career would take? 
Yes I did. When I entered Trinity, I thought I wanted to be an archaeologist and I took a lot of Classics classes and even went to Greece with a Trinity professor for a month to work at a site. I loved the work but realized the highly mobile lifestyle might not be what I ultimately want in life. I always loved my English classes, and with the Guided Studies program, I had the privilege to learn with Sheila Fisher and Milla Riggio which only cemented the idea that I was never happier than when discussing literature. I always felt I would have an academically-centered career but I knew I simply had to be a teacher after a meeting with Professor David Rosen in the fall of my senior year. I was working on my thesis which focused on three Modernist texts; Professor Rosen was on sabbatical that year, but he came up to campus for meetings and agreed to meet with me, too, to help me flesh out my idea. We met for much longer than he probably anticipated but our conversation was so stimulating and exciting I didn’t want to leave. On the way back to my Crescent St. apartment (RIP), I called my mom and left her a 3-minute voicemail in which I told her that I knew I had to continue to have conversations about books like the one I had just had with Professor Rosen in order to be a happy and fulfilled person. I loved the whole English Department at Trinity so much and felt so alive when in conversation with any of my professors that I knew discussing literature needed to be central to my everyday life and that meant pursuing a career in teaching.

How do you think being an English Major prepared you for the work you are doing now? 
Being an English Major absolutely prepared me to be an English teacher. I teach several of the books I studied at Trinity and I look back fondly on my college class notes from time to time (especially now that I’m teaching World Literature and we’re starting the year with a novel I read with Okey Ndibe in an African Literature course - I needed to brush up on my colonial history). I was fortunate to realize that I was going to pursue a career in teaching early on in my senior year so that, after that, I not only sat in my classes thinking about the material we were covering but I also watched my professors and thought about how they were teaching. I was incredibly lucky to have Professor Christopher Hager as a thesis advisor and professor in my senior year and I learned a lot from him about wait time and how to ask questions. I think learning to ask good questions is the best skill a teacher can have and as far as I’m concerned, Professor Hager is the master. I often try to channel him when I’m facilitating class discussion, and I always remind myself that good things are happening just as much when the room is in thought-filled silence as when the girls are excitedly shouting out answers.

If you could give one piece of professional advice to current English Majors at Trinity College, what would that be? 
Be a teacher! Just kidding - it’s really hard, only be a teacher if you really want to be. But know that there are tons of things you can do with an English degree besides teach. If nothing else (and, believe me, we learn a lot of things from the wonderful English Department at Trinity), English teaches us how to be better people, critical thinkers, and problem solvers. Those skills are infinitely transferable. Don’t let anyone tell you that an English degree can only get you communications jobs or publishing jobs or jobs like those if those fields aren’t what you want to pursue. You have been trained to think, and question, and puzzle out answers and you can use those skills to do whatever you want.

Last question: you have two hours here at Trinity College (we’ve beamed you in using special technology)—how are you going to spend your time? 
This is hard because there is so much I would want to do. Mostly, I would want to sit and chat with the professors I had and hear how they are and what they’re working on. And eat a Bistro grilled cheese, for sure. One of my biggest regrets from Trinity is that I never took Professor Lucy Ferriss’ sentence diagramming class so if she were around I might beg her to offer it so I could take it as part of Trinity’s Alumni Audit program (I’m really serious about this, I check the course offerings every year just in case).