We, Emily and Noel, interviewed Ms. Owsiany, one of our new Penn fellows, to get to know her better! Here is a transcript of our conversation (portions cut for length):
Emily: How has teaching at HB been so far? How have you enjoyed it?
Ms. Owsiany: Oh, it’s been lovely! It’s been wonderful! I think—my only experience in schools has been coming in from an outside program, so I don’t have a lot to compare it to. But, it seems to me, in comparison to other schools… just how nice the students are and how naturally interested and engaged they are is exceptional.
Emily: Aw, that’s great.
Ms. Owsiany: Also, behavior, and like, classroom management, just don’t seem to be very big problems. The most that I’ve ever had to do in that capacity is be like, “Put your phone away,” and then they would put their phone away, and there’s no more conversation about it. So, I think it’s really great. Yeah, it’s just lovely. It’s a very warm school environment. You hear a lot of people talk about it being like a family, and I think that’s so heartwarming.
…Noel: What is your favorite, or like, a funny memory from teaching here so far?
Ms. Owsiany: Oh my gosh… oh okay, well here’s one that the ninth grade really enjoys: we read this book Nervous Conditions and meat is like this symbol of status and wealth in the book; being able to eat meat is associated with social climbing and also British colonial influence. So we have this character who goes away to a British school and he comes back to his family and he is very rude to them, and then later in the book there’s a scene where part of the family who lives on this British colonial mission brings this huge hunk of meat back home and they don’t have a way to refrigerate it so it goes rotten. So, we were doing close reading of this passage, and we were talking about how—it’s kind of a long story—the meat is no longer helpful or useful in its context in the native Shona culture because they don’t have a way to care for it, so it’s like out of place, it doesn’t mesh with the same culture. And somebody said, “Oh, that’s like this character Nhamo.” He comes back home and he doesn’t fit anymore. So then this phrase came up: “Nhamo is the meat.” And now pretty much most days somebody brings up, “Nhamo is the meat” because that’s our iconic phrase.
So, that has been super fun and funny. I like it because it was very much tied to the literary analysis—I don’t think my classes remember the analytical reasoning behind it…but that makes me laugh. It’s nice that we have inside jokes, I think it’s really sweet!
Emily: So this is kind of switching gears a bit, but why did you want to become a teacher? And kind of when did you know… what inspired you? Loaded question…
Ms. Owsiany: I think I wanted to be a teacher since my first job working with kids, but I was kind of intimidated by it because it’s a very demanding profession. So I actually, during the pandemic, I knew that I wanted, or like needed, to really become a classroom teacher because I was teaching at this creative writing program and we were online. And… it was such a great thing to be able to interact with people as part of my job while working from home; a lot of people are just looking at the screen and doing their spreadsheets, cut off and isolated from the world, so I loved that, but I felt like I just wanted more time interacting with students in more meaningful ways where I was going to be sure that they were making progress and they were learning…. I was in this extracurricular environment, and it was such a gift in so many ways… but there wasn’t a way to really see progress as easily over time or understand the impact you were having on learning.
Noel: Oh, like the instant gratification idea?
Ms. Owsiany: Yeah, I mean, anytime you’re working with kids I think there’s instant gratification. I feel like really that long-term gratification too, you know, being able to have both. Working with kids everyday and then seeing them progress overtime, seeing them every single day—I saw my group once a week, so I got to know them over long periods of time, but not very quickly. So, I just wanted to work with kids more.
I saw, during the pandemic… honestly, I don’t know if other teachers would agree with this because I know it was a very difficult year, but seeing the ways that teachers were able to respond and adapt during the pandemic really showed me that it’s a profession where people are always trying to do the best that they possibly can for the kids regardless of the circumstances. And I kind of wanted to be involved in what was going on in terms of learning how to teach in this new way and make sure everybody got what they needed.
So, that was a long way to say that I really think the pandemic inspired me to take the plunge into something that I was kind of intimidated by but I felt like was really, really important!
Emily: Well, that’s really great!
…Ms. Owsiany: Oh, I’m so glad we’re in person.
Noel: Yeah!… Okay, so just because not a lot of people might know about it, what is the Penn grad program and what’s your favorite class, if you have that?
Ms. Owsiany: This is a difficult question. So, what is the Penn program? The Penn fellows program is called like the Day School Teaching Residency or Independent School Teaching Residency Program, so there are Penn fellows at like, I don’t know, fifteen-ish different day and boarding schools in the United States. So, we’re all over the place. The way that it works is you apply to work at a school and the school hires you as a Penn fellow, and you only have to teach a reduced load of classes. So, I only teach two classes; Mx. K teaches three classes, she’s a second year fellow.
Noel: Do the second years always take more?
Ms. Owsiany: I think so, yeah… so then you teach a little bit more as you go on. And then at the same time, you’re enrolled in the Penn grad program, so the school is also supporting you in getting your education from Penn, which is really wonderful. So, you’re taking classes mostly online while at the same time teaching a reduced load, and then four times a year we go travel either to Penn or to one of the other schools and meet up with all of the other fellows and take classes in person and discuss with them. And you write papers, and at the end of the two years you do an inquiry project where you explore a question about teaching and try something out in your teaching practices and sort of study it and report on it, like a master’s thesis.
…Emily: So about this inquiry, master’s thesis, do you have any idea yet what you might want to pursue?
Ms. Owsiany: No, I don’t, I don’t. It’s still very early, right, I had like two of the sessions, a summer session and then the October session, so I really can’t say at this point. It might have something to do with creative writing, because I love creative writing, or social-emotional learning.
Noel: Wait, you do love creative writing?
Ms. Owsiany: Yeah!
…Emily: What’s your favorite “form,” like do you like writing poetry or—
Ms. Owsiany: Yeah, poetry and flash fiction.
…Emily: Is there a book right now that you are reading or that you would recommend?
Ms. Owsiany: Oh my gosh. I don’t know what I could recommend…. Ok, I will say I am rereading A Burning, which is our 9th grade English book right now, and I genuinely enjoyed this book as a reader when I was reading it, and I, I really would recommend it, I’m not just saying that as the teacher of this class. But also, the author, Megha Majumdar, is coming to campus, I think in December, I’m pretty sure. So, getting the chance to like read this and then talk to her would be really cool, and it’s a very striking depiction of politics in the media in contemporary India in a way that really reflects on what’s happening in America as well. So, it’s very, very good.
Emily: So, about that book, you said that you’re rereading it?
…Ms. Owsiany: Yeah, so I’m rereading it along with my class.
Emily: Oh, I see. Has there been anything different, like have you seen or noticed different things this time when you’ve been rereading it?
Ms. Owsiany: Oh, every time. Yeah, I think teaching a book makes you acquainted with the book in a much, much more intimate way than you would if you were just casually reading it. So yeah, I’ve definitely, I’ve been noticing more specific like repetitions and language choices that come up again and again, and, um, just trying to trace themes… yeah, yeah. It’s also funny because I think about my students annotating and then my own annotations, and I’m like, hmm, how could I make sure that I would give myself an A on annotations?
…Noel: Ok, this is so random. Do you have any pets?
Ms. Owsiany: No. I know, it’s sad. I’m allergic to cats. A cat would be the ideal teacher pet because then you wouldn’t have to be home to let it out, but, I’m allergic.
…Emily: Ok, this is kind of back to, on a different note, but do you have any advice for students who may also be interested in becoming teachers, or is there just anything in general that you would like to let HB and your students know?
Ms. Owsiany: Oh, gosh. Ok, no, I think, this is such a great question. What would I—what advice would I give to my students who would want to become teachers? I would say be a learner. I think that most teachers become teachers because they like learning, and they want to share that. And being a teacher—to be a teacher is to be a learner. It is constantly both at the same time. You need to be interested in learning new things always if you want to be a teacher, because you need to be learning new content all the time and absorbing it, and also, you need to be learning best practices for teaching and how to be a good teacher and what is new in the field, right? So, I would say, being curious and approaching life with like a beginner’s mindset are the skills to develop to be a teacher. Being interested in school, being interested in your independent inquiries or your thesis or whatever you study in college, getting into the content, I think is what leads you to want to be a teacher. I loved English in high school, and studying English in college, some people were like, “oh that’s not practical,” or whatever, but that’s what I was into! You know what I’m saying? And then like, so here we are!
…Ms. Owsiany: What was the second question?
Emily: Is there just anything in general you would like to let HB or your students specifically know?
Ms. Owsiany: Ok, here’s a message for my students specifically because I know interims are really stressful. [This interview was conducted around interims.] I want to see everyone succeed. I genuinely do. And I think in HB in total—HB already knows this, so I don’t need to tell HB—but everyone at HB wants to lift each other up and for everyone around them to succeed and rise together, right. So, that’s already such a part of the community, but that’s my message that I’ll send, just like I want to set everyone up for success, always.
…Emily: Those are all the questions we had, but is there anything else you would like to share?
Ms. Owsiany: Is there anything else I would like to share? Oh, yeah. I like donuts a lot. So, if anyone was wondering about my favorite food….
Emily: Well, when’s your birthday?
Ms. Owsiany: Well, it’s the summer; I’m a Leo, so it’s in August.
Noel: I was about to ask that too!
Emily: Maybe half birthday, there can be something.
Ms. Owsiany: Half-birthday, yeah, that’s my only message. I like donuts.
Thank you to Ms. Owsiany for talking with us! We hope you have a great experience at HB.