What does life after the Brittain Fellowship look like? What opportunities within academia or in other sectors do Brittain Fellows pursue? And how does the postdoc prepare Brittain Fellows for these positions?
The Professional Development Committee reached out to former Brittain Fellows and other experts to find out the answers to these and other related questions. The interview below — with Stephen Addcox, a teacher and administrator at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta , as well as a former Brittain Fellow — is the seventh in this series and our third interviewee to work as a high school teacher. In part 1 of this interview (see below), Stephen reflects on his current position and his personal experience transferring from the Brittain Fellowship to teaching at a prestigious independent high school. In part 2, which will appear later this week, Stephen talks about working with high school students, mental wellness, and strategies that Brittain Fellows can use to find a new and rewarding career teaching in an independent high school.
Would you mind introducing yourself? What’s your name and what do you do?
My name is Steven Addcox. I work as an AP English literature teacher, which is our 11th grade course at The Westminster Schools. That’s half of my job. The other half of my job now is that I am the student innovation specialist, which means that I work on innovation programming in our makerspace lab, and labs for this focus around student projects.
So, is that half administration, half teaching? Did you ever anticipate that when you started there, it might evolve into that?
Not as quickly as it did, and I didn’t necessarily have an expectation that that would be a trajectory in exactly the way that it just happened. I mean, things with jobs and career are always serendipitous in a way. It just so happened that I arrived on Westminster’s campus right around the time that the school was embarking upon a significant investment in revamping, I guess, remodeling and adding new facilities to the upper school campus, which has been an ongoing effort that started a year or two before the pandemic. I want to say, maybe 2018. Even the year before I arrived, they did a campus master plan, so they brought in an outside contractor to kind of look at the school spaces and say, where do we need to focus our attention to keep Westminster current facilities-wise? The upper school was sort of the locus of that investment, at least initially, because the middle school had been moved into a new building.
In the early 2000s, I want to say, many of the upper school buildings were old because the original buildings that were built when the campus was constructed in the fifties. They’ve been remodeled, I think, once or twice, but not much. That was going on even before I arrived here, and then when I arrived, I started immediately, just as a matter of course, you know, incorporating digital components into my English classes, and that caught the attention of the new head of the upper school, who started the same year I did, and she asked me to serve on a grant committee. We ended up receiving three and a half million dollars from the foundation to support the development of our space over here, and part of that grant went to the creation of three new positions, one of which was mine. So, at that point, I moved into a role where I have less teaching on the English side, but I picked up additional responsibilities in what we call our catalyst lab, which is just basically a kind of a clean lab that has laser cutters and 3D printers in it. We also have some sewing and some basic kind of makerspace materials and then right next door to that we have an eight-station lab.
What kinds of things were you doing in the Brittain fellowship that have prepared you to take on this more hybrid role in your in your current position?
It’s a very good question. I would say, in many ways, the Britain fellowship, and I say this in all honesty, was probably invaluable in lining things up for me, in a way, when I got here again, not because I not because I did it purposefully, but it just kind of worked out that way. I started the fellowship in the fall of 2014 and I stayed until the spring of 2016. I remember when I was on the job market, looking primarily for higher ed jobs, coming out of my PhD at the University of Florida. I had a very good advisor who recommended that we consider private high schools or what we call independent schools, so I always had that in the back of my mind, even when I was at Georgia Tech. But some of the things that I did at Tech that really helped me to be in a good position for where I am now is the whole idea of the integrated curriculum, [which says that] every project needs to be more than an essay and needs to draw on some other kind of medium. So that was very helpful. And I did, quite frankly, more of that when I started at Westminster, because I was coming straight out of the post-doc. I think over the years (in my English classes, at least) I have returned to some more traditional essay writing, primarily, because that is what the students need at this stage. But I pepper in other kinds of multimodal assignments throughout the year, so that’s still a part of my thinking and thankfully, at Westminster, the way that our curriculum works in the English department specifically is that there is some freedom there around what kinds of assessments you’re going to do in any given unit. We do have some curricular alignment, which is probably the thing that, I think, is one of the biggest struggles for people coming out of higher ed, because it means that you’ve got four or five other people, if you’re in a large school like I am, that teach the same class. To some extent, you have to do the same things, and that can be a struggle, if you are accustomed, as I was, to having free rein to design whatever class you want and to just run with it (within reason). So even my department chair can tell you that there have been times when I struggled around this idea of “Why do we all have to be doing the same thing?” And the reality is in a high school, you’re working with parents and so there are concerns around a curricular alignment that are just different.
But to return to how the fellowship set me up. So, the first thing was the multimodal aspect of the curriculum in general. I think specifically it put me into connection with people who are already doing similar work, or who are interested in similar things. The first person I would say is Josh, who lives in Athens now. He and I actually co-taught a number of classes where we looked at video game narrative as a sort of communication form of storytelling. We were thinking about digital storytelling and really trying to dive into that and trying to connect with the resources at Georgia Tech around that area of scholarship. We were able to do a little bit of that. maybe I shouldn’t say this, but there [were] times in the fellowship when I was there that as a post-doc, you can feel a little bit balkanized from the rest of LMC because there’s not a traditional PhD program. And there can be (not with all of the faculty but I think in general) a sense of “These people are here temporarily,” so, there’s not as much investment in them. So, that’s just kind of an institutional reality. But to the extent that we could connect with the resources around video game narrative, we tried to. So, he (Josh) was a very good connection. And then John (who is now at Horace Mann in the Bronx), another person who ended up at an independent high school, was also interested in digital literature. He was a 3rd-year [Brittain Fellow] when we were 1st-years, and so he was someone that we connected with as well. So just making some of those professional connections while in the post-doc, thinking of the post-doc as a collaborative environment was helpful.
I think one of the approaches to the post-doc is “I’m gonna keep my head down. I’m going to teach my classes, but really I’m here to get the book out and get back on the job market as quickly as possible.” That was less my approach, which was more, see who is here, see who I can connect with, see who I can learn from. So, I tended to be more conversational in my interactions with folks in my cohort. There are, at least in my cohort there were, folks who you could collaborate with. And then there are folks who were in, they taught their classes, and they were gone. And you didn’t see much of them. So that was their approach, but that wasn’t what worked for me.
What has your experience with teaching high school been like? Do you love it?
Yeah. You know, there are definitely some changes. If someone goes this route: 1) you’re going to have to come to work every day. You’re no longer on Monday, Wednesday, Friday where you can work from home. The other thing is that there is a little bit more of that in loco parentis. in independent schools that is not as big of a part of your job as you might expect compared to a traditional, massive public school. That being said, if you go the boarding school route, then all bets are off, right? Because then you really are in charge of these students full-time, and there’s going to be other kinds of responsibilities that I quite frankly, do not have very much knowledge of. At Westminster, we have hired out of boarding schools so we will sometimes see people who are ready to come to a day school like ours, because they’re looking for something that’s more of a 9 to 5, well, 7:30 to 3. They’re looking for something that will have less of that 24-hour responsibility that boarding school is going to have.
I think one of the things that you recognize about high school students at a school like Westminster is that they are all very driven. They’re very focused, at the level that I teach, which is juniors, on college admissions. So, they’re thinking about their grades, they’re thinking about their GPA. These are the things that are driving a lot of their concerns. And that could be a good thing because it means that they can be very hard workers. It can also be a poisonous thing in the sense that some people would describe it as “grade grubbing.” I don’t know that that’s necessarily fair. I think it is that there is so much cultural and familial pressure put on these students sometimes and even institutional pressure at a school like Westminster that there’s a lot of stress generated. In fact, there’ve been studies that have shown that when you look at incidences of depression and mental health struggles for teams, there are a number of risk factors. They might be things like substance abuse, but one of the risk factors, I think that is in the top five, is attending a highly competitive and elite high school. So, we see higher incidences of students who have things that are affecting them beyond just the kind of standard academic pressures. Those are things that, as a college faculty, it is not that you don’t care about those things, but I think that end up not being as much of a focus unless it’s brought to your attention. Whereas at a place like Westminster, because you’re dealing with minors, we have a whole system in place. And you’re expected to have a sense of which of students you need to be aware of. So, you do take on a greater sense of oversight with the students.
And the thing that I like about being here too, though, is that you see your students all the time. I have students from my English classes who will come and hang out in our catalyst lab down here and we’ll chat about which are the best songs on the most recent Taylor Swift album, so there’s stuff that you get to do with your students that is more social, more casual, that’s just kind of around the campus. There are things that basically, I had never, ever had happen teaching as a graduate student, or as a post-doc. That just wasn’t my experience with my students before coming here.