Name: Yom Odamtten Fox
College & major: Scripps College, B.A in Multicultural Studies with a concentration on Education (self -designed major)
Graduate school & Concentration: Teachers College, Columbia University, M.A in Teaching Social Studies, M.ed in Private School Leadership
Current Occupation: High School World History Teacher and Global Initiatives Director at The Dalton School.
When did you decide that teaching was your passion? I am passionate about helping students find their own voice. For me, finding my voice came through classes and interactions with teachers. I can name all of my teachers from nursery school through graduate school. I think they all loved teaching and shared that with me; even the ones I didn’t like. When I am in my classroom, my goal is to give students the tools to express themselves. That is what I love about my job. On the other hand, my job is an exercise in patience. Often there is no instant gratification, it can take years for something I said or did to make a difference in a students life. Teaching allows me to support the personal growth and journeys of others.
How did you pursue it? I think that teaching is in my genetic make up. My parents are both educators, my father is a professor at Hamilton College and my mother runs a childcare center. I wasn’t “sold” on education as a career path, but I decided to apply to graduate school for education and then defer while I taught for a year. My plan was that if I still liked it, then I would go to graduate school. In college I designed a Social Justice Studies course that was a big catalyst, and then I started teaching 6th grade. This experience made me realize that I was better suited for high school (they still cried in front of the teacher! As a 22 year old that was scary!). I loved teaching high school and went on to Teacher’s College at Columbia University for my Masters in teaching Social studies and later earned a Masters in Private School Leadership.
Did your college major influence your career field? How? My major definitely influenced my career. One of the great things about Scripps College is that students are allowed to design their own major. I thought I might be an English Major- but i wasn’t thrilled about the traditional literary canon, so I thought about being a History Major- but wasn’t sure where or when I would focus my studies. Then I went to an event where food was being served (a piece of advice: when you are in college, always go to events where there are formal dinners!) and started talking with an art professor. I told her about my course work and how I was undecided about my major, and she said “Why don’t you create your own?” All of a sudden it clicked: I took psychology, sociology, history and English courses. I was also able to take some graduate level education classes and it just came together!
What do you love most about being a teacher and the age group you work with? I currently teach 9th grade, and at first I hated it; I only wanted to teach juniors and seniors. But something amazing happens during the 9th grade year- the kids develop personalities; they remember to bring their books to class; they do their homework; and without even realizing it, by the end of the year they are young adults. I am always so proud of them at the end of the year when they write in complete sentences and they can analyze primary sources!
Do you face any obstacles in your field as a woman? I am a (relatively) young woman of color who teaches history in private schools and is also an administrator. HA! There are so many layers to the obstacles that have come up during my career. Some stats: around 15% of teachers in independent schools are people of color, about 10% are administrators, so I am in the minority on a daily basis.
One of the bigger challenges about my job is dealing with the criticisms of parents. If a parent complains, is it because of my race? My gender? My age? My first year of teaching I wore high heels every day to make myself look older. At “Back to School” night I ALWAYS lead with the fact that I have two masters degrees. Now I also talk about my children. My first few years of teaching I was constantly being told that I needed to be less assertive with students and one parent called me a “totalitarian dictator,” so I was stigmatized as the “angry black woman.” I was asked about curriculum decisions that had nothing to do with me, and I was constantly being challenged and questioned. At a certain point I started getting better about filtering some of those criticisms out. I was hired. I got the job. I deserve to be here. End of story.
Luckily, I work at a school where there is a gender balance in the department, so I think that helps my professional interactions. A lot of my colleagues are older than I am, so they have been teaching a lot longer and know more, but as a teacher we are all life long learners. I bring a particular skill set and historical context and content to the table. Another thing that I like about my job is that teachers control the curriculum, so we are able to bring marginalized voices to the table. We spend time unpacking primary sources for their biases, we try and look at other ways of telling the story of people who perhaps did not have a written language, etc. Having this ability is what is great about working in an independent school.
What advice would you give to girls considering a career path in education? It is often a tireless and thankless job. As long as you know this going into it, you are good to go! That, and the idea that you have “summers off,” is only partially true when it comes to your time.
What would you wear to a job interview? Something that you can’t see me sweating in.
Any favorite websites particular to your field? In all honesty, Facebook!! I am up all hours with my children and looking at what friends post is great. I am friends with lots of teachers and people who are passionate about all sorts of things; they post great articles that I am able to tie into my World History course and lots of great reading for my civics courses.
Looking back, what general life advice would you give to your former high-school self? Everything you need for a good life, the best life, is already inside of you. You don’t have to spend so much time looking around getting validation from the outside. We are always changing and evolving; this doesn’t mean that it is painless and perfect. But in the end you will be where you need to be.
Any other relevant info or words of wisdom: Sometimes being a listener is the best way of being a friend and ally…and with that I will stop talking!