Allison Chang (MA ’11) on Anthropology, Education and Teaching in Private Schools

Allison Chang has taught in DC-area private schools since graduating from Teachers College. She studied Anthropology and Education while dabbling in economics, policy, TESOL, and other goings on. Allison has taught a wide range of high school humanities subjects from International Literature to German to Anthropology, and has nine years of experience as a school administrator. Her training in cultural studies means she has always added diversity, equity, and inclusion to her curriculum, in addition to teaching the importance of context, complexity, and perspectives. In an age of increasing “fake news,” her courses also stress careful research, argumentation, and critical thinking. Allison currently teaches U.S. History and AP U.S. History in the DC area. 

You graduated from Teachers College in Anthropology and Education – can you describe a little bit about your background, how you got into anthropology, and what led you to Teachers College?

In high school, I took an Anthropology class as part of this high school program where we got to take community college classes at high school. I didn’t even know what anthropology was, and then I loved it. I had wanted to study International Studies in college, but it is a rare major, so I just decided to major in anthropology because I wanted to study everything. I also did a double major with German Language and Literature, and a minor in International Development and Conflict Management. I originally thought I was going to do the USAID thing and do development, but then I realized I really wasn’t ready to leave the country, and I didn’t feel comfortable working in development if I hadn’t gone into the field. I realized that all of my extracurricular activities had to do with education, so it made sense to go to grad school for Anthro and Ed.

Even though I took Anthro classes, I also took some TESOL, educational policy, and economics classes. I took some classes with Dr. Levin, who’s amazing. I didn’t really specialize, but my thesis was on student politics on campus in the Postcrypt Coffeehouse where they used to have concerts. There was this book about how you can do things and follow the rules or you can pretend that you’re following the rules and secretly not follow the rules. So, I focused on applying that book to something that I was seeing on campus. I also looked at how social networks allow for change and different actions on campus, and how the production of narratives tied in to this political dynamic.

That was your Integrative Project?

Yeah, I mean, I always knew that I didn’t want to get a PhD, so I guess I’m different in that I specifically got my masters so that I could be more competitive for the job market, but also so that I could add some educational expertise onto my existing major. I didn’t go into it wanting to do a bunch of research and to publish.

So you went directly into graduate school with the intention of being more competitive for jobs?

Yeah, and also I just really like learning. So I wanted to go deeper with my studies. When I was graduating, I started applying to all the jobs. I applied to stuff like teaching kids about the water system in New York public schools, I applied to be a Park Ranger – I was applying for all kinds of things. Even now, I’ve never felt that I had to only apply to teaching jobs. I’ve always felt pretty flexible–when I was applying for jobs again the spring of COVID-19, I thought that maybe I would go back into development or do something supporting the education sector. But as of now, I have only worked in schools, and I’m very happy at the school where I currently teach.

During your time at Teachers College, is there any class or professor that was particularly impactful?

Some of my best classes were with Henry Levin in the Economics department. He was a great teacher and devoted so much time to teaching and questions. He would give us super helpful guided notes. I also remember a great Educational Policy in China class with Dr. Mun Tsang. I probably already forgot every paper I wrote. All of my Anthropology professors at TC were amazing intellectuals and I learned new concepts from them, and I felt like I was really challenged for the first time in grad school. I was really asked to learn how to research, process and synthesize. And when I started teaching, I used all of those skills. I definitely didn’t feel like undergrad had challenged me adequately.

How did your graduate program impact your pedagogy?

I would say it translated into my ability to research so that I could plan my courses better and understand the methodology of teaching better. It also impacted how I understood and modified lessons for students with diverse learning needs. I can read and process really quickly, so I definitely leveled up in those skills. I’ve taught all manner of classes, so when I taught English, I’d be like, “Yes, here’s how you do a research paper. Here’s how you do research.” Now I have a really broad range of skills and knowledge. If I had not gone to TC, I would have had a much more basic tool kit.

So do you think that there’s any particular advantage of taking this nontraditional Anthropology route versus a traditional teacher training program?

It’s hard for me to say — I did do student teaching in undergrad. But I feel like you need to learn how to be a well researched person, which I don’t think teaching programs generally emphasize. A lot of the pedagogy courses I took focused on memorizing and regurgitating information about teaching methods, but didn’t dig deeply into things like “What even is culture?” I’m sure different programs vary, though! Being an anthropologist by training makes me ready to tackle a wide range of social situations, like cultural context for parent conferences, and I feel so much more confident going into them – which, as a teacher, is critical.

How is your anthropological training informing those exchanges?

So first of all, I have taught at three private schools and two of them were really small. And one the one I’m at now is much bigger. I taught Anthropology for nine years in my previous schools, but beyond that, I just try to put interdisciplinary things into all my classes. So when I teach English, I always ask, “Why is this entire curriculum Western-centric?” and I’d throw some Native American literature in there, or I’d have my students learn and critique the portrayal of different ethnicities in mainstream America. Or even just have them read poetry from multiple perspectives. And then when I teach U.S. History, I’m paying close attention to how I represent people and I’m pushing my students to reflect on these issues. So, for example, for Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day. So since the beginning of the year, we’ve been revisiting this issue, and I did an “Un-Columbus Day” training with Friends Council on Education. Then, with my students, we analyzed how mainstream America portrays Indigenous people–things like, “What do you call people and what are names people call themselves? Why is that really complicated?” Today, we were listening to a song by Tall Paul, who’s an Ojibwe hip hop artist and we followed up with a contextualizing activity about how Native American is not one group. We had just learned the words ethnocentric, social construct, and structure and systemic in the beginning of the year, so they had to apply them to try to explain this phenomenon. So the way that I approach diversity, equity and inclusion (which has recently become the “it” thing in schools) is just part of my default setting from my anthropological training. But, don’t get me wrong, I still have a lot to learn–I did a lot of research on how can I do a better job of teaching things like slavery and Asian-American activism, because they were outside of my core knowledge base. So a lot of the core vocabulary and concepts of anthropology I’m directly teaching to my students as they investigate U.S. history so that they can have transcultural, transnational analytical skills. I don’t want them to think the whole world’s dynamics are just like the United States’.

Do you ever talk to them about your background in anthropology?

I very regularly remind them that I don’t have a degree in history and that anthropology is my background. When I was in high school, I took two Anthropology classes and my mind basically exploded, so that’s why I’m always trying to get them to look at different situations critically. But they are also still kids, so they can be really playful–they don’t have as much shame or inflexibility as some adults do. They actually really enjoyed talking about taboo subjects in my class explicitly and exploring those topics in more depth.

 That’s phenomenal – I’d love to take your class, haha. Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

I think that anthropology has really fundamentally changed my life in the way that I see things. Especially right now, when I hear all these things happening in the news, I think, if I hadn’t had this training, it would be hard to think about what’s going on under the surface and to have what I call “X-ray vision” about cultural or societal issues. 

 [Allison’s Pro tips for working at private schools: I would highly recommend that people get certified to teach in New York public schools (or any public school system) so they have more options later. It also makes you more competitive in private schools to be certified publicly, just like highly recommend that people knock that out if they can, in their master’s program. But if not, they should definitely look at the associations that schools belong to, the accreditation associations like AIMS or NAIS or Friends Council on Education, because a lot of times jobs will not be posted on the Web site itself for that school. I didn’t apply to nearly enough jobs as a graduate and I didn’t know these organizations could help me find jobs. A lot of the time, independent schools don’t post their job openings on their website.]

Allison has graciously offered her time if any TC students or alumni are interested in working in private schools and have questions, or want more information, about what that process is like. You can contact her through LinkedIn if you are interested.

Interview conducted by: Lizz Melville

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