Nicole Callahan: Destiny, Legacy and Literature

| September 15, 2010

Nicole Callahan is a high school English teacher living in Hermosa Beach, California. This fall, she returns to Columbia University as a Zankel Fellow and Doctoral student in the Teaching of English Department.


You attended Columbia University as an undergrad. What is most exciting about returning to your alma mater and New York City?

There is so much that I loved about Columbia and NYC. I am just thrilled to be returning to a community of thinkers,  seekers and learners.  Many of my memories of Columbia involve being pushed by my peers and professors to be the smartest, most dedicated, most thoughtful version of myself, and I cannot wait to return to that ambience of excellence.  I love the vibrancy and diversity of the community at Columbia as well. Growing up in Santa Barbara, I was not often exposed to people from backgrounds differing widely from my own.  When I got to Columbia, my eyes were really opened to the vagaries and verities of human experience, and I grew to respect and love and cherish the lessons I learned from the people sitting next to me, not just the professors in front of me.  I think that being at Columbia made me aware of and grateful for the quality of the education I was receiving. It heightened my sense of duty to use my gifts to positively influence my community.

What inspired you to become an English teacher?

My parents met in a Shakespeare class in college, and I think my fate was set there in Professor Swander’s class at UCSB.  In the hopes of creating a well-educated and well-adjusted child, my parents read me bedtime stories from Bernard Miles’ Favorite Tales from Shakespeare.  It wasn’t until years later that I told my mom I used to sleep with one ear on the pillow and one ear covered by the blanket because I was far more afraid of Claudius than I was of any unknown monster under the bed.

Beginning in about sixth grade, I begged my English teacher mother to let me help her grade her quizzes and organize her papers.  In junior high, I started saving every English handout and assignment; I thought even then that I might use them in my own classes someday.  When I think of my friends in law offices or in surgery, it seems like a world away.  Nothing appeals to me more than sitting on the edge of my desk, communicating my love for literature to a class of inspired minds, and learning from them just as they learn from me.

Your mother has worked with Sheridan Blau over the years at the University of California, Santa Barbara. What do you look forward to learning from him?

I don’t think that I can adequately express how excited I am to be working with Sheridan Blau.  I think it would not be hyperbole to say that when my mom met Sheridan, he profoundly affected the trajectory of her life, and therefore, of mine as well. Not only did her time studying with him affect her as a teacher, but it affected her as a thinker, and I’m certain those habits of mind changed the way she raised me, both as a person and as a teacher. I joke with my students that biology is destiny, and since my parents met in an English course in college, I had to be an English teacher; however, when I make such a joke, I’m actually quite serious and incredibly grateful.

I was raised to love literature, to read voraciously, to think independently, and to question until I was satisfied with the answer.  Although I grew up hearing the name Sheridan all the time, I didn’t really begin to feel the reality of his influence over my life until I became a teacher myself.  Attending conferences and hearing his name uttered with reverence, I knew that his ideas were important. The first time I sat in a room and had him put me through a Literature Workshop, I was able to reflect on the many forces that had made me into the thinker and teacher I was on that day.

I was lucky enough to be born to a person who had studied with him, I was lucky enough to be in the AP English class of a friend and colleague of his, David McEachen, and I was lucky enough to find a profession that I truly love, but it isn’t luck that brought me to Teachers College.  It was a conscious decision on my part to want to become the very best teacher I can be, and I know that the person who can help me along that path is Sheridan Blau.   The thing that I have learned most from him is how to listen to students. Watching him in a workshop, he has a way of validating the ideas of participants, be they students or teachers, and yet simultaneously leading them to deeper clarity and thoughtfulness with their own ideas; his ability to encourage metacognition about the process of reading is a skill I hope to cultivate in myself, and his work to put the responsibility for thinking and learning in the hands of the students is a technique I try to enact in my own classroom every minute of every day.

In what other ways have your parents’ work as educators influenced you?

From an early age, my parents taught me to care about and to love literature, and my time in the classroom has taught me to care about each and every student, particularly those who frustrate me the most. It took my father a long time to find his vocation, but he found it in teaching. He has always been motivated by a search for social justice, his office bookshelves filled with books by Morris Dees, Parker Palmer and Paulo Freire, and his ethic of teaching tolerance influenced me to try and bring education and care into schools that need it most. I think that I have made great progress towards my goal of always teaching from an ethic of caring, but I believe that in order to truly become the best educator I can be, I have so much more to learn. 

Do you see your work with Reading and Math Buddies fitting into your vision of social justice?

I absolutely see working with Reading Buddies as an opportunity to work as a social justice educator.  I think that it is the obligation of an institution with myriad resources to use those resources in any way possible to help in a community, and not just in eventually creating educators with skill and compassion, but in using those educators in all phases of their own development to institute their own visions of social justice education.  I also think that, in my mission to become a better teacher, I can’t totally remove myself from the classroom and just think about teaching.  Although I am leaving a full-time teaching position, I think that continuing to have a place to practice my ideas, to test myself, and to create opportunities for the trial and error of my own teaching and learning is incredibly important.

You’ve been a teacher for over five years. How would you describe your experience as a teacher at Marymount, a Catholic girls’ school in Los Angeles?

Marymount was a refuge for me when I first arrived, seeking sanctuary from a painful and frustrating first year of teaching.  I left Columbia with a fire and a desire to bring great education to kids who needed it, and the fire was dampened almost to extinction by my inexperience coupled with the sad and frustrated state of affairs in two struggling public schools.  Marymount has been a home, and a safe place for me to grow as a teacher.  However, like all sanctuaries, the time has come for me to go and be more challenged and more independent.  I had an incredible amount of support there, for which I am grateful: I would not have grown into the teacher I am without the wisdom and help of colleagues I value and will miss.  But right now, I feel that to truly fulfill my vocation, I need to be back in the classroom as a student for a time, and TC is the perfect place for the quest I am now beginning.