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"A Teaching Moment" Interview: Ms. Mastalong

By Kendall Higgins and Jasmine Chen :

“A Teaching Moment,” Episode 1: Ms. Mastalong

AP European History teacher Ms. Kelly Mastalong

Ms. Kelly Mastalong grew up in upstate New York and attended Hartwick College in Oneonta. She received her masters from Tufts and has been a history teacher at Belmont High School since graduating in 2002.

Please note that this interview has been edited for clarity by the Highpoint staff.

Kendall Higgins: What made you want to become a teacher?

Kelly Mastalong: I love the energy of being around not only youth, but a hundred people a day. That was definitely [difficult] during the pandemic, when I couldn’t talk to people – I [realized that] I really enjoy talking. Whether it’s, “What’d you watch last night?” or, “Has anyone tried this new restaurant?”, I just love the energy of students. And I am someone who likes routine, so when I thought about what jobs would offer routine, I thought that working in a school would be really routine. But it was you. When people ask what I teach, I always tell them “kids.” And then I’ll say “history.” But it’s the students, definitely.

Jasmine Chen: When did you start teaching AP European History?

KM: I didn’t start teaching AP Euro until probably ten years ago. I actually taught AP US one year with [the APUSH teacher] and then [the now-director of the BHS Social Studies department] was a teacher, and when she went from teacher to director is when I took over AP Euro. I took it from her.

KH: Some teachers have to create their own stimulus for each class, while other teachers are able to use the class slides of other educators or textbook companies, for instance. So do you think it’s sometimes necessary that certain teachers use other resources since they teach AP classes, and that can clearly take a lot of time?

KM: Yeah, I think a lot of times we adapt. We take what other people have and then still change it. So it’s what I would say is a nice balance, that I’m still putting my own twist on it or I’m still focusing on the things that I enjoy more. But then I still have a slides presentation that I know covers all the main ideas that the College Board wants, especially if I borrowed it from someone else. So there are the main objectives that have to be met, and then I alter what they have to make it much more about what I enjoy, or what I will know will be confusing for students.

JC: How do you feel about the pressures students have to take multiple challenging classes?

KM: I feel like it’s that idea of balance again. I know that our students want to be able to show colleges how rigorous their academic coursework has been. But then sometimes I want to say to you, “Be kids. Don’t take all these APs; play on teams, be a part of clubs.” But it’s easier said than done. I realize that the pressures you all face to get into college are very different from what we had thirty years ago.

JC: Do you as a teacher feel restricted in what material you can teach because of the College Board curriculum?

KM: There are forty million Black people in Europe. They never come up in our course. We have the minorities of, say, Judaism, but how is that the only minority group? Even when Indians come to England, when Southeast Asians come to Europe because those have been their colonizing countries, it barely gets brought up. Basically our whole course suggests that Europe is just white, and it’s not. And the College Board has heard the complaints: add diversity. And their answer is that we teachers can put it in where we want. Well, that’s not comprehensive enough to teach you all. It’s frustrating, because sometimes I want to change things, but I expect the College Board to do it for us. And then when they don’t, it’s hard to support teaching this class because it does not show you the true diversity of even Europe.

JC: How was the switch into teaching amidst the pandemic?

KM: That was horrible. We all know there were things that were easier – we got to sleep later, we could roll out of bed without having to do too much to care for ourselves – but I didn’t like the inability to connect with kids. I could ask you questions through Google Meet, but I couldn’t ask questions about whether you went out last week or whether you went to the dance or how your dog’s doing. And so, it was just really hard to get to know students, or it just felt really superficial, what I did know about them. So it just wasn’t fun.

JC: Some teachers have been acknowledging the difficult transition for us [students] to come back to school. Have you felt the same, as a teacher going back?

KM: Yeah, I would say. Not coming here; [that hasn’t] been the bad part. [It’s] the general sentiment about teachers right now, whether it’s Facebook or the news: we’re not really liked. And so it’s hard to feel like you’re doing a good job by day and then on the news at night, Parents are mad at the school board. [It makes me wonder if] they have any idea what we’re doing all day. And so it just feels like what we teachers know as important – what we care about for you – is not what people in the media are focusing on about our jobs. [They ask,] “Do you teach critical race theory?”, when it’s really, “Do I make connections with kids?” Ask me that first. Ask me if I know my students, ask me if I know how they’re doing; I feel like that message is not out there. But [right now] teachers are not the heroes. [Laughs] We’re kind of villainized. I’ve never felt that telling people I was a teacher was a bad thing until recently. And people will just launch into all the things wrong with American schools, and you feel bombarded and it doesn’t feel as if we have a lot of allies. And I would imagine that students felt that way too. Not my Belmont students, but we’re hearing about walkouts in Quincy, Braintree, even just last week. It feels like that whole cancel culture idea is… ugh, are teachers getting cancelled?

JC: For sure. In English class, we read an article about whether or not Walt Whitman should be cancelled – that is, if we should stop reading his works in class. Do you think learning about controversial figures in history is necessary?

KM: I actually think it is, yeah. You know, it’s fun to think about the people like Marie Antoinette, there’s a lot of fanfare [surrounding her], but she didn’t actually have a huge impact. It’s the philosophers who [contributed ideas] that are still relevant to this day. So, I love to talk about someone like [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau, who’s a nasty person, but then we still think about some of his ideas and they’re super relevant. I think controversy is good, because it’s more important for me to teach you all to be critical thinkers than to just have you memorize things. So I want you to be able to look at somebody and then [evaluate] whether they helped or hurt their country and in what ways. But [those are] the things you remember, I think. The hard people: the people who aren’t easy to fit in a perfect place [as a] good guy [or] bad guy. I feel like those are the things that stick out to you as students.

KH: As you’ve brought up, we’ve seen other schools have their own issues as of late. In Belmont specifically, we’ve also recently experienced our own dilemmas with racism and homophobia. What do you think we, as students and teachers, can be doing to make our school a more welcoming place?

KM: I wish I had the perfect answer for that, because I do worry overall [if] it is because of the pandemic, that we were all in our homes for this long, that all of a sudden this year we’re more brazen with what we’re saying or we’re less tolerant. Or does it have nothing to do with the pandemic, and we’re just angry, rude, intolerant people? It’s easier to be a teacher, because I’m like, “Tolerate everyone. Accept people. Difference is good; diversity is good.” But then I feel like sometimes this is its own little bubble. It’s shocking because I would say Belmont is a tolerant, diverse community that is respectful. But that hasn’t been the message we’ve been hearing from the students recently. As close as yesterday, students were feeling uncomfortable in the bathrooms. And so how do we keep you all safe while at the same time encourage learning? When we hear these awful things happening, you can’t teach a student [who’s] anxious the entire class about something that’s happening outside.

JC: What extracurricular activities did you participate in throughout high school?

KM: So I actually went to a really small school. And when you go to a small school, you get to do anything because there’s less kids to compete with. I played soccer and volleyball, I was in the school musicals, I was in student government. There just wasn’t a lot of competition so you could kind of do it all. All States for chorus; I even played the clarinet – I love the clarinet.

KH: Where is your favorite place that you’ve visited in Europe?

KM: I love Italy, the old and the new in one city of Rome is just so cool. You’re in a modern city with fashion and food and theatre and then you’re in the Roman Colosseum at the same time. And so it’s a cool city to be able to be ultra modern while simultaneously immersed in the ancients. And then gelato is delicious. People were just super friendly too. Rome can actually be super filthy at times, but the people were amazing.

KH: To wrap things up, who was your favorite teacher you had as a student and why?

KM: My favorite teacher was my chemistry teacher, Mr. Guther. He made one of the harder classes more fun. Where chemistry seemed like something really daunting, he brought it down and we were making peanut brittle, slime before it was slime. We actually got to do labs, and that hands-on piece was just so much more interesting. He was also my homeroom teacher for four years, so since I knew him well it was easier. [Now] he’s my Facebook friend. But he made one of the hardest classes enjoyable. Even if you were getting a B+ or an A-, you felt like you learned it and that he was proud of you regardless.


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