We all have at least one teacher who made an impact on our lives. The one who helped us realize a gift we didn’t know we had, offered encouragement when we really needed it, or coached us along our own journey of self-discovery.
Professor and mom, Amy Monticello is no doubt that teacher for some of her students at Suffolk University in Boston, MA. A tenured English professor, Amy pivoted from a public school teacher career path to academia after her master’s program included teaching 18-22 year-olds the power of stories to challenge stereotypes. She met her husband Jason in graduate school, and they now support each other both as parents to their young daughter Benna and as colleagues in their highly competitive academic careers.
Read more about Amy’s honest thoughts on balancing the demands of career and motherhood, how she’s managed this crazy pandemic year, and what she’d say to the parents of her students if she met them when their kids were little.
Name: Amy Monticello
Current Location: Boston, MA
Education: Bachelor of Arts from Ithaca College, Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from The Ohio State University
Kids: Benna, Age 7
You’re currently a tenured Professor at Suffolk University, can you tell us a little bit about your career path. Did you have any major pivots along the way?
My working life began in high school with retail and restaurant jobs (my father owned a bar), but my postgraduate jobs have all been in education.
When I was accepted into an MFA program, my intention was to be a high school English teacher. But my program came with a graduate teaching assistantship that gave me three years’ experience teaching college students who, in most cases, were striking out on their own for the first time. It put me on the academic path.
My husband Jason and I moved five times between 2008-2014, owing to a tough academic market during the last recession. We bounced between adjunct, non-tenure-track, and visiting positions in Ohio, Alabama, New York, and Wisconsin before landing at Suffolk University in Massachusetts when I was offered a tenure-track job. I had a 2-month-old daughter at the time, and she came to the interview with me.
Your daughter came to the interview? We must know more!
At the time of my campus interview, I was breastfeeding my daughter Benna, so I brought her with me—her first plane trip! My mother met us in Boston and stayed with Benna at the hotel across from campus. At dinner on my first night (it was a two-day interview), the chair of the search committee—now my department chair and friend—asked me if Benna took bottles or if I needed to return to the hotel to feed her. When I told him that Benna did not, in fact, take bottles (she thrust them away with great force), he went through my agenda and canceled whatever he could so that I could go back to the hotel as needed. He even brought my mom lunch.
Academia has a reputation as a punishing industry for new mothers, and when I accepted the interview knowing I’d have to bring Benna, I was resigned to not getting the job. But after that first dinner, I called my husband Jason and said, “OK, I really want this. I’m going for it as hard as I can.” The day I got the phone call with Suffolk’s offer was one of the top three days of my life.
How was the transition to working mom?
The transition would have been even more challenging in a field where I didn’t have as much control over my schedule. To a large extent, I’m able to work my teaching schedule around my daughter’s needs; on the other hand, academic work doesn’t follow a typical 9-5 schedule, which means I work in some capacity seven days a week for most of the year.
My mind is also just a very busy place and I struggle to be ‘in the moment’ as a mother.
I often work at home too, so my daughter sees that part of my life regularly—probably too much. Sometimes, she openly desires more time with me. My mind is also just a very busy place, and I struggle to be “in the moment” as a mother. Balance comes hard in a typical year, but in the pandemic, balance has been close to impossible.
You and your husband have the same career. Can you share more about how you both handled job hunting ? Were there any tough moments?
Jason and I met in graduate school, so when we decided to stay together after graduation, we knew we’d be entering the same competitive field. It was fine for us to apply for the same jobs—our thinking was that with both of us in the applicant pool, we had a better shot at securing at least one more-permanent teaching gig. The other person would pick up supplemental work (adjuncting, editing, freelance writing, etc.).
When I was offered the job at Suffolk, I negotiated for Jason to be hired as an adjunct in the first-year writing program, so for two years, he taught part-time and otherwise cared for our daughter at home, reducing our childcare costs. This is an atypical story in academia—finding work as a couple.
We’ve been together 15 years and our relationship is the center of our lives, the sturdiest thing we can lean on.
Jason had a fundamental understanding of what I needed to do to earn tenure, and he knew the university well himself, so he helped me refine my application materials. He also picked up nearly all the household responsibilities and immediate childcare during that final push before I turned in my dossier. We’ve been together for 15 years, and our relationship is the center of our lives, the sturdiest thing we can lean on. I knew Jason would make sure I went through tenure as supported as possible. That’s one thing I didn’t worry about.
You were recently tenured. Can you tell us a little bit about the process? How did you balance work, tenure, and parenting?
The short and true answer is that I did not balance these things at all! Jason is not on the tenure-track at Suffolk, so our job security partially rested on my getting tenure, which was a six-year process. When we got pregnant with our daughter, we were on semester-to-semester contracts and sort of leaped without a net, knowing deeper job security might never come. So when I did get a tenure-track job—in a city we loved, no less—the job really took priority. Oof, it hurts to say that. I wrote about my life as a working mother at another publication and was frequently slammed in the comments for focusing so much on my career.
I wrote about my life as a working mother at another publication and was frequently slammed in the comments for focusing so much on my career.
In order to earn tenure though, I had to prove myself as a teacher, a writer, and a community member (the triumvirate of “teaching, scholarship, and service” that makes up an academic dossier). This meant saying yes to serving on committees, designing new courses, planning campus events, and otherwise being a “joiner.” It meant writing essays on my phone in the 10 minutes between classes. It was a lot.
In my final pre-tenure year, Benna was aware that I had reached an important moment at my job—a process that would ultimately benefit the whole family—and was a wonderful cheerleader.
When I did take breaks to spend time with my family, I tried to make sure the time was memorable; reading together, doing art projects, going out to restaurants and museums and parks (when those were still places to go), or just talking in a meaningful way about the things that were important to my daughter. We often discussed her creative endeavors, blossoming friendships, and her unwavering love of cats. We watched so many cat videos!
How do you split up family duties? Especially during this crazy year?
We’ve had pretty established roles for years now, so actually, not much has changed this year (one of the only things). Jason has always been the cook; I’m a kitchen disaster. I’m the decluttering master. We both clean. We fold the laundry together while Benna jumps around in the warm clothes.
Our university contracts do differ—mine comes with an administrative position attached—which means I do tend to spend more time on Suffolk stuff at home while he’s doing the work of childcare. It’s understood that he’s Benna’s default playmate. It’s understood that I take the lead on emotional and social matters. He handles doctor and dentist appointments; I manage the playdates.
You’re teaching in a hybrid model, what’s been the biggest challenge this year?
It was very challenging. I had to plan lessons in much greater detail and adapt my teaching to the platforms and software we used. This meant answering questions from students in class, on Zoom, in the chat, and on our course website (sometimes all at once), making elaborate PowerPoints that acted as road maps through class for each day, and finding ways to encourage a classroom community to grow even among students who might never meet in person.
I’m grateful for the technology that enabled us to continue teaching this year to also undergird more accessible education in the long term. A problem I did not have last semester? Attendance! Because students could attend remotely, they rarely missed class as they would when typically navigating commutes, jobs, health concerns, and personal matters.
I worry about how we will address the disparities that a shared environment on campus can sometimes mitigate. But ask students with disabilities and I think you’ll hear that the adaptability required to run courses in multiple modalities often enhanced their academic experience.
So much responsibility has been put on teachers this year–how do you balance teaching curriculum and talking about current events?
First, thank you for acknowledging the responsibility teachers have taken on this year—especially K-12 teachers!
I’m so fortunate that I teach writing courses where the links between readings, writing projects, and current events are organic. We study how successful true storytelling (I primarily teach nonfiction courses) uses its artistry to engage in larger conversations.
This year, I tried to create opportunities for students to reflect on the contemporary moment in their own writing. For example, I assigned my first-year students a digital narrative wherein they compiled and arranged “found” digital texts (photos, videos, social media posts, memes, gifs, etc.) to tell a collective story. We studied hashtags associated with current events, such as Black Lives Matter, to examine the ways many voices join to share complex experiences that affect and represent different communities.
Do your students keep in touch after graduation? Have any shared specific impacts you had on their careers/life?
They do keep in touch! They do let me know when I’ve made a positive impact! I treasure these messages. I also love being friends on social media with former students—not only do I get to see how they’re doing, but I get to hear what they’re thinking. I learn where they place their hope, direct their anger, and spend their energy. They instruct me more than they’ll ever know.
What would you want to tell the parents of your students if you met them when their child was in elementary school?
When our kids are so small, their stories are entwined and sometimes indiscernible from ours. Over time, there’s a natural divergence. Encourage your child to change their own story as they grow.
Amy Monticello Is The Everymom…
Go-to coffee order? Black
Last book you read? The Fact of a Body by Alex Marzano-Lesnevich
Last series you binged? The Crown, Season 4
On your nightstand right now? Huge Contigo water bottle, box of tissues, stack of aspirational books I mean to read instead of watch TV, a bottle of Advil, and melatonin gummies.
My phone is filled with photos of… My hair! I know, that’s so vain. But I’m 10 months into letting my hair go gray, and I’m obsessive about documenting it from all angles.
My ideal weekend is… In a typical year, lots of city walking/exploring, a restaurant or two, exercise, and at least one night where we either see friends or have cocktails at home and dance in the living room.
What’s the best career advice someone has given you? When I was going up for tenure, my department chair took me out for lunch and asked me what I wanted in my post-tenure life. I talked for a long time about work projects before he clarified that he meant what I wanted in my actual life. “Suffolk is your job,” he told me. “Jason and Benna are your life.” I cried right there in the restaurant.
Favorite moment of motherhood so far… Oh gosh, how can I pick? If I have to pick just one, I’ll go with the time Benna drew a picture of my beloved father, who died one year before she was born. She even got his bald head right.