A Boston College alum, Latin teacher Skye Shirley majored in English but decided to pursue her true passion for the classics. In addition to teaching, Ms. Shirley does her own free-form translations of Latin poems and is currently working on a poetry book about the whaling industry in New Bedford. Her hobbies include sewing, painting, running and participating in Tough Mudders—five to seven mile obstacle courses through mud. For the past five summers, she has been going to Rome to lead various classical tours through the Paideia Institute.
What’s your main goal as a teacher?
The thing that matters to me the most is that every single kid or teenager deserves to have someone that they know is rooting for them or on their team. That’s actually my overall goal as a teacher. I hope that they learn Latin in the process, but nobody can learn Latin if they’re not feeling like they have somebody in their corner who’s backing them up. The biggest thing that I hope people walking out of my classes can feel is, “I might not even believe in myself, but Ms. Shirley’s still rooting for me.” In terms of Latin, I just want them to realize that the more you can access the roots of language, the more it opens you up to learning other romance languages in the future, but also in a bigger way. The Romans are so removed from us, both geographically and in terms of time, that it gives you a really good exposure to people whose beliefs are really different from yours but that you can nevertheless get along with and like. I think it really broadens your horizons in a way that’s really helpful.
What is the most rewarding part of being a teacher?
There are so many rewarding parts. I think every teacher really loves those moments of change, when you can tell that a student goes from, for example, not believing in themselves to really believing in themselves, or feeling really afraid to speak up in class and then starting to speak up in class. I also think it’s rewarding when students can interpret the classics in a new way. And that’s something that everybody does differently. For me, it was translating the poems. But for other people, it might mean doing a sculpture based on classical art or doing an interpretive dance to help them remember a conjugation. I really want them to be interacting with it in a way that is totally unique to them so that nobody else would interpret that sculpture, that piece of art, or that idea the same way. I like when students come in and they’ve done a mythological tree in their free time, or they’ve written a funny skit, or come up with a Latin rap, or something like that.
What was your high school experience like?
It was challenging the first two years. I really struggled with not getting good grades. I was part of that first wave of instant messaging and all that, so I found that very distracting. I’ve also always been a very intense learner, so I would become hyperfocused on things. In my junior year, I actually went to an international boarding school in Switzerland. That was really where I learned how to be a student because they didn’t have grades, they didn’t have homework, but we did go to school on Saturdays. I was so into learning when I didn’t feel like I was being evaluated as not knowing something. I’d always struggled in science, and then I became at the top of my physics class. I knew I was at the top because I was able to lead other students in projects, it wasn’t because I was getting an A. I came back from that really enthusiastic, and then I got straight A’s my senior year. It was a really bumpy experience, but I think it made me realize that a good lesson as a teacher is that just because a student is struggling grade-wise, it doesn’t really reflect what their abilities are or even their motivation. I was a motivated student, I just would get motivated by one thing, and I was supposed to be taking five subjects at one time.