A Teacher’s Journey to Getting her PhD
“The main driving force in my decision to continue pursuing my PhD after finishing my master’s was that I had discovered a passion for both research and teaching, and I wanted more time to explore both.”
Dr. Caitlin Gaffney is a French teacher at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS), and is now among six faculty members with a PhD.
“I’ve always had an inherent interest in and curiosity about other cultures, languages, and ways of life,” says Gaffney on her decision to study French. “Having grown up in London, Ontario, without the means to travel outside of North America as a child, I was eager to learn about what else the world had to offer. Learning French and Spanish were ways in which I could explore new perspectives and ideas from my classroom.”
In September 2021, Gaffney received her PhD in French linguistics from the University of Toronto (U of T).
“After just a year-long master’s programme, it felt like I was just getting started, so this was the natural progression,” she says.
Gaffney, who also completed her master’s degree in French linguistics at U of T, says it was there that she discovered her more specific field of study, second language acquisition.
“After taking my first class in second language acquisition, I became interested in how one’s knowledge of their first language can either facilitate or interfere with the acquisition of subsequent languages depending on a combination of different factors (e.g. typological similarity between the languages, the specific linguistic structure being acquired, one’s proficiency level), and I immediately knew I would write my master’s thesis in this general area,” says Gaffney.
“When I think back now to my master’s thesis, I find it to be theoretical and esoteric, but at the time it felt like something much closer to what I hoped to do with my studies, which was to contribute to our understanding of how people learn languages,” she adds. “With that goal in mind, I decided I would continue to pursue my doctoral degree at U of T, and to move in an even more applied direction with my research by focusing on how individual differences between language learners can shape the ease and speed with which they acquire languages.”
While Gaffney was already well into her dissertation when she began teaching at SMCS in 2020, she is thankful for the school’s support and the value it places on the continuing education of faculty and staff.
“Knowing that I had found a career and community where I was so well supported and appreciated gave me the ability and peace of mind to divide my focus between my teaching and the research,” says Gaffney.
Teaching and Researching at SMCS
“Dr. Gaffney is only one example of how our faculty brings to life goal-setting and achievement with our students,” says Sarah D’Angelo, Human Resources Manager at SMCS. “Our faculty is strongly encouraged and supported to pursue professional development and educational growth on an ongoing basis. This is one of many ways they demonstrate their commitment to the improvement of their craft as teachers and is an example of a growth mindset to our students.”
“Traits of future-ready leaders include a commitment to being a life-long learner,” adds D’Angelo. “When teachers actively share examples of their own development, it models characteristics we hope our students will practice in their adult lives.”
Since Gaffney’s research focused on how individual characteristics such as personality and intelligence play a role in learning a new language, there are many practical applications to her degree that influence how she teaches in the classroom.
“My research is so easily applied to my approach to teaching,” she says. “For example, my thesis has direct pedagogical implications for fostering the development of second language fluency in the classroom.”
However, it’s not just her research that she hopes to bring to her work.
“When I think a little bit more deeply about how this chapter of my life will influence my work at SMCS, it’s more about the type of mentor I’d like to be,” says Gaffney. “Having had such an excellent supervisor and thesis committee, I simply hope to be able to emulate the way that they are so committed to their professions and so determined to leave a lasting mark on the world through their work.”
“Similarly, I hope to strike a balance between communicating high standards and providing a rigorous educational experience while still being encouraging and instilling confidence in my students,” she says. “I hope that one day I’ll have an impact on my students equivalent to the one my mentors have had on me.”
The Next Generation of Scholars
When it comes to advice for SMCS students and alumni thinking of pursuing their PhDs, Gaffney says it’s important to ensure you pick the right school and the right supervisor for you.
“If you’re going to dedicate such a significant part of your life to this goal, you should be working with the best of the best,” she says. “Just because someone is prolific in terms of research does not mean they will be a good mentor or have enough time to invest in your development as a researcher. There were weeks when I spoke to my supervisor more than my own family, so you want to make sure it’s someone you get along with and can work well with.”
Gaffney also adds that doctoral students must also be prepared to take risks, get rejected, and be aware of ‘imposter syndrome’.
“Resiliency is key — to get positive outcomes, you typically have to endure some rejections and criticisms first,” she says.