April 11, 2022

Spotlight: Steve Cirrone

Interview by Holly Eva Allen. PFF Fellow. Student in English. School of Arts & Humanities.

Steve Cirrone is a full time professor of English at Sacramento City College and has been teaching for over 30 years. For 17 of those years, he taught English at Sacramento City College. Dr. Cirrone has a PhD in English from Claremont Graduate University (previously Claremont Graduate School). He has a BA in English and Russian from SUNY Binghamton. 

“…seeing your students learn and enjoy the process is so meaningful. I can’t imagine my life without the connections and experiences I’ve made with my students.”

You not only became a professor after completing your studies, you also went to CGU. So, how did you like your time at CGU? How did CGU specifically affect your learning and career?

Well, it was called CGS at the time. Claremont Graduate School, not Claremont Graduate University. So, I often still call it CGS. During my time at CG…U, I didn’t really know if I wanted to teach or not. But at CGU I met some amazing professors, some amazing people- Constance Jordan, Marc Redfield. I just met some inspiring professors and I realized that I may want to pursue the same career.

However, it wasn’t until I was able to teach a class at Mount San Antonio, to really try it out, that I realized I wanted to teach. I had a wonderful teaching experience there and that’s the main reason why I’m doing what I’m doing. I needed the in-classroom teaching experience to realize that and the experience I had at CGU was life changing. At the time they had an expedited M.A. program so I was able to get my M.A. in one year and started teaching at the age of twenty-two. 

How did you end up teaching at Mount San Antonio?

Well, Constance Jordan was the one who recommended that I try to teach at Mount SAC in the first place. I was just this young person who showed up at the English department at Mount SAC. As I walked into the office of the English chair at Mount SAC, she was just getting off of the phone. The last thing I heard her say on the phone as I entered was “what do you mean you can’t teach that class, it starts next week”. So, as soon as she addressed me and asked me if she could help me in anyway, I said “yes, I’ll teach that class”. 

Wow- that’s amazing! What specific course was it and what about that class made you realize that you wanted to pursue teaching? How did it change your views on teaching?

It was just a standard freshman composition class, what most students take when starting out. The conversations I had with the students really stood out to me. We would take about everyday things, life, their struggles. We were able to form a great connection. 

There were challenges, of course, but in general I never felt as though I had to assert myself as a professor or artificially distance myself from them. Since I started teaching at a younger age, I adopted the persona or outlook of someone who was going to help them through their class rather than coldly instruct them. That’s the sort of the philosophy that stayed with me. I like to approach students as someone on their level rather than constructing a wall between us.  

As I’ve gotten older, things have shifted a little bit as they likely view me differently- I am now old enough to be their father. However, I still prefer to speak to students as intelligent people that are deserving of kindness and respect. I’ve seen the positive response that I’ve received getting closer with my students and ultimately found that many of these students were craving this kind of honest, open connection with their instructor. Many of them were likely “taught to” in high school and beyond rather than having an instructor who had open conversations with them. This is what I aim to do – to have these open conversations, to discuss a text with students as equals. This helps foster trust rather than creating a false or stilted relationship with students.  

I think that a professor who is not willing to treat their students as equals, who is not willing to be somewhat real or vulnerable with their students, is going to have a hard time helping them learn anything challenging or of value. Ultimately, I think this is a requirement of being a good instructor or professor- the willingness to be real or vulnerable. 

When you first started teaching were there any unexpected challenges that you didn’t know would be part of the job?

Yes. While I wouldn’t say I’ve ever had a student with “behavioral problems”, I have had students express anger or even walk out of a classroom. This has happened only very, very rarely but these personal interactions between myself and students were something I had to learn to navigate on my own. Because I have primarily taught at community colleges, many students I’ve had were not prepared for college or knew what to expect. So, there were lots of unexpected frustrations there. I think if I had received some sort of instruction on how to best handle interactions with frustrated students, unprepared students, students with special needs, and even how to manage a classroom once it has already become unruly, then both myself and my students would have benefited. 

Did you have any specific professors or instructors that influenced you. Besides, we’ll say, Constance Jordan influencing you to teach at Mount SAC. 

There’s a number of people that come to mind but the first is Doctor Huybenz. She was my AP English teacher in high school. She went by the moniker “Doc” and she first helped me find my love of English and it is in her memory that I now go by “Doc”.  

All throughout high school I did very well in English but I hadn’t yet found a real love for literature. I didn’t find it until I took AP English Literature with Doc Huybenz and she taught me how to really appreciate what I was reading. The reason this love started is because although I had very good teachers in high school, Doc Huybenz treated us almost as equals and talked with us. This is how I learned how to treat my own students as respected equals.

I also had a Shakespeare professor in college who went by the name of Big Al Tricomi. Big Al taught Shakespeare in a way that seemed relatable. It wasn’t stuffy or outdated; it was drama and action that could be related to what we students went through. This was another important element of teaching that I’ve found helps me even now- to make what the class is reading more relatable, more accessible. 

What advice would you give to someone looking to teach?

I think the most valuable thing I could say to someone starting out is that you should just try to be honest or be yourself in the classroom. From my experience, students can tell when a professor isn’t being honest with them or is too caught up in the façade that may come with a position in academia. Students don’t appreciate a professor being too distant to see them as equals.  

Creating a collective experience and atmosphere in a classroom, one of support, respect, and acceptance of different opinions, is so crucial to learning. Besides, seeing your students learn and enjoy the process is so meaningful. I can’t imagine my life without the connections and experiences I’ve made with my students. You were in my class ten, fifteen years ago? And now here we are having this conversation. You and I will always be friends, we will always know each other. These honest, respectful relationships are conducive to learning and so valuable.