Get to Know Your Teacher: Ms. Breen


Ms. Breen, ready with a red pen.

What is your full name?: Elizabeth Ellan Breen. I was named after both my grandmothers, Elizabeth on one side and Ella on the other—but my parents added an ‘n’ to Ella because, by that time, my grandmother had done the same to her own name.

Where did you grow up?: I grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, a suburb of DC.

Where did you go to college?: I went to Wake Forest University.

How did you start working at Hammond?: It was a very strange series of events. After I graduated from USC, I spent a year as an adjunct professor of English. I was teaching mostly college freshmen. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t a very stable position—classes were often assigned a week before the semester began. I was considering what I wanted to do next, and I had a friend who was substituting here. I kind of thought that substituting would be a good stop gap while I looked for a new job. I think I was also, at least subconsciously, interested in knowing if I would be a good fit for high school students. I came in to interview as a substitute teacher and it turned out, as luck would have it, that there was an opening that year for an English teacher. So, Mrs. Bickley, who was the Upper School Head at that time, said instead of interviewing as a sub, you should interview as a full time English position. I did, and I got the job, and I have been here ever since. What I thought was going to be a temporary position as a substitute has turned into seven years, and the start of my career as a teacher.

After this year you’re moving to Mexico. What are you most excited for?: The food! I love Mexican food in general, but Mexico City is a premiere city for inventive and interesting restaurants. It’s the largest city in North America, and bigger cities tend to cultivate a more competitive restaurant scene. I’m really excited about the food, if you can’t tell. I am also excited for the adventure. Learning a new language, getting to know a new place, it’s all feeling very adventurous, and I’m very excited for that.

Are you feeling scared at all? I’m probably feeling what many seniors are feeling right now. Excited and anticipatory, a little bit nervous, and a little bit of feeling like I am trying to take it all in while I still can. I feel really ready for the next chapter, but it is bittersweet.

What is your favorite food in the Dining Hall?: I really like the chicken wanton salad. I have mixed feelings on salads for every meal, but the chicken wanton salad is one I always look forward to.

Favorite color?: I really like a deep blue-grayy. Not navy but like a dark duck’s egg blue.

If you could trade places with a teacher for a day, who would it be? Dr. Ruehlen already has dibs on Mr. Manke [from our most recent interview], so I would trade places with Chef David. I think it’d be really interesting to see the school from the perspective of someone who is preparing food all day. I think he probably has a very different angle on our students than I do.

Why did you decide to become a teacher?: I don’t know if there was a moment when I for sure knew; I kind of fell into it. But when I was leaving New York for grad school, I was very excited that I would be teaching as a grad student. I remember some of my fellow graduate students complaining about the teaching component, but I never did. I really liked interacting with students.

The first day I was ever in front of students I almost threw up. I was so nervous. I stayed very anxious about it for a while, but as I did it more, I came to really love it and I felt like I was getting better at it. I came to realize it was really a long-learned art. You have to spend many years perfecting your craft as a teacher, and I’m still not there yet. My dad teaches at a law school, so I did grow up watching him prepare for class, and I think that helped me kind of understand the work that goes into being a teacher. Over the last ten years I’ve fallen into it and also actively pursued it at the same time.

You used to work in publishing. How was that?: It was very interesting. When I graduated from college that was my game plan: to move to New York and to work in magazine publishing. I really don’t think I had a good understanding of what that would entail, I was just in college and it seemed like a fantasy to work at a fancy magazine. And I really did love magazines. This was in a moment [in 2007] when people still received print magazines, but things were starting to transition online. I kind of went all for it: I emailed as many people as I knew, and I asked them to email people they knew. I eventually landed several internships that were very exciting and glamorous, but they were also, you know, internships. I interned at Vogue, I interned at Elle, and I interned at a place called Paper, which is probably best known for a scandalous Kim Kardashian cover. It was glamorous in the sense that I would be going to parties or maintaining a fashion closet, but on the other hand, my role in all that was often to stuff gift bags or run errands. I was definitely asked to get coffee a lot. I was basically an unpaid minion. I was never a glamorous figure in all this, but it was a very glamorous atmosphere I suppose. But, in 2008, it was completely disrupted by the economic recession. New York saw a lot of the fallout from the economic collapse and almost immediately magazines fully closed because of a chain reaction: advertisers were pulling out because people didn’t have money to spend on consumer goods because they were losing their job. And when advertisers didn’t have money to advertise–that’s what keeps magazines running–everything closed. I was at two different magazines when they folded, by which I mean they closed down completely. By the time everything was collapsing, I had secured a full-time job at Elle. I worked for a few months at Domino, which focused on home décor, and then that folded. I was pretty bummed out.

I was unemployed for six months during the economic recession of 2008. I ate a lot of fried rice and hummus wraps and did odd jobs here and there. I was a part time nanny and I did some temp work. I eventually came back to publishing, and I worked in book publishing for a year and a half. I really did love that, and I might’ve stayed if I hadn’t had the pull towards grad school.

My husband is actually a book editor. That would have been the other field I would have gone into if it were not for teaching. It attracts interesting and smart people, and I really love books. Publishing was a good fit while I was in New York. But I felt pulled towards grad school, and I felt pulled towards the south again. New York was a dream, but I wanted to have the space and time to pursue my writing, so I left New York and publishing for grad school and have been here ever since.

Why did you think of South Carolina?: I was not someone with very organized plans in my mid-twenties. I applied to a couple grad schools and USC had the best offer. They were going pay me, not much, but they were going to pay me to study poetry, which is pretty phenomenal because poetry doesn’t usually pay. Also, one of my best friends was in law school here. So when I put those two facts together, I thought: why not try it for a year? I was very into trying things in my twenties just to see what would happen. I thought it would be a year or two tops, and it’s been eleven years of a really great life.

What is your family like?: I have a large family. I’m the oldest of five. I have two brothers who are twins. They’re about four years younger than me, and they’re both married. Everyone works in very interesting fields but very different fields. My brother Andrew is a Coast Guard helicopter pilot. He is currently overseas. My other brother, Peter, has done a variety of things, he worked in the White House for a while but now he is at a startup in DC. I also have sisters who are twins and they’re eight years younger than I am. One of my sisters lives in DC and has started her own business, and my other sister is getting her PHD in Seattle. Everyone is pretty different, but we all have the same teeth. We had the same orthodontist, and our teeth are very similar. We are also all blond.

What extracurriculars did you do in high school?: I wasn’t very athletic but my parents told me I had to play a sport. I chose volleyball because I liked that it was a team sport. Honestly, I thought it would be lowkey and ‘easy,’ but it is definitely not! I thought it would be mostly standing around, but it turns out volleyball is a lot of work. I was not usually a starter, but I got into games from time to time. I was tall so that helped. I did the literary magazine all four years and was the editor my junior and senior years. That was a real passion of mine. I was on the school newspaper as well.

Where has been your favorite place to travel?: Mexico City really did astound me. Of all the places I’ve been. It was a place I didn’t have very many expectations for, and it was–as they say–love at first sight. I was so impressed by the diversity of people, the energy of the city, and of course the food. Another place that really changed my perception of the world is Cambodia. I went to Angkor Wat at dawn and saw the sun rise. That was really beautiful.

What is your dream vacation?: I would love to go to Patagonia, Argentina. I’d fly into  Buenos Aires and then take the train south.

What is your favorite TV show? I should say something clever like The Wire or The Sopranos, but honestly? Probably The Office. The show I have watched the most that has brought me the most joy in my life is The Office.

Do you have any pets?: I have a nine month old kitten named Birdie. She’s a joy, and a pain in the butt, and very vocal. She makes lots of different noises throughout the day depending on her mood, almost like she’s talking to us.

What is a good book you’ve read recently?: I just finished the Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series. Mantel wrote three books chronicling the life of Thomas Cromwell who worked, in various ways, in King Henry VIII’s court. King Henry VIII had all these different wives and drama, and Thomas Cromwell was one of the first examples of what we would now call a “self-made man.” He was originally a blacksmith’s son, and he rose through the ranks and remade himself again and again in Henry VIII’s court. I’m not usually into historical fiction, but I thought it was a fascinating lens on the 16th century. I also thought Mantel’s language was gorgeous as she charted his rise and fall.

What are your top three favorite movies?:

  1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
  2. My Cousin Vinny
  3. Lady Bird

Who would play you in a movie about your life?: Laura Dern or Drew Barrymore. They are both older than me—I think Laura Dern is like two decades older than me—but I feel like we have similar vibes. Or at least I aspire to have her vibes.

If you could time travel to any point in time where would you go?: This is such a classic English teacher answer, but I’d go to the 1603 and see the original performance of Hamlet with Richard Burbage in the Globe. Or I’d go to tomorrow and get the lottery numbers.

What song would you want played at your funeral?: Let The Mystery Be by Iris DeMent.

If you could go back and tell your high school-self anything, what would it be?: I think there were periods of my high school life when I let social drama monopolize my time. If I could go back, I would encourage myself to focus more on just allowing myself to be in the process of becoming. I would not worry so much about the drama.

Did you like high school? There’s a lot that I liked about that time in my life. I read some great books; had some great friends. It was all very formative. But I remember also being frustrated by the schedule and the limited choice in classes.

What will you miss most about Hammond?: I have a theory that it’s hard to know what you’ll miss while you’re still in it. There are things about Hammond and Columbia that I think I don’t know yet that I’ll miss. One thing I’ll miss about Hammond in particular is the familiarity, knowing everyone on campus and being known by practically everyone on campus. My next school is very big, it has a bigger population so it will be very hard to know everyone, especially at first. I’ll miss that a lot. And the chicken wanton salad of course.

Is there anything else you want in this article?: I could not have dreamed of having better students than the ones I’ve had. I am blown away by my students all the time. They’re funny and clever. They’re irreverent and avoid work, but all in the best ways. I will miss them so.