A lot of Ph.D.s contemplating the postac route look closely at the world of high school teaching. Jason Tebbe is here to tell us what that job looks and feels like. First surprise: students are more engaged.
by Jason Tebbe
A friend of mine from grad school likes to call the jackets he wears to class his “tweed armor.” When I was a college professor, that metaphor totally made sense to me. Getting up in front of large classes, sometimes in lecture halls, meant having to play the part of The Professor. Part of this meant creating a layer between myself and my students. My tweed jackets were part of this mystique.
As a grad student I had acquired a few that actually fit me at the local Salvation Army. Some of my peers mocked or chided me for getting dressed up for the classroom, but I thought looking the part would help win me respect from students, and give me the confidence I needed.
Now that I am a high school teacher, I still wear my tweed, but usually only to keep warm or look professional, not to create some kind of aura or to armor myself in the classroom. Being a high school teacher is very different in many respects from being a college professor, and one of the biggest differences is my relationship with my students. As in most other independent schools, there are a handful of students I advise, and this advising goes far beyond planning schedules. I see the students I teach every day, and our relationship is much more personal and less distant than it is between professors and undergrads. Many academics I know hold undergrads in distant contempt, an attitude that will not be tolerated at private high schools. With that in mind, here are some other ways that teaching at a private high school is different than being a professor. Be warned, if these things don’t appeal to you, making the leap into a teaching job may not be the best decision for you.
Teaching high school is hard work in the traditional sense
Having been a professor and a teacher, I can tell you that teaching is harder work. I do not mean more intellectually difficult or even more time consuming. I probably work fewer hours than I did as a professor, and I am no longer spending as much time poring over documents written in 19th-century German or plowing through dense academic monographs. (That’s actually become my hobby.) The hours I am working, however, are much, much more intense and can be physically and emotionally draining. I taught a 4/4 load with 160 students per semester and no TA when I was on the tenure track, but that’s nothing compared to spending all day, every day in the classroom. I also teach at a progressive school, which means I lecture very little and spend a lot of time leading discussions, guiding projects, and constructing elaborate classroom activities. Standing for fifty minutes in a hall and performing a lecture -no matter how interactive- is a lot easier than that. There is also the matter of having to focus the attention of teenagers and manage the classroom environment, and to grade more regular homework. On the days when the students are distracted or tired trying to keep them on track and focused feels like trying to walk for an hour into a hurricane-force wind. Much of my lunch break is spent counseling and helping students, and my free periods can be eaten up by spot-subbing for other teachers or chaperoning field trips. On my train ride home every day I usually pass out from exhaustion.
Parents are present
Although it is getting more common for parents to intervene in the education of their college student children, it is easy for profs to brush them off by yelling “FERPA! FERPA! FERPA!” at them. For high school students, it’s different. Teachers have to talk with parents quite often about the progress of their children. As you can imagine, this can often be tricky or frustrating. However, it can just as often be enlightening and enjoyable. I have liked getting to know many of the parents, who are often wonderful, engaging people. Having parents present can also be invaluable in giving you the tools to reach and help struggling students, something that professors aren’t able to do.
Your level of responsibility is higher
When you teach high schoolers your students are minors, which already implies a different level of responsibility toward them. You might have to adjudicate verbal disputes, break up fights, assist a student having a seizure, or alert guidance counselors and parents to troubling behavior. If a student is doing poorly in your class, you are expected to get in touch with parents and advisors, not just let them twist in the wind. Private school teachers are also usually expected to be responsible for chaperoning overnight field trips, advising clubs, or coaching sports. But I think the responsibility goes much deeper than maintaining a curfew on a road trip or knowing which students have epi-pens for their food allergies. As a teacher you will see the same students every day for the entire school year, not two or three days a week for fourteen weeks. You are responsible for them for a significant chunk of their waking lives, and while that fact daunted me in my first year, I soon learned that it created a much deeper and fulfilling relationship with my students. The responsibility can be challenging, but I wouldn’t trade the payoff for the world.
Students are more engaged
After hearing all of this, you might wonder why I prefer my current line of work to academia. Despite all of the issues I have listed above, my work is so much more fulfilling, and that has everything to do with the attitude of the students. It’s not just the deeper connections, it’s also their general attitude. I find my students to be much more engaged in their studies and far less jaded than college undergrads, who are often (quite rightly) more interested in exploring their newfound independence and defining themselves than in giving themselves over to their studies. Many undergraduates maintain that commitment, but the percentage of students who still viscerally care is much higher. Also, because the students have a deeper relationship with their teachers, they feel less alienated from their work and more motivated to do well. To put it more simply, when I am away on break I miss my students, and graduation is a bittersweet parting.
So these days I still teach in my tweed, but I’ve discarded my armor and let my guard down. The reward has been immeasurable, as difficult as my job can be.