Day to Day Work at a Prep School – #Postac Guest Post (Part 2 of 3)

Ric Rader is a classicist and “recovering academic” who taught in non-tenure-track positions at Ohio State, USC, UCLA and UCSB over the course of 7 years. He now teaches in the Foreign Languages Department at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville. He writes, “the fortunate thing is that I finally got out of the academy and it has been the best decision of my life.”  Feel free to get in touch with him personally at

Part I of this Prep School series is here.

So what’s it like to work at a school like mine? Rather like a “real-world” job you will be required to be on campus every day all day. While I miss the flexibility and openness of my schedule at my former universities (a privilege, I realize, that many like my wife did not have at her teaching-heavy SLAC), I quite like the responsibility of daily presence. You may also be required to dress up for work, which for men means wearing a tie. Believe it or not, dressing up will make you feel like a professional. Like an adult. As anyone in the business world will tell you, your appearance is an important aspect of your authority at work.

You will likely be required to participate in extracurricular activities after school, which means that when, for example, your sport is in season the days can stretch ever later. I coach junior-school football and baseball, and while these are nowhere near as serious and time-consuming as varsity, during the season I normally get home between 6 and 7pm, sometimes later if an away game is out of town. This irks my wife a bit – she’s with our very energetic toddler all day – but fortunately between the two seasons I have about 4 months during which I’m generally home by 4pm. And with the exception of exams or major tests and quizzes I almost always get my grading and prep done during my free periods. I rarely bring work home!

You will occasionally have to come to school on the weekend for games, service outings, dances, admissions-related events, dinners and the like. Sure, you’ll have to give up a part of your Saturday or Sunday, but in most cases you will be fed (spectacularly well if it’s a dinner-related event), you’ll get to meet with parents who adore you for teaching their children, you’ll get to hang out with your colleagues and basically just have fun. Yes, it’s work but it ain’t really work. You will show yourself to be a good citizen of the school community. And good citizenship is rewarding in both senses of the term: you get fulfillment and you also get professional and financial promotion.

One of the real perks of teaching at a prep school is the continuous personal involvement with students you will have over many years. During your time in the university you may have gotten to know a decent handful of students personally, but rarely are college students able to take more than 3 or 4 classes with the same professor over the course of their studies. At the secondary level, however, in your classes and on your teams you will watch young men and women transition year by year from as young as 10 to 18 years old. And what a change that is! It’s not hard to understand how this kind of multi-year relationship produces the most meaningful connections with students, their parents and their other teachers. When alumni of my school return for visits or events, for example, the love and affection they show for their former teachers is moving. This love in fact was the inspiration for a very famous movie from the late 80s that you, like me, probably watched with one of your high school teachers.

The best part of your job will be your colleagues. They will be the nicest, most well-adjusted people you’ve ever worked with – especially if your school (like mine) rewards them personally, professionally and financially for their hard work and commitment. You’ll have some personalities and idiosyncrasies among your faculty, of course, but there are none of the types I came to know during my years in the university: the intransigent, the bitter, the envious, the unkempt, the antisocial, the unproductive, the defensive, the predatory. You’ll have colleagues who’ve been there 20, 30, 40 years, many of whom either went to that very school or one like it and learned as students that a career in teaching can be a desirable choice and not just a consolation prize or fallback. Why would they leave a fulfilling job that provides a comfortable life? Where on any given weekend they can get together with colleagues outside of school for family gatherings, b’nei mitzvahs, athletic engagements, church and intellectual collaboration?

I suspect the simple reason prep school colleagues are such good people is that at this level you won’t have the pressure to publish. Your mission at any secondary school – but especially those (like mine) that pride themselves on small, intimate learning environments – is first and foremost to be effective as teachers, and that requires a fair amount of gregariousness and geniality. This isn’t to suggest that brilliant researchers, prolific publishers and effective grant-writers can’t be gregarious and genial, only that the aims of research and grant-seeking aren’t necessarily compatible with pedagogical goals. I say that as someone who published a decent amount on what in my field would be considered very canonical (literary) material, the kind of material in other words you’d likely see in an undergraduate survey course. I tried and tried to bring my research into the classroom – and insisted upon the necessity of such an approach to many a search committee – but it never quite fit. (More on research later)

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Day to Day Work at a Prep School – #Postac Guest Post (Part 2 of 3) — 3 Comments

  1. I would like to thank Dr. Rader, and also Dr. Karen (I took an undergraduate course form you at Oregon :)), for these posts on prep-schools. I find these posts particularly applicable to my experience of working at a prep, although I did the opposite of Dr. Rader. I worked for a year at an all boys private school in Baltimore before deciding on a PhD.

    I agree with many of the things that Dr. Rader is attempting to convey about the private school experience, but I would just like to shed a shadow of doubt of the rose-colored picture that I see appearing before my eyes in this sequence of posts. As the poster so eloquently displays, there are many, many, many 10-12 hour days. Some of you might say: “Big deal! I already do those hours in academia.” And you’d be correct; maybe you do even more hours that this. Nonetheless, those 10-12 hours are spent with hight-energy teens of 13-18 years old, day after day, sometimes with only one day off to recuperate. After those 12 hours you go home, grade papers for 2 hours, eat something and then collapse at around 9-10 pm so that you can do it again tomorrow. This cycle only really changes in the summer months; two months on average. As you can see, this requires a special type of person with high and sustainable energy. It’s not for everyone.

    The second thing I see, in this most recent post, is that not doing research is a positive thing. This is actually the number 1 reason I left my post at the all-boys school (#2 being the belief that a same-sex school is somehow beneficial to the children being educated). For those of us who require a little more intelectual stimulation than the repetitive nature of secondary education, we get burnt our very quickly. Research, even if you are disillusioned with the nature of the tertiary academy on whole, is still a bastion of autonomy and creativity that some require.

    On a final note, the old-boy network is alive and well in many of these institutions. So one should be aware of that when making a decision on choosing which one to work for if that’s not your cup of tea. Typically there are more of these schools in the East and the South, and of those there is a high percentage of religiously-affiliated (or some other non-mainstream ideological faction) academies.

    All in all, however, I see the private-school option as something that newly minted PhDs should keep on the plate. As Dr. Rader notes, he has apparently found fulfillment there. I merely want to point out that these places are not utopian safe-houses for the academically shunned. They also come with their share of problems.

    • Thanks so much for your response, Brian! I very much share your concerns: prep schools should not be considered oases of pure bliss in the desert of academic desolation. I hope I’m not conveying that impression. I only want to give readers a small sense of my pleasure at finding the job I have after so many years of disappointment; compared to the universities where I worked, MBA really is like Xanadu. It’s also possible that my working conditions are more favorable than yours were. My headmaster strives to make all of his faculty’s lives as comfortable as possible: that goes for teaching load, service obligations and remuneration. I also get to live in Nashville, which is close to my family and which — no offense to any other southerners — is really the most awesome city in the South, and getting more so by the day. So I realize I’ve got it good. Apologies if I’m extrapolating too broadly from my experience here…

      As for publishing, I’m also in agreement…with some reservations. That I address specifically in the next post, so I won’t elaborate too much now. But basically, if you consider publishing a route to intellectual stimulation, that’s great. (I do and I don’t; mostly depends on mood.) I would, however, query your characterization of the university as a “bastion of autonomy and creativity”. It most certainly can be, but none of the departments I worked in would qualify for such an appellation. Perhaps you’re luckier than I was, though, so I don’t want to come across bitter.

      Anyway, Brian, I appreciate your response. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the publishing post.

  2. As a retired Public School teacher of 4th graders, I too can relate to the long hours, disruptive students, high energy learners and a spouse that could feel neglected at times. But as Dr. Ric Rader points out, it is balanced with all the personal and sometimes unintended outcomes. I continue to have a series of former students reach out and contact me, thanking me and letting me know what their lives are like. So all the hard work is still paying back in the most unexpected ways !!

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