Jason Tebbe left a tenure track position to pursue work as a high school teacher. In this post he explains the constellation of personal and professional reasons for making the leap.
By Jason Tebbe
I never thought I would be a teacher. My mother taught for thirty years, and I knew all too well how hard it was, and how little appreciation and compensation she got for the massive amounts of work and care she put into it. (My youngest sister is a teacher too, as is my wife.) For me, an academic job meant moving on up and having a more fulfilling job than the work my parents did. I respected what my mother did, but coming from my background having the titles of “doctor” and “professor” really meant something special.
Three years ago I had a tenure track job, I had achieved the dream, but I was desperately trying to flee from it to be a teacher. I knew full well what I was getting into when I left the assistant professorship I had fought so hard to get in order to take a position teaching at a private high school in Manhattan. Despite my trepidations about being a teacher, my current job has brought me joy in ways I never could have anticipated. Last year, when the first class of students I taught in eleventh grade history graduated, I provided some remarks at their senior dinner. I told them that I had spent years trying to turn myself from Jason into Dr. Tebbe, but now Dr. Tebbe was dead, and Jason was alive again, and all the better for it.
A lot happened between grad school, when I thought that being a teacher meant failing and settling, to later being overjoyed at going into what has become the family profession. The five years I endured after getting my doctorate brought home to me with each passing day how foolish I had been to valorize the academic discipline, and how short-sighted I had been in disdaining a career in secondary education.
I spent the first two years after my degree in the contingent world as a visiting assistant professor at a rapidly growing state university in Michigan. While many of my non-contingent colleagues were wonderful and helpful people, others treated me like the help and would literally not give me the time of day. It became obvious very quickly that my lone teaching expectation was not to do anything that would cause a student to complain to the chair. The fact that I worked about 80 hours a week during my first semester to make my courses work the first time around meant absolutely nothing.
As bitter as I became about being turned into the academic equivalent of a pack mule, my spirits were lifted after getting a tenure-track position at a state university in rural east Texas. Achieving my dream, one I had fought for over the course of a decade, soon turned out to be a huge mistake. My chair had me teaching core classes outside of my field, meaning that even though I was a Europeanist, I taught mostly American history classes. Another professor laid claim to he upper level classes in my field in the catalog, which meant I rarely, if ever, taught in my specialization. My publications were treated as threats, and despite the presence of some truly wonderful people I still count as friends, the department’s politics became nastier with each passing year due to some truly rotten apples with plenty of power to wield.
From a personal point of view, things were even worse. My wife was in New Jersey, and while I tried hard to get a job in the area, which included frenzied work on publications, the job market had cratered in the wake of the 2008 crash. It seemed the harder I tried and the more I published, the fewer interviews I got. I lived in a town in Louie Gohmert’s Congressional district, and the local culture most certainly reflected the politics of a man who would liken Obamacare to Nazism on the House floor and rant about terrorist “anchor babies” on national television. The locals tended to look suspiciously upon any outsiders, and the university was treated like a pariah, with hardly any businesses that catered to students and professors. There were many days when I woke up in my bed in a sprawling, faceless apartment complex on the edge of town, trudged to the bathroom, looked at myself in the mirror, and wondered just what I had done with my life. Sure, I loved being the “professor” commanding the room, with an office to to hold court in, but it turned out that these things alone were not enough to sustain me.
For the spring semester of 2011 I decided I needed a change of pace, and volunteered to teach a section of the American history survey at the local high school, which the department did every year. (It allowed advanced students to take an actual college course, rather than an AP facsimile.) Honestly, part of my motivation was to spend as little time in my department as possible. I also secretly wondered if teaching high school students would be an improvement. Turned out, it was. Their energy and care dwarfed that of my commonly cynical undergrads, and my three trips to the high school to teach were the highlights of my week. If I could do that every day as my job, I figured I could be pretty happy
In the midst of a horrible late winter marked by my father’s cancer diagnosis, the death of a pet, and increasing bullying and dysfunction in my department, I decided it was time to make the leap. Taking that leap meant rethinking job applications and acquainting myself with the rules and mores of a new profession. It was no small task, but my desperate desire to save my life from ruin made it possible. I’ll talk about how I made that happen next time.