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.
Thanks for this teaser! I have been anxiously waiting to read your post because (probably like many others) “this could be me”. I have a TT job in a religiously conservative (and dysfunctional) college and region which I am desperately trying to leave. Every time I teach a high school class I am uplifted again and excited about teaching – I am hoping to have the courage to quit and to pursue a high school teaching job in an area I want to live. The only thing stopping me is fear – fear of unemployment, fear of leaving the cult. I look forward to reading more from you!
I could have written most of this post based on my foray into academia and eventual move to high school teaching. My father and grandfather were teachers, and for all the reasons you cite, I never thought it would be me.
But like you, I found myself at the wrong kind of school in the wrong part of the country, and had to find another way. I’m now in my third year teaching at an independent school outside Cleveland, and I could not be happier. I have fantastic students, great colleagues, annual raises – it’s amazing.
Best of luck to you in your transition – though it sounds like it’s going swimmingly! – and here’s hoping other refugees from the academic market realize the up side of high school teaching!
I am so happy to see this guest post and hope the follow-ups come sooner rather than later. I’m seriously considering pursuing this path but private schools are already in the middle of hiring for the 2014/15 school year (I’ll be sure to check out your blog in the meantime)… One issue I hope can be addressed is how to figure out how one’s degree field can fit into high school curricula and job postings (for example, how to find jobs that fit my geography degree with a nature/society focus — environmental studies? environmental history? science department? social studies?). Looking forward to hearing more!
I see the relevance here for a small audience of people trapped in places like “rural east Texas” (I literally groaned when I read that) with spouses who live far away but I’m not sure I see the wider applicability for being an assistant professor in general. It wasn’t the nature of the job at all that was the problem. Surely this is mainly about place and an NYC professorship would be preferable to an NYC HS job, right? So it’s less about the job than about compatibility between person and place. I think that what stories like this demonstrate is that one should not move to places like that in the first place. Isn’t that the main point here that for someone most comfortable with their spouse in NYC that it’s rather silly to think that moving alone to some hyper-conservative place with a no-name university is going to be satisfying? I know that we are all supposed to take any job that comes along but wouldn’t it have been better to not take that job and teach HS or whatever while looking for something else? Those years spent in the god forsaken wilderness could have been spent either A) Doing the job that you now like or B) getting yourself prepped for the market rather than the East Texas classroom. I think this story is useful in that it demonstrates that one should consider happiness in thinking about a career but I also think that it’s more of a warning than a success story. The HS job could have been had with a BA and all the heartache (and debt in many cases) would have been avoided. I think this piece argues for a proactive approach to the market and our place in it than a reactive one. It works well with the general argument of this site that one should assert agency and remain flexible in a field that sometimes stresses the one-size fits all TT job. For me, it’s about how one should be able do that BEFORE actually going through something like this. I’d be interested in hearing about advisors/placement coordinators who told you that going there was a good idea as a way to consider the institutional structures at work.
Jason Tebbe says
The place was less about being in a rural area, and more about an oppressive, bullying working environment. For reasons of discretion I have elected not to get into the details of it. When I took the job I knew that the area was not ideal for me, but I grew up in a rural area, so I knew mostly what to expect. I also thought that having the kind of job I wanted and being in a university community would somehow cancel out the town. Of course, I also spent a lot of time preparing myself for the job market to get a position elsewhere. I attended conferences, published a third article, and secured a book contract, but in the post-crash job market that didn’t really matter too much. I wonder why there’s an assumption that I didn’t do those things. I should also clarify that my future spouse and I met while I was a visiting professor in Michigan and she was in New Jersey, so it wasn’t like I was leaving our home to take my t-t job. I was hoping it could be a springboard for me to get something in the New Jersey area, or that that my new town would be a good place for us to settle down. Neither ended up being the case.
I would also add that after having left academia, I have no desire to go back, even if it meant a job in NYC or New Jersey. I consider my current job to be a blessing and improvement for the reasons I stated in the piece. I couldn’t see that until I had experienced much of the worst that academic employment has to offer.