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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
About a year ago I saw two articles on the TPII website by Jason Tebbe describing his move from academia to prep-school teaching. I read with delight that he found far more satisfaction in the environment of secondary education than in his academic job, even though it entailed more time and more (if different kinds of) work. I’d also known a rather large number of folks who had PhDs and were working at the secondary level, most of whom spoke glowingly of their jobs, their cities, their homes (they owned homes!) and, best of all, their financial security. Over the course of 7 post-PhD years – during my many months of anticipation, delight, frustration and ultimately failure in the academic market – I had flirted with the idea of giving the prep-school market a go. It wasn’t even much of a flirtation at first: as Karen has noted and as so many others have voiced, teaching at a prep school was never discussed as a career option during my days in graduate school. Certainly no one at my second-tier Midwestern public looked down on it or explicitly judged such a job as inferior, but the fact that it was never proffered as an academic opportunity shows that it ranked low in my advisors’ opinion.
If you decide you want to give prep schools serious consideration, there are a number of things you need to know. I’ll do my best in the space below to address them based on my experience of failure over the course of three years and, ultimately, landing my first (and hopefully last) job.
First things first: Beware that the prep school market is rather like the academic market. There won’t be a plethora of jobs. The competition, especially from folks who have actually taught at the secondary level, will be high. The prep schools themselves will often show the same elitism you have come to expect in the academy: preference will be given to candidates from the Ivies in particular and the Northeast in general. Your PhD, the one thing that absolutely sets you apart from the rest, may have some effect but not as much as you think.
In fact don’t be surprised at first when you get passed over. What little cache is provided by having a PhD and teaching courses at the university level cannot cover your glaring lack of experience teaching at the secondary level. You might well be more intelligent or knowledgeable in your subject area than a typical highschool teacher, but intellectual ambition is less important than effective teaching and mentoring. (What academic hasn’t had a brilliant and prolific professor who was terrible in the classroom?) If you land an interview, prepare for the first question to always be: “Why do you want to move from the university to secondary-level teaching?” You should already have addressed this very concern in your thoughtfully tailored letter in fact. (In my first year alone I’ve witnessed candidates for positions at my school imprudently focus on the upper-level, college-style courses they’d like to teach.) Intellectual and/or emotional talk about the future of higher education, whether positive or negative, won’t win you over to deans and department heads looking for you to explain practically how teaching 12-18-year-olds will be different from college-age students. You must not under any circumstance predicate your desire to teach at the prep-school level on a failure in or disappointment with the academy. Rather like me, you’ve probably experienced a fair share of failure and disappointment; you could probably talk a blue streak about the wrongs you’ve suffered at the hands of others. Eat it. Write a nasty FOAD to your enemies and don’t send it. Revisit it in your low moments and revel in the injustice of the world. Just don’t mention it during your interview. Because if you’re the kind of person to bitch about students, colleagues and administrators at the university – or, worse, the kind to bitch on social media – you’re probably the kind of person to bitch about students, colleagues and administrators at the prep-school level. And no one wants to hire a bitchy victim.
You will have to present yourself not as a failed or bitter academic looking for a way out of the system but rather as a teacher looking to contribute to a community of students, teachers and advisors. The community aspect in fact is what matters most. Unlike the university, at the secondary level you are required to be involved in your students’ lives outside the classroom: as athletic or academic coaches, as formal and informal advisors, as liaisons between students and parents and as good citizens of the school (attending their sporting events, driving them to their mock trial competitions, supervising their service obligations, chaperoning their homecomings and proms). If you cannot articulate a desire to do these things or a vision for where you might fit in them, you stand no chance of making the cut.
Thank you *so much* for writing this! This is the more concise version of almost *exactly* the same advice I received before making the jump as well!
For anyone else interested, being able to demonstrate that you 1) enjoy working with and 2) can effectively interact with middle and/or high school-aged students is pivotal. Prior academic outreach work geared towards these age groups definitely comes in handy, if you have it!
Thanks for your kinds words, CK, and for the insight. I had absolutely zero experience with middle- and highschool students since, well, the time I was in middle and high school. As a result of that inexperience, and sadly also as a result of my supercilious attitude about secondary teaching, I repeatedly screwed up in interviews with deans and department heads at prep schools. It took some straight talk from my Carney Sandoe handler to figure out my mistakes. I didn’t do this myself but I have also seen & heard it recommended that “volunteer teaching” at a local high school will give you some much-needed exposure to the challenges of secondary teaching and, perhaps more importantly, a bit of experience to call upon in interviews. Maybe someone else can speak to that.
Great article, thank you. I’d encourage you to think about the gendered implications of the word “bitchy” though, and not use it in future writing.
Thanks, J, and point tooken (as I used to say as a kid). If there’s one thing you learn as a language instructor — and in my case an ancient language instructor — it’s the gendered implications of words.
Great series of posts and very thorough advice. I am currently working as a lecturer but during my last year as a PhD student I supported myself by working as an instructor at an elite private school.
I got that job because of my years of experience working with teenagers before entering grad school, so I had an advantage in that respect: rather than transitioning into a different field, I was diving back into it. Like the OP, I found it a very rewarding environment, although teaching in the K-12 requires a lot of energy!
A few extra words of advice: if that’s a career avenue you’re inclined to explore, I’d recommend getting some practice with teenagers–volunteer at the local library or at some after-school, for instance. This will help you demonstrate that your interest in the K-12 is genuine and not just a fallback.
It’s also important to have some competence re: pedagogy (and specifically about teenagers). Read about these topics, or take classes at your university if you can.
Practical examples will help you nail your interview. For instance, I was asked how I’d handle disruptive students or how to motivate them. Anyways, your answers should reflect your classroom practice, not just common sense or theory.
Dress sharply and conservatively for the interview. Wear a suit if you own one. This will show that you care about the job and that you are taking the school seriously. Of course, professionalism is not only conveyed by the dress, of course. Manners and civility will go a long way–both with colleagues and with parents, and will make your discipline in the classroom much smoother.
Thanks for your further suggestions, Val! Looking back over this past year of teaching teenage boys, I really wish I’d had some experience dealing with their disciplinary needs. I teach at an all-boys school, and while there are innumerable virtues to the single-sex model, the one thing I wasn’t prepared for was the way they act out in the absence of girls. I’d certainly dealt with my share of bored or insouciant students at the university level, but there at least boredom and insouciance take the form of quietness (i.e. students either won’t participate or simply don’t show up for class). In my current environment boredom and insouciance — and in many cases a stereotypical adolescent impishness — result in distractions to the class (incessant chattering, silly jokes that go on too long, untimely exclamations of “That’s what she said!” — the list goes on). And without the shame of looking like a fool in front of girls they way the show out to one another is to intensify the distractions!
We have a disciplinary apparatus to deal with these problems, but really the problems are nothing like those associated with public schools. Many of my colleagues come from that world and the stories they tell really dishearten me…
Anyway, Val, I very much appreciate your thoughts!
Aunt Becks says
I’m so glad that you have found a wonderful place to excel. It is amazing how making a difference everyday, in a young person’s life becomes THE daily goal. It is the little things in the classroom, that you do that shows, you care, you are cool and you are a leader, that compels students to do their best. Bravo Ric
Kelly Flynn says
“You might well be more intelligent or knowledgeable in your field than your typical high school teacher,” he writes. But then again, you might not be. In any case, shoring up your ego behind this notion will blind you to the high numbers of prep school teachers who are wise AND intellectually brilliant.
Eliza B. says
Please don’t diminish the years of experience and knowledge accrued during a Ph.D. A Ph.D. equals more time spent honing one’s craft and more experience in the field/in the classroom than a master’s or a bachelor’s. Do teachers without Ph.D.s spend years doing research and writing in order to create a several-hundred-page project? This is in addition to seminars taken, term papers written, project proposals composed, conference papers presented, and undergraduate or graduate courses taught This is all knowledge; whether it’s natural-given “intelligence” is another argument, but there is such a thing as intelligence accumulated through specialized work in a field. If you didn’t want to take the time to earn a Ph.D.–well, that’s on you. But sure: a teacher can be wise and brilliant without the extra credential of a doctorate.
This is coming from a Ph.D. candidate who has from day one wanted to teach in an independent school and who has given seven years of her life in order to be for her future high-school students the best and most knowledgeable educator that SHE can be.