Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Alternative Academic Careers: Private High School Teaching

This is the second in a series of posts on “Alternative Careers for Literature and Humanities PhD’s,” a roundtable discussion organized by a professor in my university’s English department. 

Skipping around a bit, the third speaker (we’ll call him Mark) earned a PhD in English literature and has been teaching in private high schools ever since.  He came to his career somewhat by accident–having just entered the job market, he heard through a friend that a rather progressive high school in Berkeley needed someone to teach an intensive, one-week course.  Freshmen and sophomores would read Joyce’s Ulysses in a single week–seven hours a day, page by page, with accompanying activities and discussions (everyone around me murmured that this sounded like a very cool idea).  Initially Mark said no, but the pay was excellent, and so he went for it.  He described it as one of the most inspiring experiences he’d ever had with education–getting up every morning very early, taking the BART to the school, and feeling genuinely excited to go to work (a lot more excited than he’d been feeling about his research). The approach was straightforward: read the book and talk about it, without bringing in a huge amount of literary analysis or outside criticism.  The students were hard workers, very bright, and everyone got a lot out of the experience. 

The school liked Mark and hired him to teach English (more on the “We like you so we’ll find some way to keep you around” tendency later).  While he initially saw high school teaching as a temporary gig on his way to a tenure-track professorship, ultimately he found the work so rewarding (and the money so good) that he stuck with high school teaching and never looked back.  For him, the only real downside is the loss of an intellectual edge–the focus is very much on helping the students to “experience” literature, with few opportunities to really analyze literature at the PhD level.  There’s also no real opportunity to write or do research–you get summers off, but most people spend them refueling and planning next year’s classes.  For Mark, though, the gains far outweigh the losses.  You get to be engaged with literature on a regular basis, you’re in an environment where teaching is highly valued, you have wonderful colleagues, the pay and the benefits are excellent, and you can essentially teach your dissertation if you like (you’ve got a lot more creative control over what your students read than you would have as an adjunct or even a tenured professor).

As someone who got a secondary teaching certificate in 2000 and spent a truly horrible semester trying to student-teach in a public school but feeling much more like a bouncer / security guard, I really responded to Mark’s story.  I’ve spent the last ten years trying not to feel guilty about abandoning the noble profession of public school teaching because I just couldn’t bear the frustration, the meager pay, the long hours, and the seeming impossibility of having any impact in a class of forty students, many of whom have serious behavior problems.  The idea that I could teach high school students who actually wanted to learn, who even wanted to learn about literature, sounded amazing. 

I was curious, though, about the public-vs.-private issue.  Mark admitted that he and almost all of his colleagues dealt on a daily basis with feelings of guilt that they weren’t using their skills in the public school system, that they were teaching only the wealthiest kids in the nation. But they just couldn’t bear the thought of working in public schools, particularly California public schools.  One of Mark’s colleagues justified it this way–they might be teaching the elite, but they’re teaching the people who will likely be future senators and CEO’s, and they’re doing their best to make sure those people have a deep appreciation for the humanities.  Some of them also volunteer in the public school system, where they feel they can have more of an impact than they could as full-time teachers.  If I ended up teaching at a ritzy public high school I’m sure I’d wrestle with guilt on a regular basis, but damn, it sure sounds appealing. 

For those interested in private high school teaching, Mark recommends checking out high schools in the area that you want to live in.  Introduce yourself to administrators, ask to observe classes, and stay in touch.  Private high schools love to hire PhD’s whenever they can–with such high tuition costs, it looks really good to prospective parents to have PhD’s teaching their children.  Most private high schools don’t require that you have an official secondary teaching certificate, the most important thing is that you’re passionate about your subject matter and can connect well with kids.  With so many teachers and people moving / going on maternity leave on a regular basis, positions are available almost every semester.  Unlike adjunct teaching, high school teaching doesn’t necessarily make it impossible for you to land a tenure-track professorship–several of Mark’s colleagues taught for a year or two at a high school and are now professors (I’d imagine that if you do it for more than a few years, though, you’re limiting your options in the tenure-track market). 

One interesting fact that came up several times during the discussion was the notion of retaining valuable employees.  The three representatives of alternative careers–publishing, film industry, and high school teaching–said pretty much the same thing: if they like you, and if you find a way to make yourself indispensable, they’ll find a way to keep you on.  In Mark’s experience, this definitely seemed to be true of high schools–even though he was initially hired for only a week, the school found a way to retain him because they valued his abilities.  The same cannot be said for the university, where a one-year contract is usually just that–a one-year contract.  The previous speaker, John, urged participants not to buy into the myth that universities will find a way to keep you after your contract is up because they “like” you.  They may like you, but when your contract’s up it’s up, and it’s rare that a university will go out of its way to create a whole new position for you.  This, for me, was yet another appealing aspect of high school teaching: the idea of being appreciated for your skills to the point where an institution would actually put forth effort to keep you around.

Next post: working in the film industry (or how a lit PhD can lead you to researching snake accuracy for Anaconda)

9 comments on “Alternative Academic Careers: Private High School Teaching

  1. Jennifer
    May 11, 2010

    Sounds like exploitation is everywhere, though I guess it’s not exactly new to education. It’s just the level of exploitation that’s new, and getting worse.

    One of our common friends (hint: worked at Nishimachi) also gave me that justification for teaching exclusively at private schools: “they might be teaching the elite, but they’re teaching the people who will likely be future senators and CEO’s.” It kind of pisses me off. I mean, it’s not her fault (or Mark’s fault) that teachers are treated like crap at some public schools, but not all public school districts are created equal. (And not all private schools are that enlightened.) Remember Jackie? She and her siblings go to a damn good public high school in New York state, one with a high rate of kids moving on to Ivy League universities.

    Also, our current president is a product of public schools, so the notion that the private school kids are the true “future leaders” is not necessarily true.

    I guess I just don’t want to give up on public schools. Even while I watch them getting worse and worse, I can’t get over the feeling that the *reason* they’re getting so bad is because more and more people are giving up on them. I’m hoping the system is still somehow salvageable. But that’s not going to happen until we give teachers competitive salaries to keep them from taking their knowledge and skills elsewhere.

  2. gradland
    May 11, 2010

    I definitely, definitely do NOT want to give up on public schools. And I completely agree that the kids going to expensive private schools are not automatically the next leaders of the world–almost everyone I know is a product of public education, and plenty of them are doing amazing things with their lives. I’ve been torn up about this for years. In the same way that adjuncts have to stand up and refuse to be exploited, teachers (and parents, and politicians, and everyday people) have to demand that we place a higher value on public education. I think Jeffrey Canada’s done something truly remarkable with the Harlem Children’s Zone, and I really hope that ideas like that spread. I feel like I should be one of the ones in the trenches trying to make public schools better, but it’s so, so hard to have any impact without any money, and it’s so hard to get money when people don’t give public educators the respect they deserve. For now I’m going to keep volunteering in the public school systems and try to reach kids that way, but at some point the focus has got to shift to improving the schools themselves.

  3. laxpek
    May 11, 2010

    Great reporting. Teaching for a private school sounds a lot more appealing than adjuncting. Did “Mark” give details about class size v. pay? Also, is he an aluminus of our department?

  4. gradland
    May 12, 2010

    I can’t recall if he was an alumni (I think he might have been). He didn’t mention salary specifics, but said that the salary was generous (enough to take summers off and take nice vacations). Class size was around 16 students.

  5. Pingback: Adjuncting and High School Teaching: Adventures in Post-Gradland « Post Academic

  6. Cora
    June 25, 2010

    I really appreciate this blog. Thank you.

    I am 1 year out of my PhD, very successful in terms of publication and presentation, but struggling to find a job. I just moved to NYC and a friend suggested that I try one of the elite private schools. After reading this, I feel better informed about the issues.

    So, thank you

  7. Andrew Roedell
    September 2, 2010

    I earned my Ph.D. in history from Georgetown several years ago, and have been working there since as a university administrator. Last year, I decided that I wanted to move into high school teaching, and I am now pursuing my M.Ed. in secondary education at night while continuing to work as an administrator during the day. I want to have the option of teaching in a public school; however, given the number of fine private schools where I live (in the Washington, D.C. area) I would certainly be open to teaching at a private school.

  8. gradland
    September 3, 2010

    To Cora–you’re welcome, glad the posts were helpful, so sorry it took me so long to reply!

    To Andrew–I’ve also struggled with the public vs. private question (as I outlined in the post & comments). In the end I think it’s just good to have options. Good luck in your search!

  9. Pingback: Professional Development Courses: In Need of an Overhaul « Adventures in Gradland

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