Rethinking Your Teaching Options

In the latest issue of Perspectives, which is published by the American Historical Association, there is a very disturbing letter from a woman who is close to finishing her PhD, but is concerned about locating a teaching position.  Here is a short excerpt from her letter:

I have come to the conclusion, now that I am almost ready to defend my dissertation and enter the academic job market, that this may be a very poor career-path choice. The overall impression I have derived from the various articles is that unless I am a white male graduate of a top-ten school, working in a currently "hot" field, and under the age of 35, my chances of finding secure and long-term employment in a teaching position are slim to none. And should I actually be lucky enough to make it through a job-search experience that is almost universally panned, even by those who completed it successfully, I can anticipate a quite low starting salary in comparison to professions with similar or lesser credentialing requirements. I am forced to ask myself: Why bother?

Now I don’t want to debate the merits of any gender or age bias in the academy because I don’t operate in that environment.  What I do know is that I’ve read and listened to a great deal of commentary about the state of the job market and other concerns that go into landing that first job that would make all of the hard work worthwhile.  I’ve heard way too many stories of disappointment in connection with those massive job fairs that take place at the annual meeting of the AHA or the statistics that have 150 candidates applying for one job.  I can certainly sympathize with the anxieties that go into a job search. 

Given all of this, what I don’t understand is why graduate programs in history have not done more to highlight the possibilities of teaching in a private school.  Of course part of the answer is obvious: One does not struggle through a PhD program to end up anywhere but in a college setting where there is time to pontificate and publish.  There is a stigma attached with settling for anything other than a 4-year institution or a sense that one has ultimately failed.  But is this narrow view justified given the state of the job market and other relevant factors?  In other words, perhaps it can be argued that this condescending attitude is keeping young PhD’s from pursuing a career that could prove to be incredibly rewarding. 

Let me use myself as an example of someone who has learned to balance the demands of the classroom with a fairly successful record of scholarship and service.  Please keep in mind that I do not have a PhD, but much of my activity has come to mirror the life of a professor. 

I should start out with the challenges that all private school teachers deal with in various degrees.  The teaching loads are heavy.  I teach five sections (not all on the same day) and have three preps.  This amounts to around 70 students, which means meetings, conferences, parents, etc.  In short, its not easy.  Many private schools also place an emphasis on coaching one of the three sports seasons.  The responsibilities vary across the board. 

As challenging as the life of a private school teacher is there is much to recommend it, even for newly-minted PhD’s.  Most classes are small in size; my largest section is 16 students.  Private school students are a fairly obedient breed, which means they can be taught and they will actually do their work.  They tend to be motivated even if tends to be focused simply on getting into the right college.  Most importantly, as a group they tend to be fairly bright and curious.  All of this makes for productive classes with a surprising amount of original thought and dialogue.  For those of you out there who abhor the prospects of having to publish a certain amount for tenure and who actually enjoy the dynamics of the classroom the private school world may be for you.  If colleges and universities are serious about instilling good teaching habits in their graduate students it stands to reason that a career that concentrates on the classroom should be seen as a serious option following graduation. 

But even if you have publishing aspirations there may be a home for you in a private school.  Output will certainly be lower than what you will find in the college world, but I assume that many people would be happy being able to publish a few things within a life of teaching.  This is where I fall.  I’ve managed to publish a number of pieces in academic journals, popular magazines, and one edited collection.  There is even the possibility of working on larger projects if you are able to successfully budget the required time.  Beyond publishing I’ve been able to attend and present at numerous academic conferences and have served as a referee for three academic journals.  My school allows me to miss classes to attend conferences and has even financially supported some of these trips.  In fact, I’ve been encouraged to attend conferences since it involves positive publicity for the school. 

I am not simply trying to toot my own horn here.  The life of a private school teacher can in fact accommodate much of what goes into a university position even if aspects of it are curtailed.  Again, I imagine that many graduate students would be happy in a position where they were able to engage in a minimal amount of scholarship in exchange for the joys of the classroom.  They should at least be introduced to it as a serious option. 

I am not aware of any organized effort on the part of the AHA or OAH in this regard.  This is odd given the amount of attention on bridging the gap between professional scholarship and the introduction of that material in the high school classroom.  The OAH has made a list of professors available for visits to schools and both organizations have published numerous pamphlets and magazines written for the high school classroom.  Finally, high school teachers can attend summer conferences such as the Gilder-Lehrman Institute which are led by some of the brightest minds in the academy.  If the AHA and OAH are really interested in bridging the divide between these two worlds than it stands to reason that they would promote the life of a high school history teacher as a viable option.  If professional historians can write the curricula material than they should be able to teach it.

I have a feeling that the tendency to ignore the private school route is denying plenty of young scholars/teachers a fulfilling and meaningful career.     

14 thoughts on “Rethinking Your Teaching Options

  1. Brooks Simpson

    Kevin — I find the letter to be one person’s perspective, and not one that is validated by reality. I say this as someone who’s headed search committees and served in them, and in my case the successful searches hired female applicants. It would be interesting to see what sort of job the writer desires, and I can say a lot of white males would laugh at her description of a race and gender bias (things are a bit more complicated than that, but the writer’s same is simply not representative).

    Had my former prep school not bobbled a series of searches in which they came to me late or erred in other ways, I’d probably be a prep school teacher and a hockey coach. And that would have been just fine.

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Brooks, — I think I made it clear that I am not in a position to assess the validity of this writer’s situation. That said, as a member of the OAH and AHA I’ve read plenty of frustrating accounts of the current job market and growing concerns about various aspects of college life, including the quality of students. I am inclined to agree with you re: this writers’ complaints, but it doesn’t seem to detract from the jist of my posts.

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  3. John Maass

    Another aspect of this discussion must be pay. How much does a private school teacher make, with a Ph.D., typically? It is very important, because as surveys show, most Ph.D.’s come out of their programs with a condsiderable amount of debt in the form of student loans. If the salaries are not high enough, or don;t get close to college jobs, then many folks might not even consider private high school jobs. I have no idea what they tend to pay so I can’t make any meaningful comparisons, but the question arose in my mind.
    Also–this woman SURELY should have been aware of the bleak job market when she went into the program she is in. If not, she was blind. The market has been bad for decades, and that has been well known. I have little sympathy for folks who chose to ignore this. I knew it going in, and am not surprised now that I am set to finish soon as well.

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  4. Kevin Levin

    You make some good points John. Obviously I don’t want to say too much about my salary, but if I were to leave here for a university job at the level of an Assistant Professor I would take a considerable pay cut. I’ve been teaching in my present position for 6 years and have enjoyed steady increases over that time. My school also provides an excellent healthcare and retirement program with TIAA-CREF. Both pay and other benefits vary from school to school. From what I can tell, however, a starting salaray at the average private school easily competes with a professor’s starting salary.

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  5. Brooks Simpson

    One of the questions raised by the letter is what sort of job does the applicant anticipate holding? Does the writer want to teach at a research institution? A place where there’s a mix? It’s just not clear. But the stats of the job market don’t bear out the observations offered, and I think the writer generalizes far too much from one perspective.

    Over the last several years the AHA has been emphasizing the development of faculty for various institutions through a program known as PFF (Preparing Future Faculty). The assumption is that in most cases many grad schools do a better job of preparing people for jobs at research-oriented institutions, and taking any sort of job “below” that (in other words, other than that) represents failure. That has as much to do with advisor ego as anything else. PFF opens the door to the various sorts of institutions out there.

    People always complain that the job market is tough until they get a job. I never found it quite as tough. I got two jobs while I was ABD, and a third within months of getting my PhD. I would err if I generalized from my own experience, and I do think historians who work in the Civil War period have some obstacles to surmount that are period-specific.

    As for teaching, I’d rather work in smaller classrooms than in larger ones, and your student body is far more selective than mine. The result: different challenges. Preparing grad students also presents different challenges. Ironically, although I fare well as a graduate advisor/mentor, it’s not why I got into this line of work, and I enjoy teaching undergrads more. I enjoyed doing that more at Wofford than I do here, although I’ve had some exceptional undergrad classes here.

    As you point out, there are very different teaching and research experiences depending on where one teaches. There are also very different job market experiences, and frankly, when I read the letter you highlighted, I’m reminded of Grant’s comment that the worse place to assess the course of a battle is from the rear.

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  6. Kevin Levin

    I am now even more convinced that quoting from that letter was a mistake given the purpose of the post as a whole. Thanks for the reference to PFF which sounds interesting though it is not clear whether it would include information about private school opportunities. I love the way you snuck that Grant reference in – cant’s go wrong there.

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  7. Brooks Simpson

    Okay, let’s deal directly with your premise. I don’t disagree with it at all. In fact, I think that if you go through a good MA program at a good school (like UVa, where I went as an undergrad), you should emerge with the tools to do good research and write good books and articles. Where you are unusual, Kevin, is that you’ve been able to teach at a private secondary school while still maintaining some access to the world of researching, writing, and publishing, including appearances at conferences and in print/cyberprint. That’s unusual. Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but it is.

    Getting a PhD is a getting a license to teach at the college/university level. There are many career paths to happiness, depending on how one defines happiness. I think you are on the mark when it comes to peer and mentor expectation when it comes to defining success or failure. And, as for the 150 applicants for a single slot stuff, that’s overblown, too. The real news is dire enough as it is: I’d say that in a mainstream job there will be 15-20 applicants who are qualified for the position advertised. That’s my experience, and I’ve served on search committees for some time.

    I think the PFF program would be what would interest you most, except even then it’s linked to getting a PhD. WShat the OAH and AHA have failed to do is to point out and support other career paths the same way they support the PhD career that targets a research institution. The nature of the annual meeting should be proof enough of that.

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  8. Kevin Levin

    Brooks, — I appreciate your reigning me in reference to a few points that I’ve made. It should be clear by now that my knowledge is limited as to the dynamics of the job market and related issues. I guess what it comes down to is that over the past few years I’ve met a number of people who would make very good high school teachers based on some of their concerns/complaints about their experiences in the college classroom. Reading the letter that I cited above led to some questions about the extent to which a career in a private school is considered.

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  9. Brooks Simpson

    Let me suggest that one issue is timing. In the 1980s I was quite willing to consider a career as a private school teacher. However, I was in grad school at the time, and what I noticed is that in most cases the schools did not advertise openings until it was too late for the next year. Now, to be sure, that’s twenty years ago, but had the school in question done its homework (twice), things might well have been different.

    I don’t think many people who become interested in a college/university career ever think of a community college alternative or a private school alternative as a choice (as opposed to a necessity). That’s too bad. I think you are exactly right: if people really do love teaching, then private school is one route that could prove very satisfying. You’ve demonstrated that one can do this while maintaining an active interest in scholarship. So did, for example, Donald Cole at Exeter. Moreover, I believe smaller classes make for more satisfying teaching experiences (as well as learning experiences). That’s the sort of thing you might want to chat about with the AHA: a workshop on private schools where some private school recruiters link up with people on the job market. You might be surprised at the result.

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  10. John Maass

    Another facet of this issue is that PhD programs continue to accept new students, and trun out new PhD’s, even though those who run the programs know full well that there are not enough jobs in higher education for them. Is this irresponsible? Many say so. One of the main reasons the larger programs do this is to get a large number of grad students to teach lower level courses to undergrads, which allows the universities to avoid hiring full time faculty ($$$$$) to do so. Thus, to get back to the original letter Kevin wrote about, one of the reasons for a lack of openings the newly-minted PhD complained about is due to the fact that universities are often well-staffed by graduate students.

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  11. Kevin Levin

    Thanks for the additional comment John. I cross-posted this over at Revise and Dissent and while it hasn’t received much attention I did get this comment from George Russell Lamplugh:

    Kevin,
    You hit several nails right on their heads with your post about the advantages of private school teaching for historians. I had a PhD in hand when I was first hired by a private school over three decades ago. I don’t know who took the greater chance when I was hired: my employer, in view of the risk I would leave as soon as “something better” turned up; or me, blithely assuming that I could make the transition from neophyte “professor” to “teacher.” But things have worked out well.
    Your comments about private school students were right on, based on my experience. (I might add that I have really enjoyed my colleagues over the years, too. They tend to take the academic side of things very seriously, yet have personality to spare.) Oh, and at most schools, the coaching requirement is very real, which will of course scare off some candidates but should not–normally, they’re not looking for varsity coaches, so anyone who is physically fit can make a contribution.
    If you have self-discipline (and, if married, an understanding spouse), you also can combine private school teaching with scholarly productivity, as you note. Like you, I have managed to turn out my share of scholarly productions, even as I helped raise a family and taught my five classes most semesters. I also had the opportunity to chair my department for nearly a decade, an experience I found both challenging and rewarding.
    So, let’s continue to beat the drum about teaching in private schools. While it’s certainly not for everyone, people who approach the task with the proper outlook will find it just as satisfying as teaching on the college level and, in some cases, even more so.

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  12. thebizofknowledge

    As an educator, I was quite interested in your experiences and observations about alternative career paths for those with PhD’s. I had never considered the private school option, so I feel I truly learned something here.

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