[Note: Several times over the past few years, I’ve been asked by My Old Graduate School (MOGS) to speak to interested students about “prep school” teaching as an alternative to a career in the traditional professoriate (because, of course, those jobs are as scarce as hen’s teeth). Here are remarks from my most recent foray into “career counselling,” mid-October, 2012.]
Almost four decades ago, I was in pretty much the same position a lot of you are now: finishing my dissertation and hoping to find a college or university teaching job, but apparently there were none out there for me.
I still wanted to teach, so I decided to look into doing so on the secondary level. Moreover, because I had no “Education” courses in my resume, I confined my search to private (or independent) schools, figuring that they might not require Ed courses as a condition of employment. (It turned out I was wrong, as you’ll learn shortly.) Anyway, I lucked out: in the Fall of 1973, I began teaching at a prep school, which I’ll call Atlanta’s Finest Prep School (AFPS), across town from MOGS, believing that I’d stay there only until “something better came along.” Well, since I retired from AFPS thirty-seven years later, obviously nothing better came along. Why not? Or, put another way, what was there about teaching at a “prep school” that kept me so interested that I stopped looking for a college teaching position?
Teaching in a prep school is not for everyone. In fact, a friend in grad school once told me over coffee that he’d “rather sell shoes than teach in high school.” (He never had to do either, as it turned out.) What are the positive and negative aspects of this particular career choice? Based on my experience, and bearing in mind that I taught at the secondary level at only one school, though for a very long time, here are some plusses and minuses.
1. My students were a very able bunch, on the whole–I did things with them in high school that I had done with freshmen and sophomores here during my years as a TA. All of our prep school History courses, even those for freshmen and sophomores, used college-level texts. Moreover, the department’s Advanced Placement courses were supposed to be taught on the college level, but with this significant difference: because these college-level courses are taught in a secondary school, most of the time there was–ahem!–daily acountability for assignments. (This is a key difference between “professing” and “teaching.”)
2. My prep school faculty colleagues were bright, spirited, interesting people. (And every department eventually had a PhD or two, thanks to the college-teaching job market, or lack thereof.) Moreover, the folks in the History Department got along very well, which was definitely not the case in every department.
3. In History, at any rate, prep schools usually do not want or need narrowly specialized teachers, which is another way of saying that most courses at AFPS are survey-level ones. But, here’s a little secret: curricular fashions change, and, if you stay at a school long enough, you will have the opportunity to design and teach an elective course or two. For instance, over almost forty years, I delved into a number of different areas I might never have looked at otherwise, using skills imparted by my grad school professors. In addition to my “field,” American History, I taught–and in some cases created–courses in Introduction to History, History of the Ancient World, AP European History, Modern European History, History of the Modern World , the Civil Rights Movement, the Modern South, Old Testament, and even, to alumni on our annual “Back-to-School Night,” a series of offerings on the history of the Blues. When I had an itch to study theology, I did so in Education for Ministry (EFM), an extension course in theology offered through the theology school at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and AFPS, believing this program “professional growth” (because AFPS is a self-professed “Christian Preparatory School for Boys and Girls”), picked up the tab.
4. Private schools usually have less paperwork and bureaucracy than public schools, although, over time, my school did become increasingly mired in various sorts of what I refer to as “administrivia,” but, I’m guessing, not nearly to the extent that phenomenon has taken root in the public sector.
5. There is no “publish or perish” requirement at the prep school level! However, if you are a self-disciplined sort (and, if married, have an understanding spouse), you should be able to put into practice the scholarly training skills emphasized by your grad school professors. In my own case, for instance, I continued to do research, gave papers, published articles and book reviews, even converted my dissertation into a book. (And, since the mid-1990s, I’ve been working on a second book, the initial research for which was funded by a three-summer sabbatical from AFPS.)
6. The pay at AFPS was decent, though I certainly did not become rich (and, come to think of it, most people who go into teaching do so for reasons other than amassing material wealth, or so I’ve heard).
7. Our sons attended the school at a discount (a perk no longer offered there, by the way). My wife retired this past June from the AFPS elementary library after a very satisfying career of her own, which meant, among other things, that our family vacation times always coincided.
1. I found that I did have to be “certified” in “Education” by the state of Georgia. Initially, I was issued a “provisional” certificate, with the understanding that I would upgrade it to the next level, which meant taking two Education courses a year for five consecutive years (AFPS paid for this). Eventually, the school stopped requiring its high school teachers to achieve state certification. Instead, AFPS created an “intern program” to certify new teachers according to the standards of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS)–the class met once a month in the evening and had a couple of sessions during the school day.
2. Extracurricular activities–Prep schools like to think they hire “Renaissance men and women” who can teach, of course, but who also are expected to help out the school by coaching athletic teams, advising clubs or publications, counseling students in homerooms or other venues, and handling administrative tasks, sometimes all at once. Over my career, for example, I coached lower-level boys and girls soccer, as well as intramural jogging for students and an afterschool jogging program for interested faculty; advised the student council; served as head of the History Department for a decade; mentored new History teachers in our “intern program”; was one of the senior class advisors; edited an electronic History Department newsletter; and put in time on numerous committees. A word of advice here: if you decide to apply to prep schools, let them know which activities you have experience with and enjoy doing. Cast as broad a net as possible here–you’d be surprised at how varied the needs are that a school is required to fill (inside and outside the classroom) in hiring each year. The more versatile you come across on your application, the better chance you’ll have of being hired.
3. I’m including this item on the “minus” side, not because I view it in a negative light but because I’m just not sure what you might expect in the way of a teaching load. At AFPS, a full-time teacher who did not coach a varsity sport or occupy a major administrative post normally taught five classes per semester, each of which met four times a week, on a rotating schedule, so I never had the same course at the same time each day. My classes were fairly small, a total of between 60 and 70 students over five sections; but, as was the case with red tape and bureaucratization, class sizes have also crept up in recent years, largely for economic reasons.
4. What I learned here at MOGS as a teaching assistant all those years ago was how to “profess”; what I was expected to do at AFPS was to “teach.” Now, don’t get me wrong: the terms are certainly not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are related. Each involves conveying information to students who may or may not be predisposed to enjoy it. On the prep school level, though, the students are younger; student accountability is daily, rather than at mid-semester and semester’s end; and communicating regularly with parents is very much part of the equation. I found the task of morphing from “professor” to “teacher,” which took several years, both very challenging and immensely rewarding. Looking back on it, I would not trade the experience for anything.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: