[NOTE: In 1973, I earned a PhD in American History. Then, given the grim realities of the job market for a would-be college professor, I made a leap in the dark, signing on at a “prep school” until “something better came along,” but it turned out that I remained there for thirty-seven years. This career trajectory has been of interest to others on the verge of earning a PhD, whose college job prospects are just as bleak–if not bleaker–than mine were. On several occasions, I have been asked by My Old Graduate School (MOGS) to speak to some of these folks. A year or so ago, I posted here the substance of one such talk, which quickly became the most popular destination on the site. This time, I would like to examine the topic from a slightly different angle.
Assuming that you manage to secure a prep school teaching position because of, or perhaps despite, your doctorate, are there skills you can bring to the job that might ensure that you survive on the secondary level until you find that alluring “something better” in the college ranks (though I never achieved that elusive goal)?
Naturally, much of what follows is autobiographical, but the advice also reflects experience working with teachers as a department head, as well as time spent mentoring new teachers before and after my term in the department chair.]
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Although you may hope to land a college job as soon as possible, it is crucial that you not emphasize this to the prep school that’s paying your salary. And, realistically, you will be busy preparing for the courses you’ve been assigned and adjusting to myriad other demands of the new job so, if you are conscientious, you won’t have time to search for an ivory tower position, at least at first.
It also helps to have a broad background in your discipline. The “bread and butter” prep school courses, the kind that new faculty tend to inherit, are of the survey variety, rather than narrowly specialized (e.g., AP U.S. History, rather than the history of, say, political parties in the state of Georgia between 1776 and 1806–an inside joke, the topic of my dissertation). For reasons detailed elsewhere, I chose to pursue a liberal arts-oriented undergraduate education, rather than remain a “History Education” major. (I would eventually pay for neglecting “Education” courses as an undergraduate; my “penance” would be that, once I began working at a prep school, I was required to take two “Ed. courses” a year for five years in order to earn state certification. I survived, none the worse for wear; at least a couple of the Education courses I took actually proved useful–but that’s two out of ten.)
My grad school required a major in one area (in my case, American History), as well as a minor field (I chose Modern European). Thus, I was not deterred (though perhaps I should have been) when told, during an interview at the prep school that eventually hired me, that, in addition to American History, I might be asked to teach Ancient and Medieval. And, sure enough, I spent the summer before I began working there reading a survey textbook and “Penguin Classics” translations of Greek and Roman historical works, preparing to teach Ancient History. It was a great experience, which I’ve never forgotten!
Given my graduate training, I believed I was well-equipped to “profess” on the secondary level, especially since I had been assured that my new school was “like a little college.” For the first couple of years, I lectured in the classroom almost exclusively. (Indeed, I had been required to take a grad school course, “Introduction to College Teaching,” which might as well have been entitled “How to Lecture About History for Fun and Profit.”) That I was hired and stayed so long, I attribute at least partly to the influence of several influential teachers from my past. So, I arrived at my new job with a broad background in the subject matter, the support of examples set by a few great teachers, and loads of enthusiasm, none of which, by the way, actually guaranteed that I’d make a go of it in a high-powered prep school.
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In grad school, one’s narrowly specialized “field” sometimes seems the be-all and end-all. In my new job, however, although I taught some version of American History annually, I also had the opportunity over the years to prepare and teach a number of courses outside of my “area of specialization.” Moreover, as a department chair hoping to broaden our “Euro-centric” curriculum (still another idea beyond the pale when I was in grad school), I created several offerings in “World History.” Despite veering so far off the narrow path dictated by my graduate training, in other words, I could draw on a broad background in History when dealing with curriculum, and this proved quite an asset.
One of my early tasks was to discern what the difference was between being a “professor,” the job I had trained for at MOGS, and a “teacher,” the position I had wound up in at the secondary level. In addition to taking “Introduction to College Teaching” as a grad student, as a teaching assistant in the American History survey course I also had prepared lectures that essentially amounted to my own personal American History “textbook,” and of course I was going to use those lectures in my new job!
Yet, my prep school students, especially the seniors, made it clear early on that constantly talking at them, being the “Sage on the Stage” four classes a week, would not be sufficient. So, I began to re-think my teaching strategy. One of the first things I did was stop “lecturing” so often, which took real will power, given my grad school experience. I still lectured occasionally, especially in Advanced Placement classes, which were supposed to be taught at the “college level.” Over time, however, I also incorporated into my classes both teacher- and student-led discussions, exercises in historical reflection, music, film, and the occasional “alternative assessment” instead of a final exam (topics for another time, perhaps).
In grad school, I had held my students “accountable” a few times a semester (e.g. mid-term, book review, final exam). Yet, while most prep schools boast that they “prepare” students for college by offering demanding courses, taught by well-qualified instructors, accountability in those courses is usually on a daily, not an occasional, basis. This, it seems to me, is one of the major difference between being a “professor” and being a “teacher.”
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Educational technology can change with almost shattering swiftness. Affluent institutions, like mine, purchased the latest technology, and teachers were expected to master it quickly and effectively, even if, as happened occasionally, no one “in authority” seemed sure why we “had to have it.” When I began my prep school teaching career, we used typewriters to prepare “spirit masters” (“dittos”), which we then “ran off” to produce syllabi, tests, and quizzes. It was a smelly, messy process, but it was the best we could do, at least until the “Xerox” machine came along.
Boards in our classrooms in the early days were either black or green. Eventually, however, they were white, at first simply surfaces on which teachers wrote with liquid markers, but ultimately linked to computers, and, thus, able to play compact discs or project DVDs and Power Point presentations for, and increasingly by, our students. We also “progressed” from writing comments about students by hand, to word processing them and entering grades into the computer. My handwriting had deteriorated rapidly over the years, so word processing definitely was a step in the right direction for me.
Using all of this new–and costly–technology became the rule, rather than the exception. Naturally, in the brave new teaching world of the twenty-first century, technological challenges will continue to come at you thick and fast, whether you understand them initially (or perhaps even wonder if they’re really necessary), and you need to be ready to throw yourselves into the battle with all the energy you can muster. In short, you need to be ready to “roll with the punches” in this and other areas, even if, by doing so, you find yourself reeling about the ring, head throbbing, looking for a place to collapse. While this might seem to be a “no brainer” to some of you, trust me: as you age, you will probably find yourself grappling with new technology less enthusiastically than in your younger days.
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One thing grad school had not prepared me for was working closely with students outside the classroom. When my future principal interviewed me and mentioned “coaching assignments,” I thought he was kidding–he wasn’t! Whatever my actual merits as a “coach” (and they were few), I still contributed to the extracurricular side of things, because prep schools usually do not hire staff members whose only responsibility is to coach, especially on the lower levels (junior varsity and middle school, for example). Therefore, most teachers are expected to “coach” something and do the best they can.
But, in prep schools, “coaching” is not limited to the athletic field. For instance, one might “coach (or advise)” band, drama, or debate; a newspaper, literary magazine, or yearbook; a community outreach organization, robotics team, gourmet cooking club, or student government; and the list goes on. For a new teacher, the key is to let the school know which area(s) you believe yourself qualified to “coach.” (NOTE: This is the great exception to a rule I learned in my Army days: “never volunteer for anything”!) Like “showing the flag” by occasionally attending school activities even though you don’t have to be there, coaching, whatever form it takes, provides an opportunity to see students in a different light and can help make you a more effective teacher.
Prep schools today are not staffed by characters from “Goodbye, Mr./Ms. Chips” (though there are a few). Over my tenure there, my school became less of a “laid-back” institution and more of a “business,” with a stronger emphasis on “accountability” and the “bottom line.” It also was much more bureaucratic by the time I retired than it had been when I signed on. Teachers gradually were loaded with more “administrivia” (my term for paperwork requirements that inevitably seemed to generate additional paperwork), though surely not as much as weighed down teachers in public schools.
Prep schools also do not do “publish or perish.” What I discovered was that, so long as I harbored dreams of teaching on the college level, I needed to carve out for myself time to do what my grad school mentors had taught me, in order to make myself an attractive candidate to a departmental search committee.
My understanding spouse and our children did not always enjoy watching me work on “my stuff”–articles, papers, book reviews–but they realized that it “kept me off the streets and out of pool halls,” even if it did not, in the end, land me a college job. Yet, the school’s rather expansive understanding of “professional development” proved a boon in the long run, subsidizing my participation in a four-year theology program (because I worked in a “Christian school”) and awarding a sabbatical that immeasurably aided the historical research project that ultimately (in 2015) produced my second book.
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For nearly forty years, I left my house each morning but never really “went to work;” instead, I “went to school.” I enjoyed it all, whether or not I was ever actually paid the “Big Bucks,” as I liked to brag to my classes. The decision to inform my dissertation director that I wished to stop looking for a college teaching job was one of the hardest things I had to do. Although I never got close to the collegiate “ivory tower” position I originally had hoped to secure in my grad school fantasies, I do not regret the choice I made, and, forty years on, I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: