I’m sorry… ‘JUST’ Teach High School?

One of the many suggestions I’ve gotten in the past few months is that I should try to teach high school. This is a terrific suggestion—and, in fact, I am in the process of researching how to do this, right this second. I am working with a kind friend who went from PhD to prep school a few years ago and has straight-up offered to do me a solid and mentor me—helping me turn my CV into a resume, arrange informational interviews with Heads of School, etc.

I’m aware that this blog has been kvetch central for the last few weeks (and make no mistake, I am still very broken from four years on the academic job market, and wouldn’t wish the anguish it caused on anyone), but I would really like to be taking my life in a positive direction right now.

BUT. In order to do it, I have a lot to learn—a whole new industry to learn about, with its own serious challenges.

And this brings me to—soooprize—a  kvetch I have with some of the suggestions that I teach high school. Not from friends, but from strangers, like this excerpt from a piece of hate mail I got a week or so ago:

At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself, did you get into this job because you love teaching, you love German literature, and you love reading, researching, and writing about it, or did you get into this job because you wanted to find a magic bullet that will let you coast through life?  

DIGRESSION ANALYSIS (haha, get it, my Social Science homies?): That is what we in the humanities learn to recognize as a “false dichotomy.” I got “into this job” neither because I “love” German literature enough to do it for free (see my previous post on the “love” fallacy for why that is offensive), NOR because I want very mixed set of metaphors that will give me an easy life. I started the PhD in literature for the hell of it because I had no idea what else to do with myself—and then during graduate school I somehow metamorphosed myself into an academic Ungeziefer (which I write all about in my next piece for the Chronicle of Higher Ed, out any day now!). I was—am—good at reading, researching and teaching German literature, so I thought it would be a good job for me to have. “Love” was somewhat involved, but “magic bullets” had nothing to do with it. Granted, this particular hate mail was from someone who did not understand that I don’t actually think tenured profs work five hours a week and can’t be fired for any reason, so, you know. ANYWAY, here’s my point:

If it is the later (sic) reason, then you should consider teaching German in high school.  It will only take two years to get tenure, after which, depending on the school district, there is a very good chance, no matter how bad your performance, you will not get fired.  You will get summers off, health insurance, and a pension.  You will not need to waste your free time doing research, staying abreast in your field, or serving on committees.  Since you will not need to publish in peer reviewed journals, you will never be evaluated, and you can inflate the grades in your class by giving all your students A’s, whether they earned it or not.  No one will be the wiser.  Yes, you will be very overqualified for the job, but it fulfills everything you consider important, so maybe it is a better option for you.

There’s so much to unpack here—where do I even start? BULLSHIT OVERLOAD! CHAOS ON EDUCATIONAL BULLSHIT MOUNTAIN! All right, I will try my best.

Falsehood #1: I want a job that is easy. What am I, a millennial? Hahaha, buuuurn. (“Buuuurn,” by the way, is an expression that Gen Xers used in the 90s to convey satisfaction with the extent to which they…what’s the correct millennial term? I think it’s “pwned someone”? That’s not a real word. AAAANYWAY. I am 36 human adult years old, and have had one job or another—sometimes more than one at once!—since I was 15 and quit gymnastics and had my afternoons free. I like to work. I like to work hard. I wanted to be a professor because it’s hard work that I happen to find very rewarding.)

Falsehood #2: High school teaching is easy, and so I should “just” do it because as a PhD with college experience, I am obviously overqualified for it. This could not be further from the truth. That’s like saying: well, you have an MBA and experience at a hedge fund, so you are waaaay overqualified to teach high-school math. Both an MBA and I are “over”-qualified in subject matter (maybe?), but as my kind friend has recently pointed out to me very eloquently, subject knowledge is like 20% of successful teaching, max. It’s important, make no mistake, but more important is actually being able to connect with and inspire students to learn. And even more important is actually liking students in the age group you’re working with, and knowing a little bit about adolescent development! In this vein, both the MBA and I are tragically underqualified until we learn us some important and challenging new shit that we might not even be good at learning, who knows?!?

Falsehood #3: High-school teaching is not as prestigious or important as university teaching, and thus people who do it must suck more than college professors do. This one just gets a nice big /HEADDESK/ because it does not even deserve my time or yours. This is not how I feel, nor is it how anyone should feel, unless that person is an asshole. The end.

So…anyone out there teach high school English or Social Studies? Anyone transitioned from PhD to prep school, or PhD to public school? Advice? (Besides “try to get represented by Carney Sandahoe”…or “try to get represented by Cal/West”—they both rejected me out of hand).


12 thoughts on “I’m sorry… ‘JUST’ Teach High School?

  1. The idea that teaching high school is something anyone can do (not that I doubt for a moment that you would be excellent) demonstrates yet again the low esteem in which K-12 education is held.


  2. I myself did make the jump to a private high school, and you’re right, it’s hard. My mother, sister, and wife are all teachers, so I at least had some sense of what I was getting into. It is not as intellectually demanding as being a prof, but is about ten times more physically and spiritually demanding. I also love my job and love teaching my students, and am glad I did not pursue non-teaching paths when I left the academy.

    Carney Sandhoe rejected me too, but they are a bunch of stuck-up snobs. Go to the website for the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools.) You can see job ads and file application materials electronically through them. It’s a much less time consuming and more humane process than the academic job market. Then again, what isn’t?

    I got my job at a school that’s very broad minded. My background was unorthodox, but they took a chance on me. You’re obviously a fantastic teacher, and your methodology will make you a highly attractive candidate.


  3. Here’s a blog for you to check out:


    Anastasia left adjuncthood back around the time I left my grad program, and went on to teach at a private school – though I can’t remember if it was high school or junior high. She’s still teaching there, and has chronicled her ups and downs for the past couple of years.

    Anyway, I don’t think she has a public email and her blog’s a bit hard to navigate, but if you go back through her archives (I’m thinking that she got her new job two school years ago?) you might find some useful info there.

    Good luck! I’ve also gotten the “why don’t you just teach high school?” query. Personally, I think that teaching K-12 would be a lot harder in a lot of ways than being a professor … and I think I’d be awful at it. “Teaching” is not a universal skill that everyone will love and be awesome at in every context, you know? Sheesh.


    • Thank you for this! Yes, k-12 teaching is many times more difficult than university teaching by most accounts. And you get the added bonus of the derision and condescension of the anti-educator populace. Goody! I am still interested in seeing if I might be good at it, but my eyes are wide open. Especially when it comes to the deleterious effects of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.


  4. You are so right! The idea that the skills translate so easily is crazy to me – there are totally different challenges that should not be underestimated! One of my good friends is becoming a public school teacher, and her “class prep” isn’t putting together interesting syllabi and planning out lectures, it’s making detailed lesson plans for every 40 minute period to teach a state-regulated curriculum toward standardized tests, and trying to figure out how to deal with the fact that some of her students DO fail regardless of her efforts.

    I’m considering this transition in a vague way, but I need to talk to a lot more private school teachers, because I’m honestly not sure my strengths, or even what I want out of my career, are a good fit. Teaching high school is not something to take lightly, it’s an important and difficult job that people need to be GOOD at!


    • Absolutely. Despite being a total pinko, I am looking into private school precisely because I don’t want to just teach to tests all year. But maybe that’s all private school teaches nowadays too. I am trying my best to find out!


  5. I trained to teach secondary school before going on to grad school and sometimes consider going back (finishing my license, etc). It’s extraordinarily challenging and rewarding and I think if you love teaching freshmen, HS can work. That said, it’s immensely time consuming, especially the first 2yrs when you are establishing lesson plans. That plus the insane bureaucracy of testing/ state curricula makes me wary. I love having my evenings open!


  6. I stumbled upon this from a google search. As a PhD I have found such a oversaturated job market. Guest lecturing at a local liberal arts school is cool. I do research and work with some pretty good professors. But, with that said I decided to teach HS. I have applied and hope to get called for an interview. I do wonder why most of these states require PhDs to get “certification”? I feel old now generation X has not died.


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