BY GILLIAN STEINBERG
When I tell people that I left a tenured university position to teach high school, most suggest that I’ve taken a significant step backwards. But with so many college teachers either underemployed or feeling desperately pressured, more might want to consider the switch to high school teaching. High school teaching is not, as many people seem to think, a remedial version of college teaching but a different kind of work altogether; I aim briefly to detail those differences here as I’ve experienced them.
I spend much more time at work as a high school teacher than I did as a professor. At the university, I averaged about 18 hours weekly on campus while I now stay at school for 35 hours or more per week. Perhaps ironically, though, more hours at work have led to a healthier separation between work and leisure. At the university, I never felt that I was “off the clock;” the gift of that flexible college schedule meant that I felt the need to work at all hours, whether I was “at work” or not. As a professor, my time outside the office were spent not only on grading and lesson planning but on research, with tremendous pressure to publish. My new, less flexible schedule has enabled me to create a structure that allows for more completion of work in the office and therefore less spreading of work throughout every moment of my life.
- Teaching Schedule
Surprisingly, the high school schedule has allowed me to be a far more effective teacher. I hadn’t anticipated this improvement in my teaching before I switched jobs, but seeing my students every day rather than twice a week increases my ability to offer them material and activities in digestible chunks and to maintain a sense of continuity in our lessons. I had appreciated the once- or twice-weekly meetings of my college classes, but I hadn’t realized how much more education can be enacted in shorter, more frequent sessions. Students — not to mention the teacher! — are fresher for learning when they meet for less time more frequently, and my classes can easily pick up where we left off the previous day with our discussions and work fresh in our minds.
Even more importantly, having students for a solid year rather than a single semester has improved my teaching. When classes resume after winter break, I already know my students’ work well and can offer them personalized advice, seeing the trajectory of their growth more clearly and adapting class work and assignments to their needs. I had never realized how insufficient a single semester of instruction is until I experienced a full year of instruction; the difference is staggering.
I have continued to publish and maintained my involvement with scholarly organizations, but at a significantly slower pace than before and without the institutionalized incentives publication used to afford. I miss aspects of my scholarly writing life, including funding for conferences, research assistants, sabbaticals, and more writing time. However, I continue to have summers off and time to write, and I have felt liberated to write about what interests me rather than conforming to academic expectations about my production, its audiences, the prestige of publishers, and the reactions of reviewers. Having less pressure on my writing and fewer people to impressed with it — and separating it from career advancement — has allowed my writing to become a more pleasurable pursuit.
Perhaps more than any other difference between college and high school teaching, the specific colleges and high schools in question affect student maturity, readiness, and intellectual capability. My experiences are limited to the small, private liberal arts college — part of a larger university — where I spent most of my career and the private urban high school where I now teach. That said, the differences between juniors or seniors in high school and new college students has not seemed enormous to me. In my experience, college freshmen are relatively distracted, figuring out how to live on their own for the first time, experimenting with parties and meal plans and laundry and complete independence. My high school students, on the other hand, are laser-focused on college applications and future plans. And because the high school students’ lives are still relatively structured and the logistics are largely taken care of by their families, they have fewer outside distractions than college students do.
High school seniors remind me much more of college upperclassmen, in the sense that they are negotiating the next steps of their lives, dealing with endings (of living circumstances, romantic relationships, life stages) and beginnings (of new schools or jobs, new places to go, more choices). Both are a bit jaded with their current places and ready to move on to new things. The disparate ages of high school and college students seems less relevant than I would have imagined them to be. Intellectually, both groups want to be challenged and pushed in their thinking, and both demonstrate excitement about new ideas and a desire to be taught with engagement and enthusiasm.
- The Curriculum
My courses are no longer specialized as they once were, and I teach many more “general” classes now than I did at the university. High school teachers are often expected to teach the same works as our colleagues, but my department is very collaborative and open to suggestion, and so we have developed our shared curricula together. However, I do miss the extreme freedom of developing courses focused on my own research specialties and the flexibility of fully developing my own syllabus. At the same time, I have had to more carefully examine my philosophies of teaching, the foundations of the field, and the material I believe students need in order to be prepared for college and beyond, all of which have been valuable for my own thinking. A shared curriculum has forced me to teach works that otherwise would not appear on my syllabi and encouraged me to read many more works outside of my narrow specializations, and that return to basics has been surprisingly rewarding.
Dealing with parents has been the largest unanticipated change from college to high school teaching. When parents contacted me at the college — a rare occurrence — I would say, “I’m sorry, but FERPA regulations prevent me from speaking about your child without written permission,” and that ended the conversation. At the high school level, however, I meet with parents at conferences and communicate with them regularly via email and phone. Although my comments on student papers or report cards were likely seen by my college students’ parents, I never considered that audience. But high school students’ parents are always in my mind as I explain how students’ work can improve because I know that parents are deeply involved in my high school students’ educations.
- Competition and Labor Practices
As friendly as my department and university were, higher education inherently includes significant competition: multiple hierarchical levels exist, and promotion is very public and highly competitive. Faculty members are required to be self-promoting, announcing their publications and awards, vying against one another for conference and research funding, and feeling wary about others potentially encroaching on their territory. Perhaps universities with stronger finances don’t face these problems with the intensity that my institution did, but a sense of competition and hierarchy is integral to higher education.
At high schools, though, a few individuals may teach part time, but for the most part every faculty member is in a similar position. Tenure review, while present in public high schools, is hardly the nauseating, terrifying experience it is at the university level, and teachers are simply not in constant competition with one another. That fact has led, for me, to a greater sense of collaboration and cooperation, with more teachers sharing ideas with one another and learning from one another without a fear of threat or a sense of personal undermining. There are still, of course, more and less desirable classes and better and worse teaching schedules, but everyone’s day looks essentially the same, and no one at a high school faces the situation adjuncts face at colleges nationwide: high school teachers simple are not paid a poverty-level wage without benefits.
Overall, I have found the change from college to high school to be both restrictive and freeing, extremely positive and occasionally frustrating. The relative prestige and flexibility of college teaching may not be worth the pressure, labor inequity, and isolation that academia can entail, and I encourage more academicians who may be dissatisfied to consider switching to high school teaching. The opportunity to reach students and even to continue scholarly work remains consistent, and aspects of teaching, collegiality, and labor equity may offer an improvement.