Monday, April 04, 2011

Finding the right fit

When you go on the acadmeic market as a junior scholar, the issue of "fit" rarely comes up from the candidate's perspective. Search committees look for "fit", but nobody (sane) has ever said to a candidate, "Don't take a job if the fit doesn't feel right." We are told: "Take the job you get." "It's your first job, not your last." Or, "Take the job and then write your way to a better school."

This is lovely advice for those who live in the distant past, but not particularly helpful today. Depending on your field, unless you turn yourself into solid gold, your first job likely IS your last, and you are not going to write your way to a better school.

I bring up this digression, as I am currently wrestling with the issue of fit on the prep school market. I recently returned from an on-campus visit at Very Old Preparatory Academy - the kind of place that counts Presidents and Senators among its alumni. They have pretty amazing faciliites, more money than God...and lots of traditions and rules. It just didn't feel like a fit.

My dad taught social studies for many years at a progressive (and elite) school. I remember that his classroom was a riot of books, maps, and student projects. Not here. At VOPA, classrooms had a whiteboard and framed posters. They were like a doctor's examination room. I couldn't help wondering how they would react if I piled books around my classroom, or grew my hair down to my ass. (I would not do the last of these, but I still wonder what they would say.)

So what to do?

My dad actually gave me one excellent piece of advice.

I made reference to your uncle being an unhappy as a progressive teacher in a traditional school. I think some people can pull off that, and some schools will allow a measure of radical dissent and even welcome the diversity (perhaps safety valve) that such divergence affords.

If VOPA offers the job, ask them about their comfort with your differences.

So, where does this leave me? Probably nowhere until I get an offer, if I get one.

But then the question I have (for you) is which proposition is more insane:

1. To take a job in which the fit is not qutie right on the assumption that I can use it get a position that does fit. (There is also the possibility that I will love the position once I get there.)

2. To hold out for a job that is a good fit, even if it means staying in my current position/extending the job search another year.

Either of these is completely nuts in an academic search, but what about prep schools?

Good luck, us.


Anonymous said...

Some generalizations which may (or may not) help:

Boarding schools tend to be more tolerant of outliers than day schools are.

Larger schools tend to be more tolerant than smaller schools, for obvious reasons.

Fit matters on the one hand because you will always be expected to go above and beyond your contract to extend yourself to the teenagers in your school. If you like the school and the people you work with, you will resent this expectation far less. You can ask the old questions of "describe what an ideal graduate of your school" or "what type of kid thrives here" or "what are the community's strengths and weaknesses?" and that can sometimes get you closer to what the school is trying to produce, but how it feels on the inside and what one guesses from the outside are not always the same. I've worked in two schools where I was far more progressive and less staid than the institution; in one I was treated with bemused tolerance, in the other I was actively persecuted by two crazed administrators. I stayed in both jobs for years because in each case my day to day experience was of wonderful kids and fantastic colleagues. So when I was weighing all my offers on my job search this year, I was looking most closely at the kids (not just in the sample class but on the tour, in the dining hall, on YOUtube videos etc). Second I looked at the physical spaces--did I like the architecture? How close was civilization? Third consideration was potential department mates, because I know that I won't have a ton of daily contact with them. Finally, I considered the administration. In prep school, you are lord of a very small fiefdom and generally other adults don't enter that world--for good and bad.

But to answer your other question, I'd recommend taking the job with the imperfect fit over waiting. Schools want to hire professionals who understand and love working with adolescents. You need that experience so schools will stop looking at you as a curiosity and start seeing you as an equal. There's only one way to get experience working with kids, and since you are new on the scene, you could work somewhere for two years, then go on the job market and talk about the need to find fit. It's common for a new teacher to stay in his/her first school for only 2 or 3 years while learning about how schools work, how to reach teenagers and what environment will suit you best. This is more difficult if you have a family, but I still say take the job because you may indeed end up loving it. As I said, it's very different on the inside.

And if the schools you're looking at are located in New England and academically competitive, there's a decent chance that you can look in the 'Prep School Admissions' thread of the website 'College Confidential' and hear what current students and parents are saying about the school. There's a lot of ridiculousness over there, but it might help.

As always, I don't claim to be an expert, I'm just sharing my experience in case it can help. (my sister is a full prof at an elite R1, so I have a tiny sense of academia and how private schools differ)
Best of luck to all on the job search,

-Uta Hagen

Anonymous said...

"There's only one way to get experience working with kids, and since you are new on the scene, you could work somewhere for two years, then go on the job market and talk about the need to find fit."

This sounds like very sage advice.

Benjamin said...

Uta -

Great post! I actually have spent a lot of time thinking about architecture. As you can probably guess, the very traditional school has very traditional buildings: large long halls and classrooms, and a cafeteria fit for a SuperMax prison, and that's it. These are not buildings terribly suited for student interaction outside the classroom. To their credit, the admin knows and new construction projects will address this.

The people I met with were great, and I liked the students. (I haven't done much youtube digging, but that's an interesting approach.)

I have heard from other sources that getting those first couple of years under your belt makes a big difference in future searches. The challenge here is that I've got a family in tow, and would have a hard time selling the idea of moving AGAIN to Mrs. Harrison.

A final piece in the puzzle is that the tuition benefit at this school is so small as to be effectively nonexistent. At first I thought I had misunderstood the HR person who told me:

"When you said 15%, you meant that we PAY 15%, right?"

"No, you pay 85%."

So, not an easy choice...


Anonymous said...

This blog is so reassuring for all of us who are in the job search trenches. You've affirmed many of the ups and downs I have experienced in my search. In this market, it's difficult to ponder turning down a full-time offer, as those ships are few and far between. I've found that hundreds of applicatons have led to tens of phone interviews which have led to not even a handful of on-campus interviews. That being said, even with a brutal market, you have to value your own hapiness and authenticity above the bottom line.