Thursday, April 07, 2011

What exactly am I getting myself into?

While I do a lot of whining on this blog, I have to admit that I've got it pretty good. I teach a 3-3 load with two preps. I have been teaching my survey long enough that lectures take about ten minutes to prepare. This semester I started spending two mornings per week on a project unrelated to my job; while I'm a bit more harried, nothing bad has happened. Think about that - I reduced my working hours by 20% and I barely noticed. My career is a scam. I could spend hours every week pouring over the most recent Shakespeare scholarship, but in class we spend our time figuring out what the words mean, so there's not a lot of pay-off. (I imagine I will be taken to task for this admission. For the record, I'm not proud of this - depressed, actually.)

The point of this digression is that when I jump to a prep school, I'm going to have to do a LOT more work. But what kind of work? And how much? I had no idea. To answer this question, I did a number of informational interviews, and in this process I ran into two kinds of teachers. The first of these was "Mary." She's a biology teacher at a prep school in California. She said that she works hard, but it's a job like many others, just with a weird schedule. She attends school plays, athletic events, and meets after school with the student paper editors.

Then I talked to "Steve" the head of a prep school in the midwest. He painted a radically different picture of teaching. A "real" teacher works 70-hour weeks (including weekly tutoring all day on Saturday), has the skill of a surgeon, the patience of a saint, and the dedication of a martyr. His unspoken assumption was that because I took the time to get a PhD, I am fundamentally unfit for teaching. (I suppose that if I really cared, I wouldn't have bothered. (Bear in mind that Steve's description fits many boarding schools, but he wasn't at one.)

Obviously these visions of prep school teaching don't have much in common, and the disconnect gave (gives) me the heebie jeebies. I think of myself as hard-working and dedicated to my students, but I have no interest in working 70-hours per week for $55k per year, even if I do have summers off. So I dropped a note to a friend who recently began teaching at a prep school and asked him if Steve was right. Here's what he had to say:

Well, it's about half BS and about half true.

1. As far as I can tell, there is a cohort among teachers who believe that we are saints from on high who must dedicate ourselves totally to our spouse: teaching. We must never, ever say anything critical, do anything grumpy, or fail to work ourselves into little nubbins. We should be proud to be paid so little, because it proves we're doing it for love.

So, obviously, this is a load of poo. This is self-righteous justifying by people who enjoy looking down their noses. The best example is that YouTube video about "What Teachers Make" where the dude rants along (enjoyably) and eventually gets to "I make a difference." Yes, but that doesn't make you any better than anybody else.

2. The true part. Students want to know that you care about them. And they exist in a psychological environment in which they are convinced that the entire world centers on them. So they can be easily hurt, or offended, and you must be careful. Also, they are deeply touched when you exhibit some interest in their successes. It's helpful in the classroom when they know you care about them outside of the classroom.

You cannot just teach your classes and go home. Maybe after 10 years. Being a part of the school community is part of the job. But it's - honestly - not that big a deal. I advise a student club, and two or three times per semester I go to something. A football game, a play, a debate tournament, whatever. I try to go once to games for a team on which my students play. But it's fun, too. They give out ice cream and I see my colleagues and relax a bit. This is my community so I socialize with them.

And yes, people want you to demonstrate your interest in the school by "supporting" things. You might go to a game but you will also be expected to wear red and give a dollar and clap enthusiastically and all that stuff. High school students are very earnest. Fine. It's easy.

If all that sounds terrible, you should factor that into your decision. You said that the dream job was working at a liberal arts college, though. And such schools expect *exactly* the same kinds of appearances. At [small college] I went to debate tournaments, lectures, plays, performances, and art shows. It was about the same level of commitment.


Lauren W. said...

I work with a lot of HS teachers and I think that you should expect the first 1-2 years to be pretty intense and probably have longer hours, simply because you have a lot more grading and probably a lot more prep, with not much time to do it. Since you will be teaching 5-6 hours of the day, every single day, grading/prep has to be squeezed in somewhere, and if you're also doing things like sponsoring clubs/chaperoning/etc, you're talking a lot of hours. However, once you have gone through it a few times (just like with college teaching) prep gets much easier. You'll have units that work really well for you, and a better sense of the rhythm of your day. But I do think the first years are crazy intense. This is why I am trying to avoid going back to teaching HS if at all possible: I don't want 50 hr work weeks while my kids are young anyway.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me that if you really like your location, and wanted tons of free time to write your next book or a novel or some other project, it would be foolish to leave your current situation. But, if you're job is dull and you don't like the location and you're just generally unhappy, life me be a whole lot better if you could improve things.
However, it's worth considering the fact that a new prep school job would be a ton of work so you wouldn't have as much time for side projects, at least for a while, and you might find yourself tired out rather than bored. if you liked your new location, though, it could be pretty worthwhile in the long run.
My sense is that most academics don't like where they live AND are not that thrilled with their jobs or their salary or their future career prospects. So why do they stick around? Beats me but the answer seems to be related to the ability to keep reading and writing what they want, maintain a pretty flexible schedule, and make time for side projects. Nothing is perfect.

Benjamin said...

I totally agree that I'm swapping a cake job for one that will require a ton more work than I'm doing now. (And it seems kind of crazy at times.)

But I want my work to mean something, and I'm just not getting that out of my current job. Am I too wrapped up in my professional identity? Perhaps.

Family is also an issue. We've got a couple of young'uns and want to move sooner rather than later for their sake.

So, yes, for extra-professional/non-family issues, moving is just dumb. If I could see my job as what I do, rather than who I am, I could stay...Ah well.

Get a PhD said...

Well as of my own experience i have found that no one is fully satisfied with his/her situation whatever he/she got. Everyone want's something different. Looking for your next project......

Get a PhD said...

Well as of my own experience i have found that no one is fully satisfied with his/her situation whatever he/she got. Everyone want's something different. Looking for your next project......