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From Ph.D. to Prep School

Please welcome Sam Thomas, a history teacher at the University School, an independent day school outside Cleveland. Before moving to the University School, he taught at the college level for seven years and received research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Newberry Library, and the British Academy. His first novel—The Midwife’s Tale—was published last month. He is writing a series of posts about leaving academe.

As you try to make the leap from a doctoral program or the tenure track to teaching at a preparatory school, you will face a number of challenges that a 23-year-old with a B.A. will not. (Remember how your Aunt Agatha thought getting a Ph.D. in comparative literature was useless? It’s worse than that. Now it’s an obstacle.)

The most significant of these is the suspicion, apparent in a few of the comments on my recent Advice column, that something must have gone wrong with your “real” career, and teaching at an independent school is merely “Plan B.” No school wants to be your (reluctant) second choice, and if a hiring committee gets even a whiff of this from your application or your interview, they will thank you for your time and move on to more genuine candidates.

The question thus becomes how you can make clear that you are serious rather than desperate.

The problem, of course, is that you may well be desperate. The job market stinks, your fellowship is just about up (or you simply cannot take another semester at your current school), and health insurance is good to have. A philosopher once said, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

So the first person you have to convince that moving to a prep school is a good idea is you. The best way to do this is to try it out. The chances are pretty good that you have friends—or friends of friends—who teach in your discipline at a local high school. Ask around—it can’t hurt.

Once you find a teacher in your field, explain that you are contemplating a leap from academe to prep-school teaching, and you’d love the chance to get into a school classroom to see how it feels. The chances are good that you’ll get an enthusiastic “Yes!” in response.

Then you need to put together a self-contained lesson and get to it. In the run-up to my first foray into the independent-school job market, I taught classes on topics ranging from the American Revolution to the Enlightenment to the rise of the Nazi Party.

Make the class as interactive as possible—remember that you are trying to find out if you like being around ninth graders, and a lecture won’t tell you all that much. One option (if you are in the humanities) is to bring in some sources for the students to read and then lead a discussion. Prepare yourself for pretty off-the-wall questions, but if you go in with the goal of having fun, you’ll be in great shape.

Once you’ve done this a few times, you should be able to answer a couple of important questions. First, is this something you really want to do? If the answer is “Yes,” then convincing the committee should be a piece of cake.

The second question you should keep in mind is how teaching a high-school freshman compares to teaching a college freshman. Know that there are some pretty significant differences in terms of maturity, vocabulary, and the world they were born into. (They do not remember a time when the United States was not at war. Get used to feeling old. Very old.) Someone will ask you how your approach to prep-school teaching will compare to college teaching, and you’d better have an answer.

The final thing you need to do is put this experience front and center in your application materials. “Volunteer Teacher” is now the first line on your vita, and among the first things in your cover letter. You must show that you know what you are getting into, and that this is a deliberate move on your part.

Note: It is absolutely appropriate to be honest about why you volunteered for this kind of teaching. “I’d never taught high school, and wanted to make sure that I liked it.” Schools want to hear that.

In later blog posts I’ll discuss other strategies, but this is one you’ll want to get started on right away. Good luck!

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user ellenm1.]

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