Help me be a teacher
June 10, 2009 10:14 PM   Subscribe

Help me make a career move. Do I want to be a high school or college teacher?

My BA is in English and philosophy. I've been out of school for about two years, long enough to realize that my liberal arts education doesn't make me a precious commodity in the business world. But, hey, that's okay because I want to be the stereotypical English major turned teacher. From experience as a K-12 tutor and ESL teacher, I've concluded that I prefer working with older students and more stimulating material, but I'm torn between paths.

Should I pursue a Masters in Teaching or a PhD? On the one hand, I would like to further my own education (in philosophy) and teach engaging material (in community college), but the path to a doctorate is daunting and the job market dismal, or so I've been forever told. On the other hand, I think there are high school classes I'd enjoy teaching (literature, humanities, philosophy(?), or maybe even world history), but playing disciplinarian to an unruly freshman class doesn't sound appealing. I feel I connect pretty well with high school students I tutor, but they are usually respectful and friendly kids.

So, MeFite teachers, how do high school and community college teaching lives compare? What's the job market like for each? How hard is it to land teaching the class of your preference? Are all the desired classes always taken by those with seniority? How do expectations, workload, and bureaucracy compare? What's the career for me?
posted by mikelly to Education (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's important to be happy doing what you like to do (while making sure the bills get paid and money gets saved). If you want to get that PhD, you should go for it. The lack of jobs should be no big deal if you are flexible and entrepreneurial - figure out some way to make money from your eventual PhD without depending on getting a tenure track position. Things always work out in the long run (if you learn which opportunities are better than others).

It is possible to teach high school and college at the same time. I've done it. In college, most beginning instructors are sessionals - you get paid per class, and that's it. Eventually (somehow) you get offered more permanent associate positions. But in the meantime you're going to have to figure out how to make ends meet. Why not moonlight as a high school teacher?
posted by KokuRyu at 10:34 PM on June 10, 2009

Why not compromise and get your PhD in Philosophy of Education? A doctorate would give you a lot more flexibility in the long run, which ought to count for something.

If you find you don't like teaching, you could always fall back on becoming a research analyst at a think tank. The more options the better...good luck!
posted by aquafortis at 10:49 PM on June 10, 2009

Get certified as a HS teacher, get a job, and then go for more courses. Some states require you to take additional courses, and they pay the course fees. You can satisfy the ongoing ed requirement and make progress towards a 6th year and PhD.
posted by zippy at 11:04 PM on June 10, 2009

Have you thought about alternative certification programs (Teach for America, -insert city here- Teaching Fellows, etc), or finding a job at a small private school that doesn't require a cert? It may be worth it to teach for a few years and see how it suits you before going for the MAT. If the teaching doesn't work it, it might look good on your grad school apps anyway.
YMMV, but my MAT program was utterly worthless and in no way made me a better teacher. In some districts, it's even a disincentive for hiring -- schools won't hire you since they know they'd have to pay you more. Don't do it unless you're sure you want to teach high school.
posted by sleepingcbw at 11:07 PM on June 10, 2009

I think there are high school classes I'd enjoy teaching (literature, humanities, philosophy(?), or maybe even world history), but playing disciplinarian to an unruly freshman class doesn't sound appealing.

I suggest that you consider teaching for a year, two or more at an independent school. No certification required. Check out the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) website.
posted by ericb at 11:10 PM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

My personal struggle with this question has led me to the following conclusion: As long as I can progress up the ladder of my own specialized education, I should try to do so, and passionately. When/If ever I bail/fail out, well, I'll teach where I land. That might mean teaching at a charte high school an getting pickup work as an adjunct at a university, it might mean teaching at a JC, who knows. There are lots of combinations and possibilities. But, since getting a teaching credential and degree, at least here in CA is much easier and kind of a quick 'n' dirty process compared to other MAs and PhDs, and I am interested in pursuing my field of study to the Phd level (which I think you should only do if you will enjoy writing a dissertation, basically) it's not a path to be abandoned, even if I also feel passionate about teaching - now! while I'm young 'n' spunky! - because, if nothing else, it's a SHITTY time to try to be hired and not such a shitty time to continue school.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:47 AM on June 11, 2009

It might be better to think of the PhD not as a teaching degree, but as a research degree. Are you absolutely passionate about some specific, narrow area and your life will be worthless if you don't spend every single day researching the number of hairs in Shakespeare's ears? If the answer is no, then don't get the PhD. So many people drop out of those programs, and so many people who finish them never find jobs, especially in the humanities. And then they're several years in with a degree that won't even get them that high school teaching job.

So, I say, see if you can do a lateral entry kind of teaching gig for a few years, and see what you think. Teaching is hard work, and can be exhausting, but there are worse things in life than having summers off and teaching young adults.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:47 AM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

From experience only as a high school teacher, if you're not interested in discipline now, you will likely be miserable in a typical hs classroom. I was able to teach the classes I wanted to (content-wise) right away, but my lack of preparation in the discipline department made it hard to have as much fun with the content.
posted by hellogoodbye at 4:21 AM on June 11, 2009

I have a masters degree in education, but never taught full time because I found the classroom control issue a problem. I am pretty good at it, but I just find it draining and a major downside of high school.
If you find that daunting, try it out, but I think it is probably the key differentiator between successful and less so teachers. If you can control the class without much effort, the job is a nice one. If you battle to keep a lid on, the job is painful.
Can't beat the holidays, though, and I think more and more of going back after 15 good years in the corporate world.
posted by bystander at 5:05 AM on June 11, 2009

Teaching at the post-secondary level is not as simple as getting a Ph.D. and then poof!, you're a professor. Hell no. From that article: "[T]he handful of real jobs that remain are being pursued by thousands of qualified people — so many that the minority of candidates who get tenure-track positions might as well be considered the winners of a lottery."

Unless you can get a degree from a top university, and by "top" I mean an Ivy, Stanford, Michigan, etc., not your standard state school and certainly not anything smaller than that, your chances of landing a tenure track job are really, really bad. As in there are usually fewer available English teaching positions than there were newly-minted Ph.D.s, and more than half of them were non-tenure track or part-time. Less than 40% of humanities Ph.D.s ever get an academic job in their field, and again, more than half of those that do never land a tenure-track job.And if you don't land one of those, you're going to spend the rest of your academic career trying to cobble together sufficient numbers of part-time gigs at community colleges to make rent every month, mindful that there are plenty of people who did go to a top school who would love to get those jobs too.

On the other hand, while it isn't as simple as showing up, landing a gig as a public high school teacher is a lot easier, even in the humanities. You'd do better if you could teach math or science, but even for English there's simply a lot more demand than for college professors. You can even assert some form of control over your geography, staying within your state or even your metropolitan region, which is completely impossible at the collegiate level. I know someone who took a gig in Singapore because it was the only tenure-track job he was offered. Which is decently cool, but not exactly walking distance from friends and family. But geography aside, the sheer number of high school students guarantees higher demand for high school teachers than for professors. Most districts are always hiring someone, and if you're qualified, willing to look around a bit, and willing to bide your time, finding a gig isn't nearly as impossible as it is for professors.

There is a third option though: get a job teaching at a private high school. There are a number of highly-paid, relatively secure positions at prestigious private schools in most areas, but competition is pretty stiff. But for smaller schools that pay less, competition can be a bit easier. You'll be making financial sacrifices for quality-of-work benefits, but having taught in such an environment, I can tell you that if you like teaching it could well be worth it.
posted by valkyryn at 5:29 AM on June 11, 2009 [5 favorites]

I was about to post a link to the same article that Valkyryn just linked to. When I'm asked for advice (I'm in the tutoring and test prep industry while I finish a science PhD), I recommend that students DO NOT get a humanities PhD. The job prospects are too grim, and you'll waste a good chunk of your earnings potential (5 years worth, sometimes more) getting a degree that you can't use. Those 5 years will cost you between $100,000 and $200,000 in lost earnings (minimum), plus the cost of school. That's a lot to pay for few job prospects. And, most humanities PhDs don't prepare you for jobs outside of academia. Simply put, the corporate, government, and non-profit sectors don't really care.

So, if you want to teach at a high school or community college, I'd look at getting an Ed. D. degree as you continue to work. In the long run, it'll save you money and set you up in a better position than a humanities PhD. Plus, even going part time, I bet you finish quicker.

Good luck.
posted by griseus at 6:10 AM on June 11, 2009

I teach at a community college. I think teaching at this level bridges the two education worlds you are considering. I teach a pretty much 50-50 mixture of older teenagers - the typical 17-20 year-old college freshman/sophomore demographic who are on a typical college track, and older students returning to school after working a while, who are either finishing degrees or picking up extra skills or taking a course just for their own interest.

With the younger group, I sometimes have classroom management issues, but usually a simple reminder that this isn't high school is all it takes to settle them down. Mostly they're enthusiastic and energetic and idealistic. After all, they haven't been beaten down by the world yet, so everything is new and fresh and shiny. I love my youngsters!

Teaching the older students is easier in some ways, and harder in others. No classroom management issues - they are there to learn, not screw around. But I have to be totally on top of my game and thoroughly familiar with any material I present, because they will spot any inconsistency or flaw and call me out on it. Everything I say is compared to their own experience, so it becomes more of an exchange of ideas, rather than a lecture from the wise teacher to the naive student. I love this, and would miss this the most if I were to move to a high school or a four-year "typical" university environment.

I have an MS. Almost everyone who teaches at my school has a master's. A few people have doctorates, which helps advance you on the pay scale, but is not required for tenure here. And yes, being low in seniority means you sometimes get the course sections no one else wants, but in my case, it also means that my real-world skills in the industry are newer, and so I get to teach some of the subjects that the older faculty can't even spell. :-)
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:12 AM on June 11, 2009

The standard advice for humanities PhDs goes:

1) Don't go for a PhD unless you're really, really passionate about the research.

2) Don't go for a PhD unless you're admitted into a top programme (Ivy or top R1 in your field etc.)

which ties into:

3) Don't pay for a PhD. Make sure that you're programme gives you adequate funding.

If you're secure with these things then, we move on to the grim job prospects for humanities PhDs, which folks have described above.

The non-standard or up-to-date advice/warning is that the academic job market this year was bad (I'm one of the lucky ones) and the vast majority of people think that it'll be shitty for quite a few years to come. Couple that with the increase in grad school admissions as some are using grad school to ride-out the recession and you can see what's going to happen. If only a quarter of those who went to grad school to ride out the recession decide in the end to go on the academic job market when they're done, even if the market has recovered in 6/7 years time, the chance of landing a job will be that much smaller. If you're OK with all of the facts above, then you should do a PhD.
posted by ob at 8:53 AM on June 11, 2009

As has been discussed, it's not a binary decision, there are multiple settings that present a different mix of teaching experiences. I advise undergraduate music education majors, and many of them struggle with similar decisions about teaching middle school or high school, etc. I find it's always helpful to consider the teaching experience as a spectrum with process on one end and product on the other. Kindergarten, for instance, would be all the way on the process end, where the teacher is almost entirely concerned with the development of each child moreso than teaching anything specific. Teachers who enjoy working with young kids relish the process of helping to build foundations of all kinds--basic cognitive skills in various subject areas, emotional and social coaching, etc.--and are far less focused on the subject matter of any particular area. Whereas a college professor is way over on the product side of the spectrum, because he/she is at least as interested in the specific subject area as in teaching (often much more), and is primarily motivated by that interest.

The differences in perspective reflect the degree of interest in teaching people vs. teaching/practicing a particular subject--to be a great high school teacher, you have to know your subject well and have teaching skill, but you must also relish the often difficult and thorny process of working with adolescents, of helping them in their transition to young adulthood and all that can entail; to be a great professor, your focus must be more strongly in your specific discipline, and you have to be engaged in producing work in that field as well.

So what's your motivation? I don't think the question is about 'teaching engaging material,' I sense you may be worried that the (relatively) simpler material you might be teaching with a high school class would be less interesting to you, but as you gain experience teaching you will learn that the interest and excitement for the teacher comes less from the material itself and much more from the students' engagement with it, and the ways that engagement changes them. (Even complex material becomes rote after you've taught it for a few years anyway.)

For me as a musician, after I taught high school and middle school for a short while I realized that I needed more product in the music-making, and have since found that teaching at a university is a much better balance--for me. One of my oldest friends is also a musician, and a terrific one, and he loves teaching music to kids--building a foundation for life-long enjoyment of and participation in the arts is what moves him--so he teaches middle & high school. (He's recently become keenly aware of a desire to go further with those goals, and wants to write a text on teaching aesthetics to young children, so is now planning to pursue his PhD. That's the kind of purposeful motivation that is important to that pursuit, I think, and the kind of organic professional growth that should be esteemed.)
posted by LooseFilter at 10:47 AM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Thanks everyone for the useful feedback. Teaching at a private high school sounds like a worthy option, but how best to set myself apart from the competition? Better to rely on experience alone (e.g. keep tutoring and job hunting) or are postgraduate degrees in demand at more prestigious schools? I'm all for continuing my education as long as it is marketable and not a waste of money.
posted by mikelly at 12:58 PM on June 12, 2009

how best to set myself apart from the competition?

Just like any profession, I'd imagine--a combination of good training and demonstrated competence, plus people in the field getting to know your work and recommending you down the line. Given your ambivalence, and without knowing further details, I'd recommend continuing tutoring, doing some substitute teaching, anything you can to get real experience. Given that your degree is BA, there is likely some coursework you have to complete to be certified as a teacher in your state (some private schools don't require state licenses, some do).

To answer a couple of your other questions, the lifestyles of a high school teacher and a college professor are similar in that your workload does fluctuate according to the academic calendar. In my experience, full-time university faculty do a lot more admin work at the program level (committees actually do things) than secondary school faculty, but the high school teachers have more, regular paperwork......The day to day experience can be quite different--university/community college schedules are different from day-to-day, and any one professor's schedule changes from semester to semester depending upon teaching assignments, whereas a high school teacher's days are fairly routine. I also find I have way more time to myself as a professor because I'm not constantly supervising teenagers (hallways, lunch duty, after-school, etc.) and very, very few weekends are required.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:01 AM on June 13, 2009

You might be a prime candidate for the MA program I just finished: the MAPH program at the University of Chicago. It's a one year interdisciplinary MA in the Humanities, so it would allow you to pursue both English and Philosophy, and it's populated about evenly by folks who want to continue in academia and folks who have other career paths in mind. It seems particularly ideal for you because it would allow you to decide if you do want to pursue academia while preparing you for a possible future teaching. MAPH also offers a course devoted to the art of teaching in community college that might be right up your alley.

Feel free to memail me if you have any questions about the program.
posted by dizziest at 1:56 PM on June 14, 2009

A masters degree will be pretty useful when trying to get a job at a private school. Most of them don't require you to be certified--many of them actually view certification as a waste of time anyways, as it diverts time away from substantive courses--but advanced degrees are going to be useful, as they evidence above-average mastery of particular subjects. And I don't mean an M.Ed. either; something like math, English, classics, etc.

Then again, a lot of private school teachers are actually Ph.D.s who simply couldn't get a job at the collegiate level, so you'll be competing with them as well.
posted by valkyryn at 1:31 PM on June 16, 2009

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