How do I quit stalling and decide what I want to be?
August 4, 2011 6:18 PM   Subscribe

I really thrive in an environment that promotes free thinking, conversation about books and ideas, subsidizes personal growth, and has a genuine sense of community. I want to create it in my own school one day. I'm currently a college senior considering whether I should apply for an English or folklore MA, a MAT, or 'other'. I'm still unsure about being a teacher, but time is almost nigh. Could use help structuring my options and the consequences.

The thing is, I want a life that follows a vision, that isn't just a career or a path I might enjoy but a sort of creative enterprise, a world I want to inhabit. Being a writer on the side and tolerating cognitive dissonance every day at work would drive me nuts. I toyed around with calling it 'Romantic' or 'the cool factor', but it isn't, quite. It has to be inspiring, daring, meaningful. Something that won't drain me but sustain me even at its most challenging, and something that has a lot of room for potential, discovery and personal growth. On some level, I think any endeavor can have those qualities if you approach it right. However, the fact is that I need a sense of openness and potential, and currently, the state of the American public school system is such that a lot of limits and constraints and difficulties are in place, and are often beaurocratic nature.

I had been inspired a few years ago by the interdisciplinary, private Northwest School to try to become a HS English teacher in a similar school, one I'd approve of. This is a great leap for me, for all my former dreams were a lot less realistic and achievable for me (that is, I wanted to do things that weren't even possible or not very specific a lot of the time). I realize, however, that getting hired as a teacher is hard enough without specifying what kind of school you want. Further, being an independent operator to such a degree grates against my tolerating many 'compromises' I might otherwise make; that is, the current flow towards constant testing and beaurocratic oversight is unacceptable. However, it does seem like a grand adventure (done right and/or my way). I know I'd love talking to my students about literature, I know I'd be good at it, I know I understand people pretty well, and I know that if I believe in something, I give of myself 100% (ADD + idealism = mad engine of doom).

However, like I said: I don't know if I can have my preferred environment, which is a lot like a liberal arts college except in HS. I like HS because the students are more open to change, since they're just being introduced to a bunch of ideas and texts for the first time. I feel I can have more of a chance at an impact than your average college prof. I wouldn't count on it, but it's still better odds. I also am drawn to adolescence emotionally and artistically. It's meaningful to me (which is a big deal), and I am motivated to help, to reach out. Rather than being aghast at the sharp edges, frustrated by the difficulties, I am drawn to that difficulty. Adolescence is such a potent time, the time when literature was really life or death to me. That level of meaning really never returns. The right books are always meaningful, but never more than when you're 14-16.

Today I thought that it's a conflict between the chance for revolution-- that is, action and implementation goes with teaching HS, and a dialogue between peers if I taught in college. That does appeal to me: I love the mostly laid-back, intelligent, even-toned discussions we have in my college seminars. I know I can't quite expect the same from High Schoolers; I would need to take more control. That brings me to my final vision: my current dream is to actually create my own best destiny, to found a school that does all these things I'd like a school to do and to be. Wouldn't it be something if I could help make a school, a human institution, that was cool-- open to change, compassionate, founded on a love of learning and dialogue, dedicated to everyone's growth and individual agency. Truly radical without being irresponsible. That would be a very great adventure; I don't have any doubt that I'd be very happy if I get the chance to co-create this school with my partners and the students. But of course, I'm a shy girl who's currently a 33 year-old college senior, and I'm way more talk than action; even applying to grad school has me in dithers and tithers. And I'm aware I'd need experience teaching elsewhere first (though I'm good at tutoring, it's my comfort zone).

I don't know whether to go for an English MA (to get more of a grounding in the canon than I've had and also for fun, and to TA a bit), an English-and-myth MA, a folklore MA, or just go for a MAT degree. A part of me thinks an English/folklore degree isn't only wasting time, it's an actual tangent if I really want to be a teacher. Another part just likes to follow her desires and interests. I am strongly drawn to continue the study of literature. Then I remind myself I don't think it's all that cool, so what about biology? And I start running the inner little hamster wheel again. It seems that things that were clear back when I had lots of time grow fuzzy when deadlines to take action loom, plus I always thought it's highly unlikely I would succeed in a traditional HS setting (I reeeeally hated it as a student, and I don't think teaching would help that much). But being a scientist would, of course, be a bit of a turn-around and smells like stalling strategy a bit.

Help? My philosophy in life is to follow my bliss, and I'm not ready to give that up, but perhaps some things are more visible from outside.
posted by reenka to Education (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Surely you are aware of the many "alternative" indepdent high schools that exist, no? That sounds like the place that should be your first consideration. Is there any reason why teaching at a place like that isn't your immediate goal?
posted by deanc at 6:44 PM on August 4, 2011

Well, yes, that was the plan (that I'm currently fuzzing out on). But everyone's always talking about how difficult it is simply for English teachers, forget being a picky English teacher. I feel I am not being practical when I want to get a job in one these days. Of course, even then I wibble whether to get an MA or a MAT beforehand.
posted by reenka at 6:51 PM on August 4, 2011

If you have a BA from a good school, it's easy enough to get a job as an English teacher at a private school, etc. Or there is always teaching ESL abroad.

Working that kind of job for a year might be a good move to help you clarify your academic and personal goals. Just going to get a random liberal arts MA, right out of undergrad, because you" love the life of the mind", and do not know what else to do is actually a weak strategy, from both the economic and professional POV.
posted by thelonius at 6:54 PM on August 4, 2011

There are states where starting a private school or homeschool coop is pretty simple. In many regions you could pull from disenfranchised, non-religious home school and public school population pretty easily. Teaching experience is great but what you really need to make this feasible is development and board experience.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:25 PM on August 4, 2011

Ah! What is 'development' experience in this context? And I'm not sure how to get on (non-profit?) boards without already being a well-established professional in your field.
posted by reenka at 7:31 PM on August 4, 2011

I went to a public high school. A pretty well-funded one, but not one in an incredibly wealthy/ritzy town. There were 2 teachers there in particular that had built up a curriculum for honors students that was seriously badass - interdisciplinary, creative, and prepared me for college like none other. I am 26 and I still point to those teachers and that curriculum as something that majorly affected how I think about the world. I'm sure those teachers had to pay their dues and jump at opportunities and work hard, but nonetheless, they were at a public school. It's not impossible to teach an awesome liberal artsy class at a public school.

I now teach college English, and I think you may be romanticizing being a professor a bit, as well. Seminars where everyone does open discussion and exchange are awesome, but the professors who get to do them start out with likely several years of teaching Intro classes and following the bureaucracy of whatever school they manage to get a job at. Consider how you might fare if you're teaching an intro-level literature course, with a piece you really love and are passionate about, only to find that half your class hasn't even read it beyond skimming and the other half just wants to know "how to get an A" on the essay you'll assign. Will this seriously depress you over time or will you be able to deal with it?

Also, if you haven't read Paulo Freire, sounds like his Pedagogy of the Oppressed is pretty much exactly what you want to teach.
posted by nakedmolerats at 7:39 PM on August 4, 2011

I don't know whether to go for an English MA (to get more of a grounding in the canon than I've had and also for fun, and to TA a bit), an English-and-myth MA, a folklore MA, or just go for a MAT degree.

Don't get an MA unless you know you want a PhD. It's a sink of time and money and you're unlikely to get funding (and TAships) unless you apply as a PhD student.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:45 PM on August 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I should also add: Phillips Exeter Academy, as an example, is a private boarding school for high schoolers that does the type of teaching it sounds like you want - discussion based, small classes, based mostly on the teacher being a guide of creative or individual thought. The page I linked to talks about being a teacher there. Specifically, they say:

It is expected that all teachers at Phillips Exeter Academy will have a proven mastery of the subject matter for which a teaching position is sought. As such it is expected that teaching faculty will have advanced degrees and teaching experience in their specific discipline.

So if you want to go this kind of route you may want to start thinking about a Ph.D in a specific discipline, plus teaching experience. As I said upthread, this may require several years of teaching in a way or an institution that doesn't meet all of your ideals - but you'll still need to excel to make it to the next level.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:03 PM on August 4, 2011

You know that schools--public and private--thrive on meetings, committees, rules, manuals, plans, and so on. My own kids went to a crunchy granola, call everyone by his/her first name, "progressive" school and the bureaucracy was stifling. Rather than gas on about where you think you'll thrive, give some thought about what you have to contribute. How do you make a place, a school, a job better? Teaching is as much listening as talking.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:09 PM on August 4, 2011

Reenka, development is basically fundraising. I worked many roles at a community music school. At a small place, every role (except, oddly, teaching) gives you a really up close and personal education in how management and money works in non-profits. I took notes at board meetings. I worked in marketing. I stuffed endless envelopes for appeals. I did a ton of on the ground event planning for our annual auction. I did all of this as an admin, and then a branch manager, and then a marketing person and then a development officer. It was the best education I ever got, the widest and best skill set I have applied my whole life.

If you can pull together the skills to start, teach and run a small community coop, the surprising truth is that you will spend at least as much of your life writing as teaching.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:15 PM on August 4, 2011

I hate to sound so patronizing, but you remind me of me, when I thought that grad school was going to be like super-undergrad, and it was going to help me finally consolidate my mental self. That is actually not what it is for! As I myself learned, to some distress. It's about specialization and professional credentialing.
posted by thelonius at 8:16 PM on August 4, 2011 [7 favorites]

Thanks for the input so far! It may not seem like it 'cause I'm going through an especially muddle-headed indecisive everything-is-up-for-grabs (panic!) phase, but I do know that grad school isn't undergrad, and intend it to get credentials. Which is why I was intending to get a MAT for a while, even a MAT mainly focused on practice vs theory. But... basically I'm not happy with the kind of subject study most MAT programs offer, and it's hard to tell which one I 'should' take for the practicum without experiencing it.

As nakedmolerats said, the sort of schools I want to break into tend to value higher ed in your field. Also, I really want to spend time specializing in say, some sort of obscure fairy-tale study thing or Renaissance views on magic, etc. I think I have logical reasons both for an MA and a MAT that I wasn't expressing well,and I've read enough threads on this to know grad school is about focus vs breadth. That said, I'm just naturally scattered, and second-guess myself. I was assuming a PhD would take too long plus seems like overkill, but I'm starting to think maybe I should do it since it's likelier to give me funding, TA opportunities and I can still drop and get an MA. Even 5 years seems like way too long, though, so I keep going back and forth. So basically I'm back to an MA for 'proven mastery' and then trying my best to find a teaching job in an independent school or community college.
posted by reenka at 9:29 PM on August 4, 2011

So basically I'm back to an MA for 'proven mastery' and then trying my best to find a teaching job in an independent school or community college.

Instead of psyching yourself out about how you can't find a teaching job at an independent school, why not at least try to find one, first, and then re-evaluate your options if that doesn't work out?
posted by deanc at 9:50 PM on August 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

So basically I'm back to an MA for 'proven mastery' and then trying my best to find a teaching job in an independent school or community college.

You should look into internship opportunities at private schools. There are a ton, often paid, and they seem to be one of the doorways into teaching there. Otherwise, you should seek out an MAT. From looking at private school teaching websites, it seems that's the most common degree among private school faculty.

I remembered last night that there was a similar question awhile back--turns out it was one of yours! I'm really sorry, but a masters is still not what you're looking for. I know you want it to be a time of intense focus on esoteric subjects, and it is, in a way, but it's also fairly useless and extremely expensive. If you want to be an academic (and you should talk to your professors, who will let you know if your work is of that sort of quality), look into getting a PhD. If you want to teach, get an MAT (you can always go back and take graduate courses while you're teaching). Don't be in a rush to force these other career goals into the mold you want just because a PhD takes time.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:31 AM on August 5, 2011

You know, before you go around making grand plans you should probably try actually teaching in a high school first, any high school. It sounds like you are avoiding it when it is really the best way to aid you in deciding your future plans as well as helping you determine what kind of teacher you really want to be.
posted by Loto at 6:49 AM on August 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm just naturally scattered, and second-guess myself.

This is a real warning sign that a PhD program will make you very unhappy. (This is a great thing to be aware of up front. It means you need to go out into the real world and try some things and build up your certainty for a few years, before thinking about whether a PhD would help you achieve your goals.) Do NOT go to grad school just because you like school and aren't sure what else to do. It is a common mistake and leads to real unhappiness for bright people who could be pursuing other better avenues.

Instead of psyching yourself out about how you can't find a teaching job at an independent school, why not at least try to find one, first, and then re-evaluate your options if that doesn't work out?

deanc has great advice. You need to make an effort in this direction. If it doesn't work (after a bunch of good effort) then you'll figure out something else to try. This is the way to find a career path you like: try things out for long enough to tell if it's good. Don't write things off in advance, or you'll end up just sitting still never trying anything! Pick one path, try it for a while, see what's working and what isn't, then adjust course based on the data you get, repeat.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:23 PM on August 5, 2011

I'm not from the states but I am an English teacher with a higher degree (not MA, but an extra year that US schools don't offer). I would say that you are more attractive to schools with more subject knowledge, but that it's a lot of time and money to invest given that you're not 100% sure. And I really think that teaching is something to be tried before you are sure. Consider that you may spend 1-2 years working somewhere less than ideal (but still earning money and getting experience) on the beauracracy/shameless spoon-feeding of students front, but this is probably better than getting the MA and then discovering that actually no school really does what you want.

Honestly, while there are DEFINITELY vast differences between schools (in Aust, at least) there is still an experience of teaching that is reasonably universal, and is not to everyone's tastes. And honestly, I wouldn't read much into their websites. The PR version doesn't tell you much-- speak to other teachers in your area for your best info or try it out if you can.

So in summary-- try teaching, then decide. In Aust. you can get your school to subsidise your MA, not sure if that is the case for you but obviously the most desirable option!

Note: having read another of your posts, it sound like you are very sensible and pragmatic and think clearly-- all good qualities in a teacher!
posted by jojobobo at 12:25 AM on August 25, 2011

« Older What are the lyrics to the chorus of If I Don't...   |   Now that I've got my appetite back, how do I build... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.