What's it like to transition to teaching high school after academia?
February 6, 2019 7:06 AM   Subscribe

I teach adjunct at a great university, but yeah, well, adjunct. I found a job listing recently at a nice private school for a high school/middle school journalism teacher. I'd love thoughts on what this might be like or if it would be a good fit.

I have been an adjunct lecturer (in basically the English department) for about six years at an excellent university. It's been great for me and my family in that it is flexible and, as far as adjunct goes, not badly paid. I like teaching my students, who are sharp and motivated. But it will never be a full-time job, and though I've tried for more permanent ones, it's never worked out for me. My kids are getting older now, and I don't need quite the flexibility I did when they were smaller.

I've heard of a few of my colleagues leaving to teach at (mostly private) high schools, but never thought it was for me. But I recently came across a job listing for a job teaching high school/middle school journalism. It's not a bad fit for me; the school sounds lovely, and though my background is in English, I've done quite a bit of freelance writing/journalism myself. The pay is great -- way more than I thought it would be, and the job has other benefits I like (for example, tuition waivers for my kids).

Before I apply (and perhaps interview), I'd love to know more about what this switch might look like. Also, I've taught summer school classes that included a few motivated high schoolers, but mostly I've taught very sharp undergraduates. I have used a lot of creative teaching methods that I think would translate at least somewhat, but I have no idea, really, what it would be like to teach MIDDLE SCHOOL, too. The job requires an advanced degree, but does not require a teaching degree. Oh, and I've taught a number of introductory writing classes as well but again, college level.

Also, what the heck is a journalism class like??? To be honest, I think it sounds more fun than teaching straight-up English, but can't put my finger on why.

Has anyone transitioned from university teaching to high school teaching? Anything else to think about? I'm also thinking of other kinds of industry jobs (communications, etc.) but staying in the teaching field might be more appealing. That said, it would probably be hard to transition back to universities after high school teaching.

Maybe this is too vague, but here goes: any thoughts?
posted by heavenknows to Work & Money (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've been an adjunct instructor at a couple of colleges, have taught high school (social studies) and ran my own "cram school" (exam prep) in Japan. Since then I have done business consulting, worked in government, worked as a marketing copywriter and now work part-time for a non-profit journalism org.

As a journalism teacher, you'll probably run the school paper, so you're going to be teaching or facilitating every part of that process, from the website to writing ledes and structuring a story, to reporting best practices.

I do think you'll have to "like" kids. I mean, we all like kids, but you'll have to have a deeper understanding of how high school kids think, why they do the things they do, how to motivate them, how to manage them, how to avoid problems in the classroom.

Teaching high school is also quite a bit of work. Having taught high school and also been in the "business" labour market for while, teaching high school is not really more work than other types of professions, but it's a steady, unrelenting grind.

I think the most challenging part would be building your own curriculum from the ground up, "staying one step ahead" of the students for at least the first year.

There will probably be late nights and weekends getting all this stuff together, plus marking assignments, plus getting a newspaper out (online?) but it's not really much more work than if you were self-employed or a manager in a private company.

I think the fundamental question, once again, is: do you like kids? Do you want to be their mentor and champion, and do whatever it takes to help them succeed? Are you interested in learning a lot more about what makes kids tick?

Then, I think, teaching is for you.
posted by JamesBay at 7:34 AM on February 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Everything JamesBay said, with the addition that, from a purely journalistic standpoint, there is a very good chance that the principal (superintendent, school board, board of directors, whoever runs the place) will be all up in your business about the paper. You will wage frequent battles over content, language, "tone", etc. -- you may not have a kid who wants to be the next Woodward & Bernstein and/or the next Bill Hicks every year, but those kids will show up sooner or later -- and sometimes you will be fighting those battles with both the administration and the kids simultaneously.
posted by Etrigan at 7:40 AM on February 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've done some of both. The job is at a private school? Your teaching load will probably be reasonable and the kids will be fun. Teaching at a public high school would be a whole different thing, assuming you're in the US. You might have close to 200 students and just tons and tons of paperwork justifying every little thing you do according to state "standards". the kids could be just as fun but you may not have the opportunity to get to know most of them since there will be so many.

If the school with the journalism class is somewhat competitive then chances are you will be able to teach the same way you have in college. As far as what to teach it's not my field but do as much hands-on stuff as possible, school newspaper, podcasts, video, whatever.

Middle school students might need more structure than high school students.

The librarians at the university where you're currently working should be able to help you find some books on pedagogy and classroom management.
posted by mareli at 7:45 AM on February 6, 2019

If you're on Facebook, the academic mamas group is huge and has a number of members who transitioned out of university settings into prep schools. I'd ask there.
posted by k8t at 8:43 AM on February 6, 2019

You will wage frequent battles over content, language, "tone", etc. -- you may not have a kid who wants to be the next Woodward & Bernstein and/or the next Bill Hicks every year, but those kids will show up sooner or later -- and sometimes you will be fighting those battles with both the administration and the kids simultaneously.

This is not necessarily true. My kids went to a small private middle and high school and we found that the administration was mostly hands off w/r/t the paper's content. The middle schoolers one year published a paper devoted solely to LGBTQIA issues. The high schoolers published an article critical of the upper administration, complete with an interview with the head of school who knew what the interview was going to be about and didn't stop the paper's publication.

It depends on the school.
posted by cooker girl at 8:45 AM on February 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Speaking as someone who taught in the K-12 system and now teaches in a college: (in Canada at least) privacy laws mean that in college/university, parents do not have the automatic right to discuss their children with you without the student’s permission. In K-12, they do have that right.

In other words, you’ll be dealing with parents much more often than in college/university teaching.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:11 AM on February 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

I was also going to mention parents. Overall, I think you'll have less autonomy and much more input/demand from parents. There may be a deep sense of entitlement or privilege. It may not be an issue or you may find it an issue you can deal with.

If you do move forward and interview, it may be worth trying to gauge what kind of school leaders you have--do they defend teachers' professionalism and authority, or do they tend to take a more customer service "the parent is always right" attitude? (Obviously don't word it that way.) You'd probably also want to know where your curriculum comes from--do you have freedom to decide what you cover, or is there a lot of oversight and imposed standards?
posted by kochenta at 10:55 AM on February 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

The younger kids are, the more you have to teach them things that seem blindingly obvious. In math, which I teach, this means things like showing middle school kids how to check the answers in the back of the book, how to use the table of contents, explicitly asking them to open their books when you start talking about a question, being unnaturally and repetitively clear about what constitutes acceptable homework completion. You also need to decide things like how you'll react when the kids inevitably show up to your class with nothing at all in their hands.

I think there are two ways to look at this. One way is to get annoyed about "kids these days" not being responsible, and to let them suffer for their "laziness" by getting bad grades. This is not exactly unfair, but it's not very productive and I don't think it makes teachers any happier.

The other way is to think about it just as teaching. When I started teaching younger kids, I worried I'd be bored because the math was so easy. In fact, I have just as much (or more) opportunity to teach critical thinking and mathematical problem-solving, which is the part of my job I love--so that part's great! But I do have to put energy into instruction and routines to teach the kids how to be students". I find that part kind of boring, but it's worth the time and effort I put into it.
posted by MangoNews at 12:03 PM on February 6, 2019

I teach high school journalism. Ditto most of what is being said here, but I will add that journalism laws for public high schools are NOT consistent state by state.

I don't think this will exactly cover you since it references public high schools, but it would be very good to know your high schools plan for censorship or not, is it a prior review? Is it after the fact? If anything I look up the law for the PUBLIC high schools in your area and press to see to what extent the administration intends to hold up those rights in your private high school. I think their response would be informative and help you decide whether you feel comfortable working there.

Q: What about the Hazelwood decision?
A: Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision, gave public high school officials greater authority to censor some school-sponsored student publications if they choose to do so. But the ruling doesn’t apply to publications that have been opened as “public forums for student expression.” It also requires school officials to demonstrate some reasonable educational justification before they can censor anything. In addition, 14 states (Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Oregon, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington) have passed laws that give students stronger free expression protection than Hazelwood. As part of SPLC’s “New Voices” effort, other states are considering such laws.
posted by aetg at 3:08 PM on February 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

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