Teaching high school or college?
A number of students have asked me if I like teaching high school or college better, and my student teacher supervisor asked me if I wanted to get back into higher ed. My answers: high school, and a very emphatic 'no.' If you'd have told me 10 years ago that I would feel this way, I would have asked you if I had suffered some kind of brain injury. But it's true; I'm finding that I actually enjoy it more, despite the fact that it is much harder, for the following reasons:
- Time with the kids. I thought this might go the other way because I'm so introverted, so I was a little nervous about a job that required me to be around people so much. It is very exhausting, and I've had to work to carve out quiet time to myself so that I can function like a semi-normal human, but that extra time has meant that I can build relationships and get to know my students. This happened occasionally at the higher ed level with upper-level undergrads and grad students who took more than one class with me, but that was the exception rather than the rule. The additional time means that I know my students better and have more patience and empathy, but it also means that they know me better and know that I care about them. As a socially awkward introvert, it really takes time for me to feel comfortable with people, and at this level, I have the time I need to make connections. This makes my job feel meaningful to me, which is one of my top priorities (after salary, insurance, and retirement benefits, because I'm a pragmatist).
- Curricular control. I know this wouldn't happen at every school, but I'm the only Spanish teacher at my school, which means I run the program like I want. I used to think I wanted to be a language program director, because I love working on curriculum and activities. But a language program director needs to be able to manage people, and while I think I could do OK for a while, it would make me miserable and I would hate it. (And I would REALLY hate it for language program director pay, which is typically less than assistant professor pay because many LPDs aren't on the tenure track...so you're running a program, supervising people, and using lots of administrative skills that are supposed to be well-compensated, but you're making less money than, say, a public school teacher.) All that is to say that my current job is an excellent match for my personality, because I get to run a language program without having to manage people.
- Regular schedule. I always enjoyed having schedule flexibility in higher ed, and I especially enjoyed not having to be awake before 8 AM. So I was not crazy about having a rigid schedule and needing to wake up at 6:30 every morning. I am still not a morning person, so it's been an adjustment. But having a more regular schedule has been really good for my mental health. I am actually awake for most of the daylight hours, so I get more sunlight, and I'm not awake until 2 or 3 in the morning. I actually wake up at 5 AM every morning because I learned that my brain did not want to do anything else after I'd spent all day with 100 people, and it was taking me 3-4 hours every night to make my materials for the next day because my brain was mostly done for the day. So I started waking up at 5 and getting to school at 6:15-6:30, and I've discovered that I really enjoy the quiet work time in the morning while my brain is still fresh.
- Admin support. I used to think I had administrative support at the higher ed level, but I've been thinking about this during the past year, and I'm realizing that what I had was academic freedom, which is different than administrative support. I don't mean this as a criticism of any specific person, as the people that I worked with were generally nice people, but rather on the state of higher education in general. In my experience, there was never anyone saying, "What do you need to be successful and how can we help you get what you need?" It was "Sink or swim, and if you sink, there are hundreds of hungry PhDs that will be equally qualified who can replace you." Many, many people have written on this toxic culture in academia, and it does not have to be this way. But it can be this way because there are so many PhDs and so few jobs.
- NO PUBLICATION REQUIREMENTS!!! In hindsight, academia was never a good fit for someone who doesn't have any ambition to publish. And it's not even that I don't like actually doing the research. Nerd that I am, I have been collecting data on student vocabulary retention this year to help establish benchmarks for vocabulary learning as I develop my program. My amazon cart has four books on acquisition of L2 vocabulary in it, just waiting for me to finish the school year so that I have time for some light "leisure" reading. :D When I'm not a new high school teacher, I would like to turn this blog into accessible summaries of current research in second language acquisition. But it was very frustrating to spend so much time running studies, getting weird results, and having things get rejected because the results were different than what previous studies had shown.
Full disclosure: I do miss a few things. I miss my prep time. Or maybe it's better to say that I miss the research time that I used to prep my classes. I taught 15 hours/week tops, which left a respectable amount of time for prep and grading (though still not enough once you add research into the mix). First, let me say that my school admin is great at protecting our time, so this is not a complaint about my school, but rather about what our society feels is a reasonable workload for educators. I always get my plan period and my district is great about not killing us with superfluous meetings. My plan period each day is 55 minutes, which is supposed to be enough time to plan for three different classes and do any grading that needs done. Well, I have 100 students, so 55 minutes/day doesn't even come close to the amount of time I need to do everything. A lot of this will be better once I have my materials developed and I'm not making everything from scratch, but it's still not enough time. Some of this is just part of life; we'll never have enough time for everything we want to do, which means we need to prioritize. But 100 students and 55 minutes/day means that I can't do very many assessments because I don't have time to evaluate them. I'm getting creative and using technology to help me, but there are some things that can't be automated well (or affordably), like writing and speaking. And again, let me say that my workload is much better than that of many teachers. Other teachers in my cohort have 140-160 students and a lot more meetings. In my last post, I mentioned a Cult of Pedagogy post that talks about teacher plan time in other countries, and the US does not come out favorably in the comparison.
But isn’t that just the nature of the job? Not everywhere. According to a 2010 research brief from Stanford University, U.S. teachers spend 80 percent of their work hours delivering instruction to students. The average in other high-achieving nations? 60 percent. And brace yourself: In South Korea, Japan and Singapore, that average plummets to a staggering 35 percent. Yes, you read that right. In these countries, just 35 percent of teachers’ time is spent teaching students. The rest of their work hours are spent collaborating, studying, and planning, making their instructional time as good as it can be.There has been a lot of news about teacher strikes and teacher shortages lately, and while we definitely need to work on improving teacher pay, there are other things that we could do to retain talented teachers, and giving them enough time to do a decent job during a regular work week is one of them. I've spent every weekend this year developing materials and grading. I come in by 6:30 every day. I frequently still work in the evenings (on menial tasks that require no brain power, like making vocabulary cards). I know that this will improve as I have my classes developed, but it shouldn't happen in the first place. I should be able to have the time that I need to provide a quality education AND spend time with my family. (And again, I reiterate that many, if not most, teachers have more demands on their time than I do.) Why do we just expect that teachers will need to work on evenings and weekends?
The other thing I miss is teaching teachers. I really did enjoy teaching world language teachers, but as I told my student teacher supervisor, I'm not interested in returning to higher education. I already know it's not a good fit for me, and I've finally found a job that I love. So hopefully I will be able to mentor world language teachers in an unofficial capacity at some point when things have settled down a little.
Final thoughts on teacher recruitment and retention: While I didn't choose my career path with the intention of teaching high school, it's actually one that I would recommend, for a few reasons. First, I love knowing my content area so well. When I first started teaching, I was reasonably proficient in Spanish, but still made a lot of mistakes that me cringe when I see them now. Going through a master's program in literature and a PhD program in linguistics has given me enough time in the language that I have a deep understanding of its structures and a broad knowledge of its literature. Second (and I think a big selling point), while I was doing all of this study, I was working as a TA, so I was getting teaching experience in a fairly structured environment. I was also getting paid a small stipend, and most importantly, getting all of my tuition paid for. If I had started teaching high school after graduating with my PhD, I would currently be making more than I would have if I'd gotten tenure at my university. And I have no student debt. So I would advise future teachers to go to graduate school FIRST, with a teaching assistantship or some other form of financial support (not on your own dime), and get as much education as you can while someone else is paying for it (and before you know the feeling of having a regular paycheck). You will have some years of lost wages, sure, but you won't be saddled with a huge student loan burden wondering if you'll ever be able to pay it all back. Since I didn't have a "real" job with a real paycheck until I turned 30, I didn't mind making $10,000-$12,000/year for 8 years while I was in graduate school. And I love not owing $50,000-$100,000 for the fantastic education that I received.