As the academic job market throughout the world has continued to implode due to the continued adjunctification of academic labor, many academics have begun to advise graduate students they might wish to consider “alternative academic” employment, or “alt-ac” careers. These types of careers, especially for historians, can be quite varied and include public history and museum work, historic preservation work, government history, and historical legal consulting, among others. However, none of these alt-ac careers are turnkey opportunities for the historian, and many of these alt-ac opportunities require additional education and experience before a historian might successfully translate their skills into these other fields.

One alt-ac career that is especially appealing for some historians is the idea of high school (or even middle school) history and/or social studies teaching. The appeal, in many ways, is obvious: graduate school teaching assistantships, and sometimes, specialized courses, provide at least some basic training and experience in teaching, and, the thought goes, if someone who has completed a graduate degree in the field is qualified to be hired to teach at a college or university, then they should be qualified to teach at the high school level. There is a lot of truth to this idea, and independent schools are especially attracted to candidates with graduate degrees in history who are interested in teaching. However, even though high school history teaching might look like an attractive option, there is a lot to consider before making plans to become a secondary school teacher.

This blog series will address various aspects to consider when planning your transition from the academy to the schoolhouse. I myself successfully made the transition, and in doing so, I learned a lot about myself, about teaching, about the historical profession and being a historian, and about the educational enterprise more generally. High School History and Social Studies teaching can be immensely rewarding, if you do it for the right reasons and with your eyes wide open. It can also be a complete and utter nightmare depending upon the circumstances. So, in this series, I will attempt to prepare you so that you know what you need to know if you chose the teaching profession.

For this series, I plan on writing about the following topics:

  • Introduction / Big differences between collegiate and high school teaching (this post).
  • What high schools want and don’t want.
  • Public or Private? Day vs. Boarding? Secular vs. Religious?
  • Secondary pedagogy
  • History vs. Social Studies Debate
  • Curricular Choices
  • Career opportunities for those with graduate degrees in the disciplines.

If the series gains interest, I am willing to consider adding additional topics as necessary.

There are huge differences between collegiate and high school teaching

While there are affinities between being a faculty member at a college or university, and being faculty at a secondary school, there are also a significant number of differences between the two. Understanding the differences is important if you are thinking about teaching at the high school level.

Your research will not be valued

Unlike an R1 institution, and even unlike a typical four-year liberal arts institution, your research is not valued. Now, don’t get me wrong, if you manage to find the time to do any type of research and writing, and you publish, your colleagues will most likely be impressed that you were published. However, the school will not see your writing (unless you are publishing high school textbooks) as adding anything to the educational mission of the institution. And since that is the case, your school will not provide you with any resources or time to conduct research and writing, because, quite frankly, research is not part of a high school teacher’s duties. This can be a big shock for some folks, especially those people who very much desired a research career that emphasized publishing over teaching.

Your focus will 100% be on teaching

So, if research is not just undervalued, but not valued at all, then it becomes quite obvious that high school teach is about just that, teaching. While there are some service requirements (often weekly faculty meetings and monthly committee meetings), the focus on the job is always on teaching. And by teaching, I mean pedagogy. Regardless of the context of a specific high school, your ability to use various teaching strategies to teach your students is extremely important in secondary teaching. However, emphases do vary. Independent schools will value your graduate work in the discipline much more than a public school will. But regardless, both want to know that you understand how to teach.

Lee Shulman differentiaties between three different types of “content knowledge”: subject matter content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, and curricular knowledge. Subject matter content knowledge is your knowledge of the field, and especially, says Shulman, the structure of the field. I would say that in the area of history education, the structure of the field is very much interested in periodization and causation. Being able to demonstate cause and effect in a highly systematized way can be highly valued here. Factual knowledge is typically valued over historiographical knowledge in this context. The M.A. or Ph.D. historian should have no problem with meeting content knowledge requirements.

Curricular knowledge is understanding what ought to be taught at what level. It is understanding what knowledge and skills are important and should be emphasized, and which should not. It is an understanding of what the full range of curricular options are for history and social studies education, and which options are appropriate for a given situation. Most likely, the graduate level historian wading into the high school faculty will have absolutely no idea about curricular knowledge. Unless the historian happens to have a degree in an education field, it is unlikely that they will have any training or knowledge of high school social studies curriculum. However, curricular choices are some of the most important decisions a high school teacher can make, and so understanding the various options available is extremely important. Historians can also make important contributions to curriculum decisions, but it is important to know that some K-12 educators can be quite hostile to subject matter experts (SMEs), and especially historians, because many of them believe our research and writing to be on topics that are wholly irrelevant to creating an educated populace. While it is easy to bristle at such criticism, there is some value in this perspective that I will address later on in another post.

The third type of content knowledge is Pedagogical Content Knowledge (PCK). PCK is, in a nutshell, knowledge of how to teach the content effectively. An instructor with strong PCK knows which analogies are most widely used to teach a specific topic, because those are the ones that teachers have found to be most helpful. They know the best examples to use when teaching a specific concept so that maximum understanding is achieved among students. They use the best illustrations to make their points. It isn’t enough to simply know history well, you have to know how to teach the content well.

So, a strong teacher needs to have mastery of all three: subject matter content knowledge, curricular content knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge. Demonstrating to a school that you are competent in all can be very important in the hiring process.

You will always be swamped with work

You will definitely NOT be on an R1 teaching load of 2/2. You will be looking at a 5/5 teaching load each and every semester unless you receive a course release because you are chairing a department or on another special assignment. In some rarified environments, such as boarding schools, you might be lucky enough to find a 4/4 load, but most likely, you will not qualify for these positions without several years of high school teaching under your belt. At the same time, if a school tells you that you will be required to teach a 6/6 load, run away as fast as you can. A 6/6 is simply too much work.

You’ve most likely heard about high school teachers taking piles of homework home to grade over the weekend. This is absolutely true. Along with teaching five classes per semester (most of which will probably be year-long courses), you will most likely be teaching at least three preps, and it is possible you could even be loaded with five preps. The more courses you must prepare to teach, of course, means that you must spend more time in preparation. Finally, five classes per term brings five classes worth of grading to be done. Depending upon the school, you could also be looking at large class sizes. The larger the class, the more grading to be done.

In addition, depending upon the school, you may also have additional responsibilities. Traditional public schools often require students to act as monitors: in the halls, in the lunch room, in the bus line, and in the commons. Boarding schools, on the other hand, often require faculty to perform residential life duties, including late night room checks, responding to medical emergencies (including driving students to the hospital), and planning and supervising student activities (trips to Walmart, student dances, etc.) The bottom line: teaching high school is time intensive, and will often leave you without much time to do much of anything else. When I began my career teaching in high school, I was sure I could carve out some time to do research and writing. That, to be quite frank, was a pipe dream.

High school teaching is worth it (despite the headaches!)

Despite all of these major differences, high school teaching can be extremely rewarding. You will have the opportunity to get to know your students better, and you will most likely have many more “ah ha” moments with your students (which is one of the things that truly makes teaching worth it). You will find that your teaching and relationships with your students generally make a much larger impact on their lives than your work in a college classroom. You will also have opportunities to teach courses that are outside your area of immediate expertise, such as Social Studies elective courses including sociology, psychology, art history, and philosophy. This can be a lot of fun, and a great reward to both you and your students for all of the hard work that you put into preparing for and teaching standard survey courses.

So, if the challanges and extra work of high school teaching hasn’t phased you, then continue reading on in this series!

Joshua Ward Jeffery is Assistant Professor of Law Enforcement at Navajo Technical University. Josh has also held the title of Assistant Professor of History/Diné Studies at NTU. Previous to teaching at NTU, Josh was Chair of the Department of Humanities and U.S. History Teacher at The Orme School of Arizona. Josh has masters degrees in History from the University of Tennessee, and in Religious Studies from Vanderbilt University.

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