This is the second part in a series on teaching at independent secondary schools. The first part can be found here.
Academics who decide to pursue a teaching position at an independent school after years of graduate work to earn the doctorate will have to shift almost everything they have been told. In fact, when I told my dissertation director that I was applying to independent schools, he strongly discouraged it, saying that it would suck my life away. Not only was he mistaken, the opposite turned out to be true. However, one must get through the interview process first, and the shift in perspective becomes more important here.
First, talk about teaching, not research. This change would seem rather obvious, but most job candidates simply do not understand it. When I applied for my first teaching position at an independent school, I was one of a few candidates with doctorates, but I was the only one hired. When I asked the academic dean why this was, she replied that the others had talked only about their research. This is the time to completely ignore the dissertation and highlight any and all classes that you have taught along the way, especially lower-level courses.
As someone who has been teaching college students, you are in the best position to convey to high school students what is expected at that level, and this knowledge is your greatest asset. The other teachers there have either never taught college or taught it long ago, but your knowledge is up-to-date and timely. Thus, discuss what you have learned from teaching those introductory level courses and how you can connect that knowledge to what you would teach at the school to help move its students to where they need to be to succeed in college.
Along the same lines, if you have ever worked with high school students at all, now is the time to mention it. Even if you simply had a few students who were taking classes with you for dual enrollment credit, mention it. I had worked with Upward Bound, a program for high school students who are the first in their families to plan to attend college, for only a month one summer, but it was on my vita and highlighted in my cover letter. You will be expected to show that you understand high school students, so any mention of teaching related to that level will only help your case.
You also might be asked to teach a sample class or at least answer questions as to how you would teach a particular class. If so, avoid the two traditional graduate-level approaches: lecture or pure discussion. Avoiding the lecture where high school students are concerned is fairly obvious, as they really do not have the attention span to sit and listen to you talk (more than likely over their heads) about a subject that would probably interest only other graduate students. The problem most applicants make is moving too far in the other direction and having a discussion, much as they would in a seminar class in graduate school.
Granted, the classes are small, but the students simply are not prepared for that type of discussion yet. A more successful approach is to combine a variety of teaching methods, perhaps beginning with a short lecture to introduce a topic, dividing the class into groups to have smaller discussions on ideas (or examine a poem and answer questions or something along those lines), then come back to the full class and end with a full-class discussion. If you have spent the past few years teaching only upper-level courses, you should look at books and articles about teaching high school or first-year students. If you have been teaching freshmen, though, take that approach (assuming it works well) and use it with the high school students. You are preparing them for college, and you will be amazed at the level of their abilities.
Next, talk about your extracurricular interests, not just what teams or groups you have experience directing and coaching or what you participated in when you were in high school. I was able to coach tennis, merely because I used to play it when I was a teenager and still tried to play whenever I had the chance.
At my last independent school, the athletics director simply saw me running after school, which led to my opportunity to work with the middle school cross-country team. Thus, if you like chess or drama or music, even as a hobby, put it in the cover letter and bring it up during the interview. You do not even have to have any particular skill at it, as you can learn that along the way. In fact, sometimes schools simply want a body to fill a particular position. One of my friends from my first job had never played basketball, but she was an assistant coach to the girls’ junior varsity basketball team, as the head coach was male, and they wanted a woman to work with them, as well. She was athletic, so she could pick up the basics well enough to work with the junior varsity, and it provided the girls with a woman they could talk to throughout the season.
Last, talk about how much you enjoy being around students. If you don’t enjoy being around them, do not apply for a position at an independent school, as you’ll be miserable. If you do, though, let that show through every answer you give. Independent schools are looking for people to be mentors to the students; they want people who will open their homes and their lives to the students, especially if you work at a boarding school where students are away from their parents. One of my friends at her first job used to invite small numbers of students over for dinner, then would allow them time and space to work on their homework.
At my second job at an independent school, I acted in student-directed productions, which helped me forge relationships with students that I could never have formed in the classroom. In each of my interviews, I mentioned work I had done when I was 16 with a church program for students who lived in nearby housing projects, and I drew attention to the work I had done in college working with high school students, even if it was only observing a class. Even when I made the move to teaching college, I drew on these experiences, comments that the president of the university referenced when I was hired.
If you plan to teach in an independent school, the focus will shift from research to teaching, but, more importantly, the focus will shift from you to the students. If you can convey to the administration that you would be a teacher who knows how to connect with students, in addition to teaching them, you will easily find a job, even in a rough job market like today’s.
Kevin Brown is an associate professor of English at Lee University.
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