Teaching History in Independent Schools
Darcy R. Fryer, November 2007
Some academics view high school teaching as the epitome of failure—a fall-back plan for those who can't make it in the world of higher education. After four years of teaching in a well-regarded New York City independent school, I've concluded that my present institution is more rigorous, and offers a more intellectually satisfying teaching environment, than many colleges and universities. Many independent schools, in fact, more nearly resemble miniature liberal arts colleges than the high schools that we may remember from our youth.
Why teach at an Independent School?
The best reason for a PhD-trained historian to seek employment in an independent school is the quality of the teaching experience. The students are bright. The classes are small. The atmosphere is charged, open, and creative; discussions sparkle with energy. Faculty may safely hold students to high standards. While the usual problems of grade inflation and the perception of student-as-consumer intrude here as elsewhere, they seem less prevalent at independent schools than at most secondary and tertiary institutions.
PhD-trained historians may also find teaching at independent schools appealing for practical reasons. Starting salaries, retirement benefits, and health benefits are comparable to those of assistant professors. Job security is easier to achieve; most schools offer tenure (or de facto tenure) after a probationary period of two or three years. There is no publish-or-perish pressure, which can be a vital consideration for faculty members starting families in the very years in which academic institutions expect them to publish most vigorously. Many independent schools allow faculty to move from full-time to part-time employment and back again as their needs change.
In an article in the November 2005 Perspectives, David Arnold argued that young historians should consider careers in community college teaching in part because of their potential social impact.1 One cannot make quite the same argument for independent school teaching. The students are by and large affluent and privileged, though many independent schools do have generous financial aid programs. But in an era in which many students arrive at college with scant knowledge even of their own nation's history, the best independent schools model what secondary education can be. I study the historiography of slavery with my 10th grade students and read, with my 11th and 12th grade students, monographs that many college students would shy away from. Of course, only a small fraction of American teenagers presently have access to this sort of education. But there's plenty of room for new faculty to introduce further innovations and engage still more students in the pursuit of understanding the past.
In the Classroom
The top independent schools have a standard teaching load of four courses (typically three preparations), each of which meets for 160–200 minutes per week. Other independent schools often have a teaching load of five courses (also three preparations). Job candidates should note that this teaching load is similar to the prevailing load at community colleges and smaller state universities. Classes are small: often fewer than 15 students and certainly fewer than 20. A common pattern is for each instructor to teach two survey courses plus an elective for more advanced students. Many electives focus on particular regions—Atlantic World, Islamic World, Africa, East Asia—while others introduce students to disciplines such as art history, intellectual history, and political science. Some independent schools offer "topics" courses, in which advanced students study highly focused topics (the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the history of New York City) for a single quarter or trimester.
Independent school classes are usually run in a discussion format, enhanced by lectures, films, and activities. Survey courses usually rely on a college-level textbook, supplemented by dozens of primary sources. Courses for juniors and seniors, like college seminars, may eschew textbooks in favor of other genres of historical writing. In my Atlantic World course, I assign two challenging surveys (Alan Taylor's American Colonies and Mark Burkholder and Lyman Johnson's Colonial Latin America), several monographs (Sidney Mintz's Sweetness and Power, Alfred Crosby's Columbian Exchange, John Thornton's Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, and Elizabeth Fenn's Pox Americana), and a documentary reader on the Haitian Revolution. These seven books are supplemented by primary sources, a few scholarly articles, and films such as Black Robe and the documentary, A Midwife's Tale. Most students are undaunted by this heavy reading load. Thornton's monograph, perhaps the most challenging book on the syllabus, was the surprise hit of the course.
Both historiography and primary sources are often central to independent school history courses. Primary sources are usually introduced in the early middle school years; by high school, students are expected to quote and analyze primary sources in every essay they write. The school at which I teach formally introduces historiography in the 10th grade; students read excerpts from Ulrich Phillips, Kenneth Stampp, and Eugene Genovese, write a paper in which they analyze an excerpt from the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass from each of these three perspectives, and then learn about more recent trends in the historiography of slavery. In 11th and 12th grade courses, students read books and articles that exemplify various approaches to historical analysis, such as new social history, narrative history, and environmental history. In class and on tests, they may be asked to compare and contrast theories they have studied or apply them to particular primary sources.
Independent schools expect students to do a great deal of writing. A year-long survey course typically requires about four essays of at least 3–4 pages each; advanced courses often require a substantial research paper in addition to two to four short papers. The quality of the papers varies greatly, just as it would in most college classrooms. The best papers make very ambitious arguments. Many independent schools now subscribe to databases such as American National Biography and JSTOR, and teaching students to use these resources is an integral part of the research curriculum.
The Independent School Culture
In some respects, independent schools require a greater commitment from faculty than colleges do. For example, independent school teachers usually write separate reports (75–100 words) on each student three times per year. As at many small colleges, faculty members are expected to be on campus every day and be readily available for informal meetings with students. It's not unusual to be asked to cover an absent colleague's class or to speak at an assembly on, say, the electoral college. As academic departments are small, one may find oneself serving as a point person for regions and eras in which one has little or no training; though trained as an early Americanist, I am now my department's primary contact for the entire Western Hemisphere. (Of course, when the time comes to order new library books, this is a pleasure.)
Independent schools also expect faculty members to perform significant service outside the classroom. Typical assignments include academic advising, mentoring a club, helping coach an athletic team, chaperoning field trips, and serving on faculty committees. Good independent schools grant faculty members considerable discretion in choosing their own service activities; these extracurricular assignments sometimes present unexpected opportunities to revive and develop old interests. As a teenager, I studied German for nine years; as an American historian, I scarcely ever use the language. But I now teach an introductory "Taste of German" course to seniors each spring.
An increasing number of independent school faculty seek to publish scholarly books and articles. One is also likely to have colleagues who work as poets, performing artists, and literary translators in their spare time. Independent schools seldom oppose such scholarly and artistic activities, but neither do they offer the support that research universities provide. Summer vacations usually last two months, not three. School libraries, though often magnificent for their size, are not adequate to support scholarly research. Sabbaticals are sometimes available, but not on a schedule that supports scholarly research.
It is possible to remain active as a scholar, however, by setting clear goals, making the most of vacations, and cultivating an intellectual community outside your primary institution. But expect to explain both your scholarly credentials and your employment over and over again when attending conferences and working with publishers. It's also wise to be frank about your scholarly ambitions at the interview stage; some independent schools are delighted to hire scholars, while others are simply not interested. Sound out your interviewers and pay attention to what they say about each school's individual culture.
How to Apply
The job-search season runs from January to May. Most ads appear in January and February, and most searches are concluded by early May. Applicants for independent school jobs usually focus on one major city or region. In fact, many schools assume that all applicants are local and do not pay interview travel expenses (it's often easier to negotiate about when the interview is held, so that you can combine it with another trip or arrange to stay with a friend, than it is to obtain a reimbursement). A few institutions advertise on H-NET, but you will also need to consult the National Association of Independent Schools web site (http://careers.nais.org), as well as a major local newspaper. Applications are often reviewed on a rolling basis, so it's wise to submit your application within a week of seeing the ad.
Job announcements typically request a letter of application, a c.v., and either letters of recommendation or a list of references. It's fine to submit the same dossier that you would submit to colleges and universities. Additional materials, such as a teaching portfolio or student evaluations, are seldom necessary but can be useful conversation points at an interview. At some point during the interview process, you will be asked for a writing sample such as a published article or dissertation chapter. The interviewers wish to see evidence of your intellect, of course, but in contrast to university faculty, they're likely to be at least as interested in the quality of the writing as in the originality of the research. Independent school history departments teach writing more systematically than most college history departments do, and the ability to write well and to speak articulately about your strategies for teaching writing is of prime importance.
A first-round interview may be either a quick 30-minute conversation with a small panel of faculty, similar to an AHA Job Register interview, or a full-day affair. The second-round interview will almost certainly last a full day. During the interview, you can expect to sit in on several classes, meet with faculty and administrators, tour the school, and teach a sample class. The topic for the sample class will normally be assigned to you, perhaps on just two days' notice; don't expect to be able to negotiate a different topic. Some schools deliberately ask job candidates to teach outside their specialties, in order to evaluate their intellectual flexibility. The mistake that job candidates most frequently make in teaching the sample class is underestimating the students' abilities and pitching the presentation too low. As a general rule, a class at an independent secondary school should be taught at the same level as a first-year seminar at a good liberal arts college, but at a slower pace, with a little more guidance on note-taking.
How should one approach an interview? First, use this opportunity to get the fullest possible information about the school's expectations: teaching load, extracurricular responsibilities, how soon you will be allowed to teach an elective (second year is typical) and what it might be. Independent schools vary greatly in tone and rigor, and it's important to get accurate information up-front, particularly if you are coming from the academic world. Secondly, present yourself as a generalist as well as a scholar. You will be asked about your scholarly research, but you are also likely to be asked about your leisure reading, your evaluation of current events, and your ability to teach survey courses outside your field of specialization. Interviewers do not expect you to be an expert on every region of the world; rather, they seek intelligent, versatile candidates who are willing to develop new areas of expertise. It is entirely appropriate to discuss your undergraduate coursework, foreign language capabilities, and travel experiences to establish yourself as a well-rounded candidate.
Teaching history in an independent school is a grueling yet stimulating career. If the job described in this article sounds attractive to you, I recommend reading Ron Briley's article on independent school teaching and browsing the web sites of several independent schools to get a sense of both curriculum and culture.2 Many independent schools welcome visitors; simply contact the history department chair at the school you'd like to visit, and he or she will arrange for you to visit classes and lunch with faculty members. And, who knows, you might even be tempted to put in an application!
—Darcy R. Fryer teaches history at the Brearley School in New York City.
1. David Arnold, "How I Learned to Quit Whining and Started to Enjoy Teaching at a Community College and Why You Might Want to Consider Doing the Same," Perspectives 43:8 (November 2005), available at www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2005/0511/0511pro2.cfm.
2. Ron Briley, "An Option Worth Pursuing: Teaching Opportunities for History Graduate Students in Secondary Schools," in Richard Bond and Pillarisetti Sudhir, eds., Perspectives on Life after a History Ph.D. (Washington, DC: American Historical Association, 2005), 9–14. See also Briley's recent essay, "Modeling Intellectual Curiosity: Research and the Preparatory School Teacher," in Perspectives 45:6 (September 2007), available at www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2007/0709/0709tea2.cfm.