Published Date

May 23, 2014

Resource Type

For Departments, For Professional Development

AHA Topics

Career Paths, Teaching & Learning

By Ron Briley, assistant headmaster and history teacher at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico

Professionally trained historians have found gainful employment and job satisfaction within secondary schools. While secondary schools may not be appropriate for everyone trained in history graduate programs, teaching in such schools provides a vehicle for achieving personal and professional goals for those who would like to share their enthusiasm for history with young people, who more than ever need an understanding of the past to make sense of a confusing present. A career in secondary schools provides ample opportunity for a rich professional life, often in smaller and more intimate venues than the larger lecture halls of the universities.

Consider the case of Thea Glicksman, who teaches in the Okemos, Michigan, public schools, and in 1988 was the recipient of the AHA’s Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award. Glicksman eloquently calls upon graduate-school advisers to encourage their best students to enter schools: “So, besides expressing concern about the state of teaching and learning history in the schools, and for some, contributing to the development of standards, what can college and university history faculty do to help raise the levels of achievement and historical understanding in our schools? Simply put, send us your best and brightest. Remember that training the best teachers is as important as training researchers and writers. Identify talented students not only for the academy, but for the schools as well. Recruit for us.” The idealism that many teachers bring to their craft is also exemplified by Glicksman’s comments. Writing monographs for one’s colleagues is rewarding and important, but K–12 teachers have the opportunity to reach a wider audience by fostering an “informed, effective, and responsible citizenry.”

Glicksman’s comments are echoed by many other teachers. Charles F. Howlett completed his doctorate in 1974, and his dissertation was published as Troubled Philosopher: John Dewey and the Struggle for World Peace. Howlett obtained a tenure-track university position in the late 1970s, Howlett obtained a New York State teacher’s certificate, taking a position with the Amityville Public Schools on Long Island. Howlett has spent more than 20 years at his Amityville high school, where the student body is predominantly African American with approximately 55 percent pursuing postsecondary education. In his long tenure, Howlett has taught a variety of courses, including: Global Studies, Regents and Non-Regents American History, Criminal Justice, Economics, Participation in Government, Advanced Placement American and European History, and an interdisciplinary course entitled Literature in American Democratic Thought. Rather than perceiving the lack of specialization as a problem, Howlett insists, “In many ways, course diversity has proven to be a hidden strength. Preparing new and different lesson plans has energized my work and prevented me from becoming stale. It has enabled me to continue reading the literature in the various fields.”

Howlett has also labored to develop scholarly projects involving student research and writing which draw upon his own experience as a scholar. Accordingly, Howlett and his students have investigated the Amityville community’s past, developing a local history journal. Howlett’s students chronicled such topics as family life, the African American experience, village politics, history of the school system, overseas experiences of combat veterans, de facto segregation of the public schools, and, of course, the “Amityville Horror.” Howlett concludes, “Through these efforts I have found my own way to make my classroom teaching compatible with historical research and publication. As a classroom historian, I developed an exciting way of bringing the past to life so that we can forge a new and better understanding of the communities in which we live and work. It is also one very important way to prepare young people to engage in the craft of historical research. Given the right encouragement and determination, it is quite possible to practice history in a high school setting.”

Rich Manser has also forged a rewarding career in the public schools, teaching for 35 years at Upper Merion Area High School in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. Himself a product of the Philadelphia public school system, Manser received BA and MA degrees from Penn State University before completing a PhD in American foreign relations at Temple University. Certified in history and the social studies, Manser finds the Advanced Placement program a stimulating environment. Manser asserts, “As the initial generation of AP history teachers now contemplate retirement and as the College Board greatly expands its AP social studies offerings to include economics, government, geography, psychology, and world history, the current opportunities and demand for teachers with advanced degrees has predictably risen.” As to the quality of his students, Manser concludes, “Having taught at a number of area colleges as an adjunct professor, it has been my experience that high school students are as curious and motivated as their collegiate counterparts. I have never been disappointed in the quality of discussion and participation that develops in my secondary classroom.”

Teaching in the schools can be a lonely pursuit, but Manser maintains that this need not be the case. For example, Manser and his colleagues at Upper Merion High School maintain extended contact with the wider scholarly community through a consortium of area colleges and local school districts that provides for in-service training and forums for discussion of history teaching. Manser declares, “In sum, many avenues are available for the interested history major to continue scholarly pursuits within the high school arena.”

Independent schools also offer an avenue through which professionally trained historians may enter the schools. Karen Bradley is assistant director of admissions for the upper school at the Head-Royce School in Oakland, California. She also teaches Advanced Placement American history, ethics, and California history. After earning a Bachelor’s degree in Latin American Studies from Yale University and a PhD in history from the University of California at Berkeley in 1995, Bradley, who initially sought to acquire a university teaching position, landed a position—with the aid of a placement agency—as history department head at Menlo School, a San Francisco prep school for grades 6 to 12. After four years, she was offered her current job at the Head-Royce School.

Bradley expresses satisfaction with her experience in the independent school environment. She does not believe that she has wasted her time earning an advanced degree not required in the schools. According to Bradley, her graduate school training makes her a better teacher. She concludes, “I can say unequivocally that the additional education has made me a far better teacher and far better colleague. I teach my students primary source research skills they never would have learned before. I can plumb online archives with them and get them excited about archival work in a way that I never would have been able to before. I can engage in discussions about historiographical debates—the stuff that really gets students excited about history—far more than I ever could before. The stuff that makes history trenchant for teenagers is the debate, the controversy, the primary sources that have meaning. I simply didn’t have the background or the intellectual flexibility to combine academic rigor with exciting discussion before I engaged deeply in the art and discipline of being a historian myself.”

Bradley also extols the prep school community for its collegiality and quality teaching experience of small classes of 15 to 17 students. In encouraging history graduate students to consider independent schools as a viable career path, Bradley observes, “Opening our options to prep school teaching multiplies the job options significantly. Being of more flexible mind regarding job options also increases the odds that we will wind up working and living in a community that supports our values. And it makes it more likely that we will be able to balance the passion for our work with our other passions.” It is Bradley’s conclusion that the prep school environment requires one to be a lifelong student of the art of teaching. Recognizing that this preoccupation with teaching is one of the differences between college and K–12 education, Bradley argues, “But if you enjoy the art of teaching, if you are willing to treat teenagers with respect; if you want a measure of control over the geographies where you work; then pursuing a career in prep school teaching can be as rewarding as work at many universities, a good deal better than some full time college positions, and certainly a better option than working as an adjunct faculty.”

Mark Smith of the John Burroughs School in St. Louis, Missouri, is another advocate for independent schools. After interviewing for university positions at the 1997 AHA meeting in Seattle, Smith attended the National Association of Independent Schools national convention, where he was impressed with the care school heads put into the interview process. The result was a history teaching position at the John Burroughs School.

Smith had to adjust to some of the demands made by the prep school environment such as the expectation that every full-time faculty member assumes one major responsibility in addition to teaching, such as coaching a sport or advising a student club. Smith drew upon his high school and undergraduate experience in taking on the assignment of faculty sponsor to the school newspaper, which he now describes as “one of the most rewarding parts of my job.” Smith has learned that the more intimate atmosphere and smaller class size of the independent schools create a sense of community in which “faculty and students teach each other lessons not only about our subject matter but about life as well.”

But what Smith most appreciates about his teaching situation is his students, whom he describes as “talented, motivated, and intelligent.” With discussion-driven classes of 16 students, Smith is able to know his pupils and how they learn, tailoring lesson plans to their individual needs. Smith also appreciates the teacher autonomy that is allowed at John Burroughs, for he is able to incorporate primary sources and historiography into his curriculum. Smith concludes, “With few exceptions, my junior United States history students can handle the breadth and depth of the material we study with amazing acuity.”

The enthusiasm for practicing the craft of history in secondary schools extolled by teachers such as Glicksman, Howlett, Manser, Bradley, and Smith is shared by many other teachers. For example, Doris Meadows, who earned her PhD at New York University, has pursued an outstanding career in the public schools of Rochester, New York, practicing what she terms “work worth doing.” At the April 2000 meeting of the Organization of American Historians, Doris was honored with the Mary K. Bonsteel Tachau Pre-Collegiate Teaching Award. Michael Woodward earned his PhD from the University of Georgia in the late 1970s. With a tight university labor market, Woodward found employment at Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, Florida. In 1987, he was appointed to the Howard Baker Chair of History at the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Working at a school that encourages professional development and fosters academic freedom, Woodward sums up his experience by remarking, “The benefits are solid, the classes small, and the pay ain’t bad.”

Recent doctorates may also fear that secondary schools offer little opportunity for scholarship. Yet, J. D. Bowers, who teaches at the Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii, begs to differ. While the time demands at the secondary school level are challenging, Bowers, whose dissertation from Indiana University focuses upon Joseph Priestly, insists that research is feasible “because colleges and universities are often nearby and you can stay involved through professional organizations, forming partnerships with local university faculty, and staying abreast of current college events.” Bowers is another strong advocate of independent schools, which he argues provide “the best of all worlds: small classes, emphasis upon teaching, ability to teach a wide array of courses, eligibility for long term stability, geographical choice, becoming very involved in the life of the students, and really teaching them (everyday in class, out of class, on the athletic field, on field trips).”

While some of these teachers initially contemplated a career at the university level, these case studies indicate that professionally trained historians have found a home in the schools where they may practice their craft and influence young people to pursue historical studies. They do not feel relegated to the second string of historical employment. They are proud to be historians in the schools.

My own experience echoes the positive assessment rendered by my colleagues. Although my high school academic career was less than illustrious and I was a first generation college student, the university environment inspired me to pursue an advanced degree in history. After gaining a Master’s degree at West Texas State University in Canyon, Texas, and completing my doctoral examinations at the University of New Mexico, I accepted a teaching position at Sandia Preparatory School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Short of funds while attempting to finish a dissertation, the plan was to teach at the prep school level for a year or two before moving on to the real world of university academics.

A quarter century later, I am still teaching history at Sandia Prep (where I also serve in an administrative capacity as Assistant Headmaster), and the dissertation is still unfinished. This is, of course, one of the dangers in attempting to teach full time while completing a degree. But I am hardly disappointed in the way my career has developed. The time commitments of teaching did keep me from my dissertation during my first years at the school. However, when I found need to again pursue scholarship, my dissertation topic—the Senate farm bloc of the 1920s—no longer captured my interest. It occurred to me that without the pressure of publish or perish, I was free to follow writing and research projects that interested me. Left to my own devices, I was able to make a small niche for myself in the field of film history and the study of American baseball. Best of all, I was able to incorporate my research into my teaching, designing a senior elective using Hollywood feature films as a primary source through which to investigate the formation of American values and ideology in the post World War II period.

My experience at Sandia Prep has been a fulfilling one, and I only wish that I may be able to continue my teaching for another 25 years. The school has been generous in its efforts to support my professional development, and I have been fortunate to participate in numerous academic conferences and activities (such as being elected to the Teaching Division of the AHA), meeting outstanding colleagues from both the schools and universities. Best of all has been the opportunity to read, study, and discuss history with my students who have taught me so much. While I love the classroom and scholarship, I also recognize that some of my greatest insights into life and learning have been gained during my time as sponsor of the school’s model United Nations team or while on more informal duties such as lunch supervision, field trips, or chaperoning a dance. It is a diversified and rich career and lifestyle that I would not have missed for the world.

At the same time, it is important to note some of the essential differences between K–12 schools and the university. Foremost is the demand that the schools place upon a teacher’s time. Depending upon how the schedule is arranged, it is not unusual for an individual to teach from four to six classes a day, including several different preparations. The time not spent in class is usually quickly filled with supervisory duties in the lunchroom and hallways, working with students who need extra help, and returning phone calls. Also, many schools expect teachers to serve as advisers to a group of students, monitoring their academic progress and socialization within the school. And as Mark Smith pointed out, many teachers are involved in after-school activities such as coaching or club sponsorship. Rather than these programs being frills that interfere with the academic program, most effective teachers recognize them as integral parts of a well-rounded school community.

One of the key requirements for success in the secondary school is a sincere interest in and respect for young people. Students appreciate a teacher who is knowledgeable and passionate about a subject, but they also need to know that their teacher cares about them as individuals. The university professor in the large lecture hall may often lack feedback from the students, but the more informal atmosphere of the schools tends to provide more immediate student evaluation. While such intimacy may be threatening to some, it is also possible to foster learning communities that last beyond the school years. It is intellectually stimulating and challenging to work with such inquisitive and innovative students, but they are young and sometimes immature.

Teachers in postsecondary institutions (especially in smaller liberal arts colleges) may also be able to form learning communities with undergraduate students, but there is another constituency with which those of us in secondary schools must uniquely deal: that of parents. Teachers in secondary schools must interact with parents, whether they are supportive—like the majority—or belligerent like the few that are exceptions.

So with heavy teaching schedules, supervisory and club responsibilities, and parental contacts, how do teachers ever have the time to engage in scholarship? The answer is that it is possible, as the academic labors of some teachers active in the schools well illustrate, but it takes careful planning, passion for scholarship, and a strong work ethic. Writing a monograph may not be a very realistic goal, but an article, reviews, and conference presentations are certainly manageable. There is often a false dichotomy between teaching and scholarship, for research facilitates one’s teaching. It is a process in which more teachers should be engaged.

Yet, by emphasizing the monograph and the achievement of tenure, university professors often appear to brush schoolteachers aside as if they have nothing of value to add to scholarly discourse.

But there are signs that the times are changing. Professional organizations such as the AHA and the Organization of American Historians are giving greater attention to teaching. Sessions at the annual meetings of both organizations are devoted to pedagogy as professors and teachers engage in a dialogue to address the needs of their charges in K–16 education. The AHA’s Teaching Division and OAH’s Committee on Teaching include teachers among their members, and there are serious outreach efforts being made toward the schools. Also, collaborative efforts between university and high school faculties have been fostered by the AHA.

Organizations such as the National Council for the Social Studies and its state affiliates, the National Council for History Education, and the Organization of History Teachers, an affiliate of the AHA, are additional sources of support and advice. The Council for Basic Education also offers outstanding resources—such as its pamphlet, Scholars as Teachers—for prospective teachers. Teachers seeking other scholarly alternatives for their students might consider such outlets as National History Day or The Concord Review, a journal for history essays by secondary-school students. Opportunities for summer professional enrichment also abound for history teachers. The National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright program, and Gilder-Lehrmann Institute all offer summer programs for teachers with generous funding for travel.

Involvement with the schools does not have to be limited to the classroom. Many teachers have used their skills and expertise to serve as educational consultants and produce instructional materials. For example, Bill Lacey, formerly of Fountain Valley High School in Colorado, now writes lesson plans full time for the publishing firm Interact. James Percoco is an outstanding teacher in the Fairfax County, Virginia, schools, who received the Disney American Teacher Award in 1993. In addition to his classroom labors, James has written two books on teaching and often serves as a consultant for textbooks and educational programs. There are thus more opportunities in the schools for advancement beyond the classroom.

What should a graduate student contemplating a life in secondary schools do to pursue this goal? First, graduate students need to spend a little time in the schools. Get to know some high school or middle (or even elementary) school teachers, observe their teaching and interactions with young people, and ask them questions about their profession. These teachers will be the best resource.

If still interested, the prospective teacher should make a tentative decision about whether to pursue employment in the public sector or in independent schools. The democratic ethos of the public schools may appeal to many younger graduate students, and the pay, especially in the states with strong teacher organizations, is decent. However, issues of state certification will come into play with most public school positions, and even scholars who are well qualified in history may need additional hours of education classes for certification. With a teacher shortage in many areas, however, states are becoming more generous with emergency or temporary teaching credentials. Interested candidates will need to check the certification issue with boards of education in the states where they seek employment.

Prospective teacher historians who would prefer to avoid certification hurdles may want to examine teaching opportunities with independent schools. Although independent education tends to offer greater teacher autonomy, financial remuneration may fall below what is offered in the public schools. Those interested in this career path would do well to consult with the National Association of Independent Schools in Boston or an independent school placement agency.

Whether public or private, graduate students who believe that the schools might provide an appropriate career option need to demonstrate a degree of commitment. School officials who interview job candidates are not going to be overly enthusiastic about an applicant who is going to teach in the schools only until a university position is available. Interviewers may be impressed with an aspiring teacher’s subject matter knowledge, but they will likely be more enthralled by an applicant’s willingness to work with young people. John Pyne, a former history teacher who now serves as a social studies supervisor in New Jersey, observes that when he is hiring new teachers there is an increasing emphasis upon history training. Pyne asserts, “There are three important components to the preparation of most successful teachers: academic preparation in the content disciplines, pedagogical knowledge and skill, and field experience. For me, the most important is a candidate’s academic preparation, particularly in history as I strongly believe that history is the core of the social studies program.”

Sharing one’s historical passion, insights, and skills with the nation’s young people is an important endeavor in shaping the future of the nation. It is work well worth doing, and as Thea Glicksman suggests, we in the schools need the best and brightest.