How I transitioned from the PhD into secondary education.

A few months ago I announced on Twitter that I had accepted a full-time permanent position as a humanities teacher in West Los Angeles. I know there are many PhD students and ECRs out there who might be contemplating a professional move either outside of academia or to something “academic adjacent” as I put it. For those of you interested in teaching, here is how I did it.

NOTE: This is 100% based on my experience to teach at a school in the United States, specifically California. I was fortunate to have a strong teaching resume, personal and professional resources, and teaching experience. However, there were still some challenges and I hope this could be helpful to those interested in a teaching job. This is a LONG post, but I think it’s worth it if it helps you.

In 2 blogs I wrote last spring, I described how I interviewed for an academic job in the US Southeast. Once I returned home, I knew that the academic route was not for me. I decided to turn my attention secondary to teaching.

The first thing I did was read lots of blogs and articles from academics who turned to teaching, which proved to be valuable resources. I’d also really recommend reading this article from Carney Sandoe (written by a now-colleague of mine!) that advises Humanities PhDs how to go about getting a secondary teaching job. Not only did they validate my choice, but they also offered great advice in terms of the application process.

The second step I took was updating my general cover letter and resume. The cover letter is not too different from an academic cover letter but there are still changes that have to be made (again, read the Carney Sandoe article!). For one, you have to highlight your teaching philosophy: What is your philosophy about student-centered learning? What is your philosophy about project-based learning? How do you approach teaching? How do you differentiate learning? How do you value diversity? How does your expertise/pedagogy shape your methodology? You also need to describe your teaching experience. Yes, you can use your university teaching experience, but focus on your teaching methods and pedagogy – NOT your expertise. Did you use Socratic seminars? Did you lecture? How did you accommodate students with disabilities, learning difficulties, or other special needs? Your resume must be tailored for a teaching job. This is not a CV so don’t treat it like one.

Third, I applied to two teaching recruiter agencies: Carney Sandoe & Associates (who are nation-wide recruiters) and Cal-West Educators (who are California and West Coast recruiters). These programs focus on the independent school sector. You can also go to the National Association of Independent Schools job boards, but for a first-time secondary teacher I’d really recommend you to work with a recruiting agency. Schools turn to those companies first because recruiters interview and vet you thoroughly.

Why did I go this route and not public school? For one, although I earned a California teaching credential, I never cleared it and it expired in June 2017. Another reason is that in California a doctorate would make me too expensive to get hired in the public sector. Education funds are dire and districts are strapped. This is an unfortunate reality. Another reason is more personal rather than logistical. I don’t believe in the standardized state testing that public schools are subjected to. I feel they are culturally, socially, and economically biased and that they do not measure teaching. I also feel they put too much pressure on schools, teachers, and subsequent funding to cater to high scores, which takes away educational creativity and a love of learning. I trained in that area and I had no desire to be a part of it.

Carney Sandoe rejected my application due to a lack of full-time teaching experience, but Cal-West agreed to represent me. The process was simple. I filled out the online application followed by an interview. (This will be either in person or over the phone.) One of the big questions you have to be prepared to answer is why are you interested in secondary education? They want to make sure that a teaching job isn’t just a holding place before you take off back into the academic world. They want to make sure that their candidates are committed. It looks badly on the recruiting agencies if new-hires put in their notice 6 months into their new job because the new teacher took on something academic. Schools pay the recruiting agencies so they lose out. Plus, that hurts prospective PhDs who are genuinely interested and passionate about secondary education because recruiters and schools can be a bit more cautious about those applicants.

Once Cal-West agreed to represent me, I had to complete my online profile. This consisted of several uploaded documents that included: all university transcripts, teaching philosophy, cover letter, resume, and three letters of recommendation. The last part was tricky because I no longer had contacts from my credential experience 5 years ago, so I received references from professors who observed me teach.

The most important thing is to focus on your teaching experience and area of teaching expertise. You have to be flexible. (Research expertise can and will come later on the job, especially if you take part in curriculum development.) In my case I had to stress that not only could I teach British and US History, but also World History, AP-level history, any area of social studies, humanities, political science, economics, and English literature. How did I know I could teach those subjects? Several reasons.

  1. 1) I did my student-teaching in 7th grade social studies (Medieval World in California), 9th grade World Geography and Cultures (multidisciplinary), 10th grade World History, and 11th grade US History.
  2. 2) I was a Teaching Assistant for Western Civilization 1500 – Present, Early America and the Atlantic World, and Problems in US History to 1865 (all of which I wrote and delivered lectures).
  3. 3) At King’s College London I was a Graduate Teaching Assistant for The Worlds of the British Empire 1700 – 1960 for 2 years and Power, Culture, and Belief in Early Modern Europe 1500 – 1800.

So as you can see, I had experience teaching in many different and varied areas of history. Each class encompassed a different part of the world at a different time so it was not hard to make any world connections.

This is an opportunity where I was also able to draw upon my research and you can too. All research is multidisciplinary. If you study history, you’ve also studied literature. Therefore, you can teach literature. Humanities encompasses all areas of history, literature, and social studies. If you’ve studied history, you’ve studied literature and therefore you’re familiar with social studies and thus you can teach Humanities. (Plus, PhD in the Humanities? There you go!). Did you have to look at rulers/leaders, governments, trade, or any kind of cultural exchange? BOOM! You can teach political science, government, and economics. Did you write a thesis? I sure hope so because then you can teach writing. Was your area of expertise and teaching experience limited to something specific, such as early modern Europe? Brush up on how early modern innovations spread throughout the world and affected the 19th and 20th centuries. Not sure how that happened? You’re a seasoned researcher and an expert, so you can learn this easily. I believe in you. Your interviewer wants to make sure you can teach all aspects and time periods in World History? You can. I promise. If you’re not sure, pretend you can and read up over the summer.

Another FYI. I was asked if I would be interested in teaching middle school. This was a specific question because most PhDs prefer to teach older teenagers, which makes sense because they’re closer in age to college-level students. However, middle school is probably the one area of education that is always hurting for teachers. Many new teachers are wary of middle school students because, let’s be honest, the ages between 11 and 14 are no picnic for anyone. Therefore there generally tends better luck for those positions. Luckily, I like teaching pre-teens and young teenagers so I said I’d be happy to teach middle school.

I became represented by Cal-West very late in the game: April. Most independent schools had already hired their teachers for the upcoming year in February. However, late spring often has a second wave of hiring because some people leave their posts unexpectedly or some back out of their contracts. I had to hope that this would work in my favor.

Then the fun started. I received automated emails almost daily from Cal-West saying that they had sent my materials to a different school for a specific position. I had no control over this. The selections were based on what would be a good fit according to my interview and also an algorithm based on regions, grades, and subject areas I selected online. For most schools I had to submit a separate personalized cover letter.

On the one hand, being represented by a recruiter helped because they did a lot of great legwork for me. On the other, it got a little disheartening to receive second emails saying my application had been withdrawn from many great-looking positions. That was to be expected so late in the game. I did get a few nibbles though. One school needed a year-long maternity cover and they were very interested in my application. I had a phone interview only to discover they would need me to start in two days, which I could not do at the time. Another school in Northern California expressed a huge amount of interest for my application but I chose to withdraw it when I found it was a Catholic school because I had no desire to teach in a religion-affiliated school.

Once I resigned myself to the fact that I would probably have to go through another representation cycle for the following academic year, I had some success. Two well-known private schools in Los Angeles (let’s call them School A and School B) contacted me on the same day in mid-May. Both requested a phone interview. One was for a middle school Humanities position (School A) while the other was a one-year high school World History position (School B). Both interviews went really well and I felt I had a great rapport with both of the school principals. Both asked why I was interested in secondary teaching rather than academia and I honestly expressed my love for teaching and being in the classroom. Then I waited.

Similar to my Skype interview with the South-eastern university, things happened very quickly. First, I found out that School B decided to withdraw my application just hours later without a given reason. Then that evening I received an email from School A a few hours after my phone interview requesting a campus interview plus teaching demonstration. I had only two days to prepare.

The campus interview was very similar to my university interview: it was basically a mini-version. I had interviews with the department chair and the assistant head of school along with a teaching demonstration. I found out which class I’d be teaching and I contacted the teacher to ask about the curriculum. Once I had an idea of what was being covered, I set about preparing.

This is where I got lucky. My best friend’s mother is a middle school teacher for the same subject as my job interview. I called her and asked if she would have time to help me prep a lesson and we met that afternoon. Upon her advice, I created a 30-minute lesson divided up into 3 stages: teacher-led discussion and instruction (including a PowerPoint), student-led learning (group work based on the lesson to put it into action), and a closing discussion to assess their understanding.

I had total freedom of subject so I decided to teach a lesson about the Spice Trade to show how the world was globally connected for centuries. The demonstration went well. The most important thing is to act as enthusiastic as you can and to build an immediate rapport with the students. Ask them their names. Open your lesson with a topical question. In my case I asked them, “What’s your favorite type of food?” Then, based on their responses (“Mexican!” “Indian!” “Thai!”) I went deeper and asked, “What makes your favorite food taste so good?” “Um…the way it’s flavoured,” said a few students and the rest agreed. This allowed for a natural segue into the Spice Trade and it’s global connections. Know your audience, engage with them, and make the subject relevant before you dive into the lesson. This sets up the subject, introduces the activity, and the students are engaged before you begin. After a brief PowerPoint, during which I encouraged as much student participation possible, I gave the students some blank maps and asked them to work in pairs to trace trade routes to see the connections. Then each pair shared their map and we discussed the findings. This lesson should take up a whole 50-minute class, but I only had 30 minutes to teach. This meant I could really only plan a 25-minute lesson, maximum, to account for inevitable questions and redirections.

Before my demo, I had my first interview with the department head, which went well and this was an opportunity for me to showcase my research. It’s a project-based school and when asked what kind of project I could create for middle school based on my research and expertise, I replied, “I would have students read selections from A General History of the Pyrates and together they would do more outside research to read more about pirates. Then I’d have them create a fictional pirate biography based on historical facts.” There was more to this, but that’s the gist of it. Needless to say the department head loved it and (spoiler alert) when I got hired I was asked to create a unit about Atlantic piracy.

The final step of the day was an interview with the Associate Head of School. I won’t go into too much detail because her questions mostly had to do with wanting to know my personal and professional history, teaching experience, why I was interested in middle school, what were my thoughts about project-based education, and why did I want to be in secondary independent education? I believe I’ve already answered these questions so I’ll leave it there.

My interview lasted half a day. It happened on the last day of classes so I didn’t get a chance to meet any other faculty. Those who stopped by my teaching demonstration had to rush out as soon as I was done and some were in and out but had to leave before the end. I found out later that interviews also included student interviews and lunch with the whole faculty. It turned out I was a late hire because the previous teacher gave her notice a bit unexpectedly late. I also learned that before me the school had interviewed many, many candidates but none of them were a fit. One of my colleagues told me not long ago that on the day of my interview he was joking that admin were going to have ask the science teachers to take over some Humanities classes. He also said that after my interview, the department head and Associate Head of School were almost sick with relief because they knew I’d be perfect for the position – my ideas were exactly what they were looking for.

I only found this out a few months ago, so now I find the next part a little funny. Two days after I had my interview, I received a job offer over the phone. I was so shocked that I said I needed time to think about it. I knew that taking the job meant a definite leave from academia and that was a huge decision. It would also seal my decision to stay in Los Angeles. The job would give me security and stability. Believe it or not, I found that just as scary as being without. My gut told me to take the job so I called back an hour later and accepted. “Rebecca,” the principal said, “I honestly cannot tell you how much you’ve just made my day.”

And the rest is history. I’m ¾ of the way through my first year teaching and I’m about to sign my contract for next year. Overall, it’s been challenging, fun, frustrating, exciting, total trial-by-error, and very rewarding. Would I have done this again? An absolute yes in a heartbeat.

Thanks for sticking around such a long-winded post, but I hope someone out there who’s interested in making the transition to secondary education finds this post helpful. As always, feel free to get in touch if you’d like to ask me more specific questions.

About Dr. Rebecca Simon

Los Angeles-based historian who's expert in all things pirates and public executions. PhD, King's College London, 2017.
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3 Responses to How I transitioned from the PhD into secondary education.

  1. Pingback: How I Transitioned From the Ph.D. To Secondary Education – by Dr. Rebecca Simon | The Professor Is In

  2. B says:

    Thank you so much for this! I am currently preparing for a career in secondary education while finishing my PhD in history. It’s a move I’ve known I wanted to make for some time. I wonder what your thoughts are on substitute teaching as a good form of experience for the job market. I’ve been subbing for about a year now, part time. I am hoping that it will be sufficient experience to be accepted to a recruitment agency.

    • I haven’t received comment notifications so I’m afraid my reply is probably irrelevant at this point. Subbing is a great way to get your foot in the door! Schools and administrators get to know you and it gives you classroom management experience. I hope things are going well with you over this past year!

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