I never thought I would become a high school teacher but now I can’t imagine doing anything else. Since I got my PhD from Rutgers University in 2018, I’ve been working at private high schools in the United States. It wasn’t a conscious plan to go into secondary school teaching at first. When I got my first high school teaching job, I was delighted to stay near where I had been living and to abandon the stresses of academia. I had no way of knowing about the challenges I would face as I transitioned into this very different teaching world, or how I would grow to love it.
Teaching high school can be incredibly rewarding. I’ve gotten to mentor students on individual research projects and been awed by their earnestness and intelligence. At a previous school, one of my students would see me from all the way down the hall and yell, “What’s up, Dr. Lutz?!” It always made me smile. I’ve had students email me long after the school year was over, thanking me for inspiring them to follow their dreams. One student told me that she’d always enjoyed history classes but had never had a woman as a history teacher before. She said I inspired her to consider becoming one herself. I’ve taken students on field trips to museums and state parks. Together, we’ve run from park trails in sudden rain showers to the safety of the school bus, thoroughly drenched and laughing all the way. Visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with high schoolers is like seeing the exhibits for the first time, wondering how the world could contain so much beauty.
I’ve also found that you don’t have to forgo your academic projects if you become a high school teacher. There is time in the summer to work on research and most independent schools will support conference travel. Many also pride themselves on your publications. I’ve continued to publish, and you might too.
However, teaching high school is a lot of work and it can easily be draining. Depending on your school’s requirements, you may also have to serve as an advisor for a dozen or so students, monitor study halls or assume lunch duty, or act as faculty mentor for several clubs and sports. Many private high schools are looking for someone who wants to be a part of their community, and will shy away from candidates who don’t want to be a club leader or advisor. It can also be difficult to manage behavioral issues, and of course academic dishonesty is often just as prevalent in high schools as it is in college classes. In addition, you have to be careful about how you approach contemporary politics with students and be judicious in communication with parents. These are all things you will have to figure out.
However, I’ve found that the positives far outweigh the negatives. Below is a short series of tips that might help you find a high school teaching job.
First, figure out the basics. What do you want to teach? What motivates you in teaching and/or scholarship? Where do you want to live? How far are you willing to commute? Also, do you know any HS teachers? Go talk to them, find out what they love about their jobs, and get a feel for what a normal day is like for them. Then imagine yourself in their shoes—could you do that job too?
If you decide that you want to take a chance on teaching high school, it is crucial that you write new application materials for a HS job search. Your old materials will not work. Trust me. HS administrators are looking for different qualities in a prospective teacher. They want to know why you are choosing HS over college teaching if you have an advanced degree, and what motivates you to want to teach students every day. Make sure to research student-centered learning if you are not already familiar with this method of pedagogy. What will you do in the classroom to engage with students? Don’t focus too much on your academic writing but if you have a big award, tell them. Write a new teaching statement with experiential details about diversity, classroom management, designs for active or cooperative assignments, and most importantly, make a teaching-specific resume. Keep your resume and teaching statement to two pages each and your cover letter to one page, max.
Use teaching references if you have them. If you only have academic references, that’s OK, but if you have anyone who has observed you as a supervisor in a teaching setting that will carry more weight.
Figure out what your state requires to certify public school teachers and get certified. This may seem tiresome but regardless of whether you plan to apply for public school jobs or solely independent school jobs, it will show that you care about the standards set by the state. You will also learn a lot about what teaching HS in your state is like by going through the process. For some administrators, it will make you a more compelling candidate and show them that you mean business. Also, if you are certified and have trouble finding an independent or private school position, you can apply for public school jobs, as well. Make sure to do this early. It took me several months to complete the process in New Jersey, and full certification requires an additional 350 hours of training once a public school job is obtained.
Finding independent school job listings can be difficult. Start with National Independent Schools Association’s Job Board, as well as K12JobSpot. Definitely sign up with private school recruiters. Online independent school recruiting agencies will do a lot of the leg work for you in terms of finding job postings, making initial connections, and submitting some materials. Carney Sandoe and Associates has gotten me two separate jobs thus far and has a lot of resources for candidates on their website. I thoroughly recommend working with them. They aren’t the only ones out there, though, and it helps to consult others, like Educator’s Ally. You can also check this list from NIAS. Recruiters can assist in discussing salary and the general state of the market, as well. Take some of the pressure off. Work with a recruiter.
If you can, create a personal website with a teaching page that briefly discusses your teaching methods, maybe has some syllabi drafts, and can host a video of you teaching a 15-minute demo lesson. Imagine it as an online portfolio. Posting a demo lesson can let interested administrators see you in action, and can show them how well you can use distance-learning technologies. If you don’t have a website, you can create a demo teaching video, post it to YouTube, and include it in your resume and cover letter. You can see my demo teaching video on my website.
Once you get an interview (and I know you will!), research that school. You should have done this a little bit for your cover letter, but now is your chance to really dig deep. Figure out why you would want to work there specifically. What makes the school unique? Be thorough in your investigation of their website. Is any of their curriculum available? Who currently works in the department for which you’re interviewing?
Make a list of questions for them and, when possible, tailor the questions to what you learn on the school’s website.
You might ask:
- How many and what kinds of courses will this position include? How many prep periods would I usually have?
- How many students will be in my classes?
- Why did the previous teacher vacate this position?
- What qualities are you looking for in a teacher?
- What goals does the department/school have for the year and how would I contribute?
- Do teachers get their own classroom? Or do they do prep work in a shared space like a teacher’s lounge?
- Can I choose the textbooks for the courses and how frequently can course books be changed?
- What is the department’s teaching style and culture of assessments?
- Is there room for growth at this school? How do other teachers expand their roles here? How are reviews administered?
- Do teachers have additional responsibilities besides their courses?
- How does the school support professional development?
- What hours are teachers required to be on campus during the day?
- Is the contract on a 10- or 12-month pay scale?
Lastly, just be yourself. Sometimes interviews can enable you to figure out the best way to sell yourself, and getting one or two under your belt can help you practice what to say (and what not to say). Don’t get discouraged if you don’t get a second interview; just keep hunting and learn from the experience.
A few more notes:
There are a lot of different types of high schools out there. Independent schools are usually secular private schools and can cover grades K-12. Some might require students to board or live on-site. Parochial schools can do the same but will integrate religious classes into the curriculum. Charter schools are a type of public school that is a bit of a mix between public and private. Spend a little time googling the schools in your area and get to know your options.
Most private schools are not tenure-based and hire teachers with contracts that are renewed annually.
The hiring season for private high schools can range from January through June, though the bulk of hiring happens in March, April, and May.
If you’ve missed the spring hiring season, keep an eye out in the summer or fall for mid-year replacement or leave positions. Schools are often looking for people to teach during maternity leave, medical leave, or unexpected situations. These moments can be opportunities for you. If you are able to get one of these positions, whether or not they choose to keep you on for the following year, you can build valuable connections that can lead to opportunities elsewhere.
*Cover image: These are some of the books that I’m going to be incorporating into my classes this year, including my global environmental history course that I will be teaching seniors. Picture by author.
[Cover image description: a pile of books on a desk with a name plate placed on top that reads “Dr. Raechel Lutz.” There’s a pot with a plant next to the books on the same desk.]