Today we return to our So You Want My Job  series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable man jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream. We’ve been running this series every other week, but the response to it has been awesome, with many men volunteering to share advice about their job. It’s created quite a backlog of interviews in the queue, so we’re going to run them every week for awhile …
If you’re a man that values time and personal satisfaction over moola, there may be no better job for you than being a teacher. Today Aaron Kurtz walks us through the ins and outs of being a high school teacher. AoM really appreciates how thorough Aaron was in his answers; this info will surely help many a man who is thinking about the education profession for himself.
1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? Where did you go to school? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc).
I’m 26 years old and from Miami, FL. I graduated from the University of Chicago with a B.A. in Anthropology. So nope, I wasn’t an education major, and I didn’t go through any formal student teaching.
I didn’t go through the usual route of majoring in education because I hadn’t originally intended on becoming a teacher, and my university didn’t offer it as a concentration. To be completely honest, I hadn’t originally intended on becoming anything, and I majored in Anthropology because, at the time, it was probably the coolest approach to sociocultural study I’d come across. But once graduation hit, I had to make a decision: go to grad school in Anthropology or take some time off from school. Truth be told, I was pretty burned out by the time I graduated, so I opted to start working instead.
I’ve taught in the third- and fourth-largest districts in the US (Chicago and Miami-Dade, respectively). Initially, I taught for three years in Miami. I taught freshman English and 10th-12th grade Journalism and Yearbook (another story in itself). Currently, since moving to Chicago, I teach Urban Studies and IB European History to juniors and seniors. However, I’m currently temporarily assigned to another teacher’s classes while she is on leave. If I secure a more permanent position next year, I will probably be teaching world history to freshmen.
2. Why did you want to become a high school teacher? When did you know that it was what you wanted to do?
I’ve found myself working with kids for a good portion of my life, but until I became a proper teacher in a classroom with lesson plans and detentions and all that business, I was mostly a camp counselor and tutor. I’d always been good at interacting with kids and teenagers, getting them to focus on one activity or another and being a source of support for them. It was my comfort zone for a long time, a job or activity I could always fall back on to make some summer cash or earn some community service hours. In college, tutoring became a big part of how I kept myself involved in things outside of studying and more studying. When I graduated, I decided I would bite the bullet and get a job before tackling any notions of graduate school. Given my experience, becoming a teacher seemed like the obvious choice.
I was able to become a teacher without an education major under my belt because at the time, the state of Florida needed teachers. Specifically, they needed reading and math teachers (which explains how I was able to teach English even though I majored in Anthropology). When I began teaching, policies related to No Child Left Behind had been implemented in full. Schools in Florida were subject to a grading system where schools would have to demonstrate “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP), and this level of AYP would determine what level of funding a school would earn. In Florida, as in many other states, AYP is based upon standardized test scores; and in Florida, as in many other states, reading and math skills were a primary focus of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Exam (FCAT).
I was assigned to teach a class called “Intensive Reading,” which was meant to serve students who had not scored well on the reading portion of the FCAT. I became certified by the state and hired on to teach the class because of the increased demand for reading teachers. Given the English classes I did take and the support of the other teachers at my school, I was able to teach the Intensive Reading class well, and my students ended up performing pretty well the next cycle.
When I moved to Chicago, though, the Illinois State Board of Education basically asked, “Wait, why you were teaching English? Go teach History and Sociology instead.” I can’t say I disagree with them.
I never had any interest working in elementary/grade school (too much babysitting) or middle school (too hormonal). I love teaching high school because the kids are capable of conversation and critical thinking, and it’s a lot of fun trying to foster that in young adults. High school teenagers are at this intersection of teenage exploration and adult expectation. I enjoy helping them maneuver their way through what can be a messy, messy time for many of them, fostering critical thought and feeding their minds with many perspectives from which I hope they can form some semblance of independent, informed opinion.
3. If man wants to become a high school teacher, how should he best prepare? What’s the best route into the job?
In all fairness to the actual education majors, the easiest way to become a teacher is to major in education and go through the usual route. Obviously not all good teachers are education majors, and not all education majors are good teachers; but if you know enough early on that you want to teach, get that education major. It’s not as limiting as it may seem because, if you get bored of the classroom, there is plenty of room for former teachers in administration, policy, and academia. I have known many teachers to drop the classroom, grab an E.D. or a Ph.D. in education or public policy, and become effective school administrators, policy makers, and researchers.
If you decide you want to teach and you’ve already gotten your major in something else, you’ll have to contact the board of education for the state in which you want to teach. Some states offer temporary certificates issued upon passing general knowledge and subject-area exams (such as Florida), with which you can teach for three years without having to get fully certified. Of course, as those years come up, prepare to engage in some very, very intensive alternative certification programs that exist to make up for your lack of an education degree. Other states, such as Illinois, are much stricter and may have you take a number of college courses and complete a number of alternative certification benchmarks before allowing you into a classroom. I was lucky, I will admit, because without Florida’s certification system and high demand for teachers (at the time), I never would have earned the proper certification and work experience I needed to eventually secure certification and a job in Illinois.
I will throw this out there, though: there is the impression that male teachers are more likely to get hired than female teachers. There are many more female than male teachers in the arena, and male teachers are always welcome candidates for positions because of what seems like a saturation of female teachers. However, I don’t have the actual numbers to back this up, and I’d be a terrible social studies teacher if I pretended to.
One could also always try for jobs at smaller, more flexible private schools that aren’t subject to state standards and enjoy doing things their own way. These schools may not care if you are certified or not, and some of them may actually prefer that you are not. However, public school salaries tend to be higher, and many positions are tenured officially or unofficially after a number of years. Not necessarily a policy I agree with, but that’s how it is for the most part (see D.C. public schools as a possible exception to the tenure issue).
4. How competitive is it to get a job as a high school teacher?
These days, it’s very competitive. It wasn’t as competitive when I first started because there was more money and a higher demand. But recently, because everyone is suffering the economic downturn and because public schools receive the majority of their funding from property taxes, education budgets that may not have been managed all that well in the first place have taken quite a hit as well. Also, given that many teacher positions are tenured after a number of years of good service (depends on the school district; Washington D.C., again, is experimenting with doing away with tenure), it’s a very desirable job to have.
A year ago, April 2008, I attended a job fair for the Chicago Public Schools. There were at least 2500 job seekers there. You know things are bad when teachers can’t find work, especially in the third-largest district in the country.
5. When applying for a job, what sets a candidate apart from the others?
Compassion. I’m bothered by my coworkers who seem to be more concerned with their job security than how well their students are doing. Demonstrate that your reason for being there is your students’ ability to succeed by any measure. I won’t pretend that every principal and assistant principal is a benevolent soul looking out only for your and your student’s best interests. Some of them are downright abusive. But so long as your ability to get your job done is unimpeded, do everything you can.
Compassion. If you’re already working, head up an extracurricular or two. Teach night school or summer school if the positions are available. Stay a few minutes after school. Don’t turn students away if they approach you in the hall with concerns. Be there for them because, no, your job does not stop when the bell rings.
Compassion. If you’re not yet in the school system, prepare lessons and activities to demonstrate how you intend to do your job. Assure your hirers that you will be a leader, that you understand your role in the community and that you are eager to work with parents and students. Assure your hirers that you will take on extra roles outside of your simple classroom duties. Offer any experience or hobbies you have in other areas as a jumping-off point for putting yourself out there. Love baseball? Maybe they need an assistant coach. Enjoy chess? You may be surprised at how many students in my inner-city Chicago school are in the chess club.
Compassion. Demonstrable, quantifiable compassion will set a candidate apart from the others.
6. What is the best part of the job?
Watching your students walk down the aisle to retrieve their diploma. Seeing all those years amount to something.
Parents saying “thank you” and meaning it.
And if you’re in the right place at the right time and involved in the right activities, those trips to New York for journalism conventions, New Orleans for housing rebuilding, and Chicago for debate tournaments aren’t shabby either. So long as you don’t mind bearing the responsibility for arranging the trips yourself.
7. What is the worst part of the job?
For most public school positions, salaries are capped kind of low. There is almost no impetus to earn your Ph.D. and remain in the classroom given how little it raises your actual salary (at least where I have worked). It’s difficult to hold on to teachers, especially at schools with problems. Also, meetings, meetings, meetings; paperwork paperwork, paperwork; working for a notoriously convoluted bureaucracy can be disillusioning. It can be even more disillusioning when you realize how much faulty policy there is and how little you can actually do to change it.
8. What is the biggest misconception people have about the job?
The biggest misconception people have is that teachers are idiots. People love throwing around the whole, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” and of course there is nothing more absurd in the world. There are bad teachers, and there are good teachers; and there are the people who blame their problems on their teachers. Teaching is a four-way intersection of teachers, students, parents, and government. It’s difficult to get all of these elements working at the same time, and you’re lucky if three out of the four are doing what needs to be done.
I know that there is no short supply of people-parents, students, tax-payers, and even administrators and teachers themselves-disillusioned with the public school system. But there are a lot of us who are trying very hard.
Also, take a look at your office, your law firm, your emergency room, your lab, your research firm, your construction crew… are 100% of your coworkers flawless individuals who excel at every element of their job? Of course not.
9. What is the work/family balance like?
I don’t have a family of my own yet, but the impression I get from those who do is that teaching is one of the best possible jobs a man can have if he wants to take an active role in his children’s lives. You have every holiday off, two-and-a-half months during the summer, and incredible health and life insurance benefits. The salary probably won’t be enough by itself, so extra income will be need to be brought in by either you or your significant other, but it is definitely possible to raise a family on two teachers’ salaries. Plus, all that free time to spend with your family pays itself back in ways both measurable and immeasurable.
10. Unfortunately, it seems like men who decide to be teachers take some flak for it. Have you ever experienced this? If so, how do you respond?
Actually, I have never experienced it to the extent that I was a male teacher. I have gotten some flak before for being a teacher, but that’s been independent of my being a man. I don’t doubt that many men do take flak for the job, or that many other (insecure) men give male teachers flak; but teaching can be one of the more manly jobs out there if it’s done right. Respect yourself, respect your students, communicate with your students’ parents, jump at opportunities to collaborate professionally, and get your job done right. Men make great teachers when men make great leaders.
I’ve also met no shortage of women appreciate a teachin’ man.
11. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?
It’s rough out there for us. You’ll ask yourself why you’re doing this job at least once a week. But always remember that, as a teacher, there is always somebody relying on you. Those students looking at you have expectations. They may not like you and may not want to be there, but they have expectations nonetheless. If you decide to teach, don’t forget to be a man about it. You’re there for them; not for yourself.