Teaching K-12 vs. College
Education in general is under attack, if you read the news at all. Public school teachers and less prestigious institutions of higher ed seem to be in for the most criticism. I try to stay out of the public school debate as much as possible since I don’t teach in a public school and therefore my experience of it is quite different from someone who works in one. But I do think public education is a common good that is being worn away by budget cuts, charter schools, and other issues. And that concerns me.
On the teaching side, I looked into being a public school teacher twice. Once I considered enrolling in an education program and was turned off by its low standards for admittance (shallow, I know, but true) and the second time about 6 or 7 years ago as I cast about for what to do after leaving my previous job. I rejected the notion the second time around when I saw what was required to get certified and then what I would be required to teach. Coming from higher ed, the idea of a super strict curriculum made me squeamish. And the fact that a Ph.D. can’t get certified to teach in a public school in less than two years is problematic.
Another reason I rejected K-12 teaching when I was first thinking about careers (which I didn’t think about that much) was a prestige thing. My peers, all of whom were headed for advanced degrees, frowned upon becoming just a teacher. I, too, had adopted this mentality, seeing teaching as lesser than. And so, I, too, headed down the path of presumed prestige in teaching at the college level. Not only did that not work out well for me. It hasn’t worked out well for lots of people. Adjunctification is a huge problem, and not only do adjuncts lack the prestige of the tenured and tenure-track faculty positions, but often a basic living wage.
A post by Dean Dad earlier this week reminded me of this debate I’ve had with myself over the years. In his post, he hears from a correspondent who has offers at both the college and high school level and who wonders which is the best option. Note that the college option is not tenure-track. Many of the comments speak positively about the high school teaching option, which is nice to hear. The work is, indeed, just as challenging intellectually (imho) as teaching at the college level and sometimes more so. It is also often more rewarding. A post I made a couple of years ago echoes many of the comments on Dean Dad’s post. They suggest that the feeling of camaraderie and contribution to students’ lives that one gets from teaching at the high school (or lower) level is invaluable. Even the public school teachers I know feel pretty committed to their work and sometimes their school and get a lot out of that commitment, something I don’t see as often in higher ed faculty.
I often feel that teaching at the level I do is more rooted in the real world even as I know that the real world for my students is much further away than it is for college students. There’s just a practicality to what I do that feels almost tangible. In higher ed, I often felt like I was searching for ever more esoteric topics to focus on in order to carve out my own niche.
Five years into my current gig, my enthusiasm for my work hasn’t waned. New challenges have come up every year and I enjoy facing them and figuring out good solutions. I enjoy coming up with better ways to teach my subject and mentoring students to pursue computing as a field. Those are things I had to some extent in higher ed, but they weren’t valued. And I think not only was this a problem for me personally, but it’s becoming a problem for higher ed as a whole. Teaching has become less valued in both realms over the years, but never more so than in higher ed institutions. Which is a shame, because it’s needed more than ever. Instead, most institutions are trying to MOOCify teaching, to pawn it off on adjuncts or to otherwise make it the red-headed stepchild of the institution (either to research or sports or both).
I would never go back to higher ed for lots of those reasons. I don’t even see it as a prestigious job anymore, though I respect many folks who are in higher ed (I’m married to one after all). As I’ve kept tabs on the industry, though, it just feels like it’s having a “failure to thrive” moment. It’s not dead, but it’s not doing so hot.