Transitioning into teaching K-12 might seem like a natural step for a PhD, but you might be surprised to learn about what teaching K-12 with a PhD is really like.
Dr. Tom Westerman received his PhD in 2014. He’s now in his fifth year teaching at Porter-Gaud School, where he teaches history and foreign policy.
Dr. Harry Thomas finished his PhD in English at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in 2011. Now, he’s an Upper School English teacher at Durham Academy.
Dr. Michael Ryan Hunsaker received his PhD in Neuroscience from the University of California Davis in 2012. Now, he’s an elementary special education teacher.
1. There are a few different ways to become a K-12 teacher.
It is not uncommon that you might start small with your teaching career. Ryan’s first position was a part-time position, which was split between work as a para-educator and a small-group autism classroom. After gaining some experience, he built his career from there. Ryan points out that in some instances, you may be required to attain additional education to become a K-12 teacher. This will depend largely on where you would like to teach.
Private or independent schools might have different requirements. Tom got his teaching job by working with the Southern Teachers Agency. The STA managed all of Tom’s hiring materials and recommendations and sent a package out to a few schools who later contacted him directly. For Harry, networking was important to landing this job; he landed his teaching job through personal connections and word-of-mouth.
2. You don't just spend your days in the classroom.
The day-to-day life of a K-12 teacher is varied, and will depend largely on how the school organizes their school-day and terms. For example, some days Tom will teach five out of the seven periods in a day, with two planning/free periods. Sometimes you can use these planning periods to grade and prepare, or sometimes you can host study hall or attend meetings. In Harry’s case, he serves as the advisor for 10-12 students, which he might meet with to advise during the day. After the school day ends, you might find yourselves attending board meetings or supervising clubs and extracurricular activities. Tom found that in the first year, the amount of lesson planning or grading extends beyond the school day. As you teach your courses longer, these aspects of the job will ebb and flow.
Ryan spent a great deal of time in the classroom. In the mornings, he would work one-on-one with a student, and much of his work focused on keeping that student on task. In the afternoons, he would teach literacy to students from first to third grade in a classroom for students with autism. Depending on where you teach, and what you teach, your day could look very different from Tom’s, Harry’s or Ryan’s day!
3. You'll make use of some of your PhD skills - but won't use others.
Teaching, working with students, and grading connects closely with the work that many graduate students are involved in during their doctoral studies. “In terms of in-depth research, not really,” Tom says. “Some people can do it, and that’s wonderful. Or they’ll do research on pedagogy.” Instead, Tom highlights that working with students through complex ideas functions as its own form of intellectual engagement.
Harry adds that teaching high school ties in nicely with teaching at the college level, and you might find that you have more experience in preparing your high school students for post-secondary education because of this.
4. You'll have to learn things quickly...
Many teachers have access to a welcoming and supportive community. Ryan stresses that new teachers should never be afraid to ask for help, which was something he had to learn quickly on the job. Harry tells Beyond Prof that the teaching content is different and the pace of the teaching is different. “You see your students all. The. Time,” he says. “You see your students five days a week.” Dealing with ninth graders is very different than dealing with undergraduate freshman, and you might find that you have to learn and adapt to the culture of the school. Part of the school’s culture will be interacting with parents, something that Tom felt he had to learn quickly. When teaching in academia, typically PhDs do not have to meet with a student’s parents to discuss grading and educational choices, but in K-12 the teacher communicates with parents regularly.
5. ...But you'll find yourself making a daily impact.
Tom says he was surprised by how much he loves being a teacher. As he moved through graduate school, he found that what he really loved was the teaching – and interacting with the students. Seeing students grow and mature over the course of their high school career has also been really rewarding. Harry seconds this; he had deeply internalized the feelings of failure that academia can make PhDs feel when they leave the academy. “I had this really palpable sense of shame,” he says. “And that faded after the first year, because I realized that I love my job.”
For Ryan, his personal background makes his current work very meaningful. Inspired by his mother, who worked as a para-educator, and his late twin brother, who had autism, Ryan grew up interested in behavioural neuroscience. As he finished his PhD, however, he grew frustrated with the direction that the academic science community was taking with regard to the study of autism. What energizes him about the work that he does now is that, as a para-educator, he benefits his students far more than he ever could within an academic career. “I do science a lot harder now than I ever did when I was a graduate student or postdoc,” he points out. “I get to take that 15 years of academic experience to directly benefit the education of kids who really need the help.”
Need more advice on teaching K-12?
Tom says: Emphasise your teaching, and that you enjoy working with kids. Beyond day-to-day teaching, you will find yourself coaching teens on behaviour, dress code, or social media, for example. Find a way to work with adolescents through tutoring, volunteering, or early college programs in high school. It’s also important to prove that you are a generalist, and that you can pitch yourself as someone who can teach anything in the broader discipline, or that you are willing to learn how to teach it!
Harry says: Making use of Carney Sandoe. This is a hiring service that a lot of independent schools use to hire potential teachers. There might be people that are suspicious of the fact that you have a PhD. Build a tangible portfolio that demonstrates that you are passionate about teaching.
Ryan says: Get your licenses! There are some independent agencies that will help you get the certification you need without having to complete a teaching degree. Check with your state or provincial board of education to see what you might need with regard to a teaching license.