From Professing to Teaching

this is an image of an empty classroom with white desks and red chairs

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Elizabeth Bergman

Ten minutes into what I thought was a productive lecture about the Declaration of Independence, summarizing Danielle Allen’s arguments about individual and collective rights, I saw a hand slink up. A bright, eager 11th-grade student in my U.S. history class had a question: “Wait, so the Declaration is about ‘we the people’ as Americans, right?” Another student then piped up: “What does ‘inalienable’ mean?” Suddenly I realized that it was time to stop professing and start teaching.

Last fall I changed careers, leaving behind over a dozen years at research-intensive universities (having earned tenure along the way) to take a position teaching European and U.S. history to 10th and 11th grade students at an independent school. The school year offered no reprieve for reflection, but I’m glad now to take a moment to share the story of my transition in hopes that my experience might be of interest to those considering a move from post-secondary to secondary education. Here are five things I’ve learned—and plan to keep in mind as I embark upon my second year teaching high-school history.

Know Thyself

The social introvert might struggle, but can succeed

The most I ever taught as a professor was three hours a day, only two days a week. Whereas the typical teaching load at a research university leaves plenty of time for prep and grading, the high-school schedule is more grueling. With three preps, I teach four hours a day, five days a week. Actual contact hours add up to more like six or even seven hours a day, when office hours, advisories, student meetings and activities are included. In general, my workday extends from 7:30 am to 5 pm. Grading, writing reports, answering emails, meeting with parents, and attending faculty meetings or school events demands extra time on evenings and weekends. (Summers, though, are truly and completely free.)

Exercising endless patience and enthusiasm all day, every day can be exhausting for former academics used to working in solitude. And the culture of customer service at independent schools can make teachers feel like they must always be “on call.” I’m now trying to be as responsive as possible—within limits. Given my nature as a social introvert, I need some time to focus on my own work, so I’ve learned to spirit myself away during free periods. Even twenty minutes alone feels restorative. I elude impromptu advising sessions in the hallways or between classes by insisting that students come to office hours or schedule a meeting. They know that I respond to emails only twice a day, first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon (not in the evenings or over the weekends), and I take advantage of the twenty-four-hour response time allowed by school policy. Protecting my time during the day also helps me to manage what can sometimes feel like an overwhelming workload. Collegial conversations and interactions with students are important, of course, but I need to set aside time for prep and grading.

Teach the Skill, Not the Subject

Teaching is a verb, not a noun

Shifting my focus from what I will say to what students will do has reduced my prep time. To teach a single fifty-minute college lecture usually required three to four hours of work. Now I need to have three classes ready to go with maybe a single hour of prep. Handouts, worksheets, quick quizzes, short role plays, group work, presentations—all are strategies that reduce prep time, encourage students to engage with the material, and shift the responsibility for learning from the teacher to the students.

I also realized that it’s okay to be just one step ahead—or even walk alongside students by reading something together. Having students first encounter the material in class is actually good pedagogical practice (as well as a sanity-saver) because high-school students have yet to master the skills of close, critical reading. I can easily teach techniques of active reading and note taking without any advance preparation.

Time saved on prep will be spent on grading. I confess that I found it difficult at first to move from the midterm, paper, and final exam model of university teaching to the high-school habit of administering frequent and varied assessments. Teachers like to have lots of grades, meaning dozens per marking period. With sixty-five students handing in at least one assignment every week, I work hard to stay on top of my grading.

In addition, I now know not to schedule major exams or papers at the end of the term, because I need that time to write narrative comments (our school requires 250 words) for each student. And I also know to start those comments at least a month before they are due. For example, our first trimester ends at Thanksgiving; my colleague graciously advised me to start drafting reports by the second week in October, which means I need to have a more than a handful of substantial assignments graded within the first six weeks of school. I’d advise new teachers to meet with their department head to find out when grades and reports are due, then begin plotting out an assessment schedule even before thinking about the content of those assessments.

Keep the school calendar in mind, too. This past spring I discovered, to my dismay, that the research paper I’d thoughtfully structured to include days of in-class writing workshops ran up against a yearly sophomore class retreat. Independent schools love ceremonies and traditions: field day, class rings, guest speakers, holiday pageants, school plays, debate tournaments, and the like. I love them as well. The sense of community at an independent school is deeply inspiring and affirming. Yet all of those events interrupt instruction. Find out from your new colleagues, the head of your division, or dean of students what happenings might not be listed on published school calendars that could affect your assessment schedule.

Beg, Borrow, and Steal

Online resouces are there for the taking.

Teaching need not be like scholarship. It’s not necessary to make an original contribution by developing new curricular materials. Once I let go of the scholarly mindset that teaching materials are exclusive intellectual property akin to my academic publications, I discovered amazing lesson plans online. (Note, too, that any original curriculum you write is likely to become property of the school; when teachers leave my school, they are required to turn over all of their teaching materials.) Because I don’t use textbooks, I regularly adapt materials from Teaching Tolerance, Facing History, Newsela, the Stanford History Education Group, Choices at Brown University, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, Teaching with Primary Sources from Middle Tennessee State University, the Smithsonian Museums, Library of Congress, Zoom In, YouTube (your students are already watching Crash Course), Street Law, and the E.U. in the U.S. I also schedule sessions with our school librarian, who teaches my students how to search the databases available through the library.

At the same time, I thoroughly research my sources. The Bill of Rights Institute produces gorgeous materials, for example, but the lack of diversity among those who craft and use the curriculum gives me pause—along with the fact that the institute is funded by the Koch Brothers. Decide what sites appeal to you, then plumb their resources.

Forget FERPA

You’ll need to handle helicopter moms and might argue with alpha dads.

FERPA laws protect professors from parents, but as a teacher I’m expected to reach out any and every time there’s a problem, whether behavioral (sleeping in class, for example) or academic (failing a quiz). Some communications are short and quick, handled by a single email exchange, but others become much longer dialogues. Working through the list of parents to contact proves time consuming, especially because each email must be carefully crafted so as to offer a specific explanation of the issue along with suggestions to remedy the problem. I run all emails to parents by my administrators and always copy the student’s advisor. Throwing open the doors to my classroom, my teaching, my thinking, my emails, my every conversation—this, perhaps above all, marks the biggest difference between life as a professor and a teacher.

Parents are encouraged to contact their child’s teacher whenever they have questions or problems. Most write cordial and professional emails, but some do not. I try not to take umbrage, and know never to respond in kind; teachers must remain unfailingly pleasant and positive. (Truly egregious or insulting emails can be referred to an administrator.) My department head, division head, assistant head, dean of students—all have been unfailingly generous in helping me navigate the potentially treacherous waters of parental involvement. As a rule, document and save everything. If and when an issue arises, you can then show the parents (and your supervisors) your records to explain and justify your actions. I keep a Google Doc saved, innocuously, as “Issues,” but think of it as my “Problems” file.

Remember that all records can be made available to parents, so never put anything in writing that you wouldn’t be willing to have everyone—from the student to the parents to the Head of School—read aloud at an assembly. Turns out there’s very little privacy in private schools. I also often invite an administrator or advisor to attend my meetings with parents. A third party in the room diffuses tension and can turn a potential conflict into a more productive conversation.

Unlike in academe, conflicts don’t often concern content. Most parents generally aren’t going to challenge what you are teaching, or even how you’re teaching it. They just care about why their child is struggling, unhappy, or disaffected. They want to help their kids, and they can help you, too, by revealing details about life at home. For example, an agonized, hour-long meeting with a very involved mother began by her pointedly questioning my expectations, but ultimately revealed that her stressed-out daughter was spending two or three hours a night on assignments that should have taken thirty minutes. Instead of being drawn into an argument, I focused on concrete solutions to improve her child’s study habits.

Remember It’s High School

Being popular still matters.

“Fit” affects evaluations, which in a world without tenure and “at will” employment means that you need to avoid the mean girls and hang with the in-crowd. Because independent schools generally pride themselves on having a particular culture and often adhere to an explicit mission, supervisors are likely to engage your students and colleagues in informal, yet often decisive, conversations about your teaching in particular and attitude more generally. Initiating and maintaining a dialogue with whoever will be writing your annual evaluation allows you to play a role in shaping your own reputation. As a professor, I worked in a silo of my own expertise, my reputation being based on my publications and profile within the discipline; that is, my reputation was formed by colleagues and peers outside my own institution. As a teacher, however, what the people I see everyday think about me—and whether they like seeing me—matters above all else.

I certainly like seeing my colleagues. After decades of sitting through contentious faculty meetings, it is a pleasure to work with people who want to work collaboratively and collectively, who are less focused on their self-interest and more concerned about the best interests of the students. Whereas I found that most faculty members (myself included) felt like they served their subjects, advancing the cause of the discipline, teachers know that they serve students.

That said, cliques do exist, and who sits together at lunch says a lot. As a new teacher, I struggled to suss out relationships, especially among colleagues who had been working together for dozens of years, and was baited into bad situations more than once. Academe generally lacks the kind of office culture and politics found in typical workplaces, schools included. People pursue agendas, possess ulterior motives, hold grudges, make snap judgments, form alliances, and may look to the new person in the room to join their cause. I know now, from some challenging experiences, to remain disinterested.

Ultimately, making the transition from being a college or university professor to becoming a teacher an independent school has challenged me to adapt my pedagogical skills and pushed me acquire different ones. Perhaps most important, I shed habits of mind shaped by years in the academy to embrace a new identity as a teacher—first and last. I’ve never worked harder, and I’ve never been as happy.


ELIZABETH BERGMAN is author of Music for the Common Man: Aaron Copland during the Depression and War (Oxford). Formerly on the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin and Princeton University, she now teaches history at an independent girls’ school in New Jersey.