Reflections on Forty Years in the History Classroom
Retirement: It is a terrifying word and concept after forty years in the history classroom. I will miss the optimism and enthusiasm of my students, but after a while I know that it is time for a change. As I approach seventy, I simply do not have the daily energy necessary to consistently engage the students, and my learning curve for technological innovation seems to grow steeper every day. Yet my passion for history remains, and retirement offers the opportunity for greater reflection and time for reading and writing, as well as additional family time along with trips to the ballpark and local movie art house. As I contemplate the next stage of my history education, there are few reservations regarding the decision to teach in secondary schools, and it is a path which more young historians should contemplate in a challenging job environment.
My initial career plan was to attain a doctorate in American history and pursue an academic career at the university level. After my graduate assistantship at the University of New Mexico expired, however, I was without funds and in debt with a family to support. I had completed my doctoral examinations and most of my research on the dissertation when I accepted a teaching position with a local Catholic junior high school. For a non-Catholic, classes of almost fifty students proved to involve a bit too much sacrifice, and after two years I was contemplating borrowing additional money to complete my dissertation. When offered a position with an Albuquerque independent school, however, I decided to give secondary education one more shot.
My intention was to teach for a few years while completing my dissertation on the Senate Farm Bloc during the 1920s. A product of public education whose father dropped out of elementary school during the Great Depression, I had no idea what to expect from an independent school. But I found a home at Sandia Preparatory School where I taught history for the next thirty-eight years. Despite the rather elitist name, Sandia Prep was a small struggling school with an enrollment of approximately two hundred students in grades six through twelve. Today, the school has grown to around six hundred students, but it still retains some nontraditional independence such as eschewing Advanced Placement classes in favor of a teacher developed curriculum. Similar to many secondary school teachers, I wore many different hats in my career at Sandia Prep, and I like to think that I played some role in the school’s growth and development. Flexibility, not specialization, is the name of the game in secondary school education, and I taught diverse courses in grades eight to twelve ranging from the ancient world to American history. Outside the classroom, I served as a softball coach, Model United Nations sponsor, class and academic adviser, trip and dance chaperone, department chair, and assistant head of the school for twenty-four years.
In the midst of all these school activities which I enjoyed, there was still a yearning for historical scholarship from my graduate school days. Accordingly, I decided to see whether it might be possible to pursue a traditional academic career from a secondary school setting—although I also taught as an adjunct in the evenings for almost twenty years at the University of New Mexico Valencia Campus. As I renewed my commitment to scholarship, it became apparent there was little enthusiasm for my dissertation topic in which I had lost some interest. It occurred to me that since I was no longer going to be following a traditional university tenure path, I was now free to pursue my own research projects and passions.
I decided to follow my interest in the history of sport, especially baseball, and cinema, and I joined scholarly organizations such as the North American Society for Sport History and subscribed to journals such as Film & History. I also submitted scholarly articles in these fields and had some of my research published. Sandia Prep School was also willing to support my expanding academic interests by allowing me to develop senior electives in world cinema and U.S. history through film. The school was also supportive of attendance at scholarly conferences, where I could present my work, although I also had to employ some personal savings to finance my academic travels. Sometimes it was possible to combine school and academic pursuits, such as stealing away for a few hours to the Library of Congress while accompanying students on a trip to Washington, D.C. The bottom line is that I discovered that it was possible to combine scholarship with my teaching duties, and the attention to research and writing improved my teaching.
Furthermore, a career in secondary education does not preclude one from applying for research and travel programs. While I have received my share of rejections, I was also selected as a Guthrie Fellow to work in the archives of folksinger Woody Guthrie, while Fulbright and international programs provided travel opportunities in the Netherlands, Yugoslavia, Japan, Korea, and Azerbaijan. In addition, I found it possible for a teacher in secondary education to be active within professional organizations such as the American Historical Association (AHA) and Organization of American Historians (OAH); serving on numerous committees, such as an OAH program committee, and being elected to office. The major professional organizations are certainly increasingly open to teachers, but there is more that could be done to promote integration between secondary schools and university history departments.
While my experience serving on and sometimes even chairing committees with my university peers has proven to be quite positive and collaborative, the annual meetings of the AHA and OAH can be rather intimidating environments for teachers who do not quite have the network of contacts enjoyed by professors and graduate students. I would suggest that the OAH and AHA look at reduced registration rates for teachers and a coffee reception where teachers could meet leading scholars and break down isolation. Program committees are doing a better job including sessions of interest to teachers, and more teachers are appearing on the annual programs, but it is a pet peeve of mine to see a session on teaching history in secondary education that does not include one teacher. Program committees should insist that proposals on teaching in secondary schools recruit classroom teachers to participate. Sometimes this omission is a result of the fact that history professors may not know teachers, which should be an incentive for history professors to become more involved with history education in secondary schools, although there is often little financial support for such outreach.
University department chairs should also be aware of local outstanding teachers whom they could invite to share their insights on teaching with history graduate students. The historical profession is doing a good job of expanding employment possibilities in the public history realm of museums, archives, and government, but the alternative of career opportunities in secondary education seems to receive less attention. A career in secondary education should not be a consolation prize if one is unable to land a tenure track position or public history job; as for the right young historian it may be a most compelling alternative. Job candidates should be made aware of the expected responsibilities beyond the classroom, but for innovative historians who enjoy working with adolescents, a career in secondary education may be quite rewarding. At the national level, the professional history organizations should make sure that job fairs include teachers/administrators from both the public and independent schools. Some of my friends in public schools argue that my career path would have been far more difficult in a public school setting with large classroom size, and I believe they have a point. On the other hand, the public sector is usually more diverse and offers an opportunity to influence more students in the study of history.
And a final word for history graduate students who might be contemplating a career in secondary education. Do not go into secondary education simply because you cannot find historical employment in higher education. School administrators are not interested in hiring a teacher who will bolt at the first university job opportunity. You must embrace teaching history in secondary schools and share your passion for history with your students. Confronted with an increasing de-emphasis upon history education in the schools via Common Core and the focus on science and technology with STEM education, it is more important than ever to employ knowledgeable history educators in the classroom. Teaching in secondary schools is time consuming, and there are no teaching assistants to help with the grading of papers, but teaching history in secondary schools does not preclude scholarship and engagement with professional history organizations.
I have some regrets for not having written my dissertation and earned the doctorate—and I should point out that teaching and completing a dissertation is quite challenging—but I have no reservations about the direction of my career. Teaching at Sandia Prep allowed me to explore new avenues of history with students and colleagues whose friendship I will always cherish. I will miss the classroom and the youthful enthusiasm of my students, but it is time to step aside and let younger scholars/teachers weave their magic in a more technological age. Retirement—the word sounds so final—may prove to be a little isolating as the funds to attend professional meetings will be less available on a fixed income. However, new doors will open with additional time for family, keeping score at baseball games, screening classics of world cinema which I have always intended to see, once again tackling James Joyce’s Ulysses, and reading some of those neglected historical monographs that have been gathering dust on the shelves. In addition, there are numerous writing projects which I now have an opportunity to pursue. Being a historian is a journey and a process, not a destination, and I look forward to following my muse beyond the classroom walls.
Ron Briley, after pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from West Texas State University and the University of New Mexico taught history and film studies for thirty-eight years at Sandia Prep School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he also served as assistant head of school. He is the recipient of the New Mexico Golden Apple Award for excellence in teaching as well as national teaching awards from the Organization of American Historians, American Historical Association, National Council for History Education, and the Society for History Education and has also served on numerous committees for the Organization of American Historians and American Historical Association. A Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians, he is the author of five books and numerous scholarly articles and encyclopedia entries on the history of sport, music, and film.