Monday, July 28, 2014


Ask the Administrator: Teacher or Instructor?

A new (and fortunate) correspondent writes

I am writing to ask your advice on teaching at a school and teaching undergrads. I have job offers from schools and an offer to work as an instructor at a university. I need to make a choice [soon].

I want to work as an instructor but I also feel I should work as a school teacher to catch them young and make a positive influence on students from diverse backgrounds.

As far as salary goes, it is not very different. But school teachers have a good retirement plan. The instructor position is not tenure track but i am inclined towards teaching undergraduate Chemistry in a place where there are chances that I will have like minded colleagues. I am married and have 2 pre-school children. So I would want to spend not more than 50 hours a week at work.

I would sincerely appreciate your advice on the pros and cons of working at a school Vs as an instructor.

First, congratulations on having multiple good options.  Many people don’t.

Context matters, so it's hard to say with any certainty what you should do.  You know the intricacies of your context far better than I could.

That said, "instructor" positions off the tenure track (at colleges that have a tenure track) tend to be unstable, and often isolating.  Most of the time, you wouldn't know until the last minute whether you could return the following year.  (That's somewhat less true in unionized contexts, depending on the specific contract.)  What looks like a good choice now could vanish next year, or the year after that.  In the high school setting, you will probably have pretty good security from the start, and significantly more in a few years.

Since you mention retirement plans, I'm guessing that you're interested in some level of stability of employment.  Based on that, I'd recommend the high school route.  That route would also give you a better chance to "catch them while they're young."  

You'd be much more integrated into the life of the school at the high school level, in most cases.  Instructors at the college level tend to be treated largely as independent contractors, rather than as colleagues.  In most settings -- again, context matters, but I'm speaking to the typical case -- you'd basically be on your own.  At the high school level, you'd be a presumably permanent member of a standing faculty, so you'd have colleagues.  

High schools have issues of their own, of course.  Leadership quality can vary widely, and facilities are often less advanced than you'd find at a typical college.  You'd also have to work with more mandates, whether from the district or the state.  And, of course, dealing with 15- and 16-year olds is different from dealing with adults.  Whether that excites you or makes you roll your eyes is a question only you can answer.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?  

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

You forgot one key thing - PARENTS! But as she is a parent, she might be OK with that but my rare encounters with pushy helicopter parents makes me think I could not handle high school!
I agree with DD. A public HS offers more stability, better benefits, and in many states you can eventually earn tenure (which isn't nearly as far-reaching as in a college, but still provides some very necessary job protections that you can only appreciate the importance of after teaching in public school for several years). In many places, HS teacher salaries (as pathetic as they are) are higher than for non-tenure-track college positions (lecturer or instructor). You will be working for well over 50 hours a week as a new HS teacher, but at least you can do a lot of that work at home.

Please beware that teaching HS is way harder than teaching college, it takes several years to become a good teacher, and many people burn out in a year or two. There will always be kids who are difficult. You are also going to have to deal with ridiculous mandates, some of which are actually impossible to achieve.

On the plus side, teaching HS is extremely rewarding and I find HS-age students more fun than college-age. If you want to be the best teacher you can, starting at HS is good preparation. Most good HS teachers can successfully teach college (which is why most of the adjuncts my CC hires to teach evening classes are HS teachers during the day), while many college professors wouldn't last a day in an HS classroom. You'll also have colleagues who will be happy to give up their precious and limited free time to help show you the ropes.

I love teaching and despite the fact that my HS wears me down quicker than my CC, my HS classes are way bigger, I have so much more to grade in a typically HS class than a CC class (yes, even including the labs!), I don't think I would trade teaching HS for anything. When you reach an HS kid in a way that no one ever has before, they'll make you feel like the most important person in the world. Wait until you have kids you taught as 9th graders email you years later telling you that you're the reason they went into science...nothing can compare to that.
Little "i"??? Really. Go into something else.
Something else you might consider, too, is to adjunct on the side - a class or two at most, and/or online.

I would not, however, recommend this for the first couple of years you're teaching high school, if for no other reason that it can take (even excellent) teachers a couple years to become acclimated to the different environment, especially if you don't have previous high school teaching experience, or if it's been awhile. I find, too, having had experience teaching at both levels is excellent in that you can provide insight into what's coming - or have insight in knowing where the students have come from. (While I currently teach at a community college, I have a background in secondary education and I maintain my license for that reason.)

There are benefits to teaching at either level, and truly, one is not any better than the other. It's a matter of personality and preference (I've heard other veteran teachers remark that they loved/"fit" teaching specific grades or age ranges).
I would ask yourself what success to you really looks like. Then I would ask what you need to in each job to achieve career success there. Finally I would ask which seems to be the better match.

Here are some suggestions of questions to think about:
* How many independent preparations are involved in each job?
* How much can each preparation carry over from year to year?
* What is the grading load, and how challenging is each assignment? How does this fit with your own grading style?
* How much does teaching environment matter to you? I second DD's comment about college faculty being like independent contractors. It isn't only a sense imposed from the outside; I think we treat each other that way too. My interactions with colleagues are quite different from my wife's with her elementary school teacher colleagues.
* Do your colleague's ages matter to you? While my wife and I are the same age (mid-40s), she is older than most of her colleagues and I'm younger than most of mine.

Re: retirement, it may be a self-designed 403(b) (instructor) vs pension system (HS). I would ask if the pension system will be stable prior to believing it will really be there.

My opinion without being hampered by facts is that the HS option sounds better.
As a parent of three young kids (ages 10, 8, 6), I'll focus on the child logistics of either job, since the other aspects have been covered. These are things that you likely won't realize until the kids hit elementary school.

--I teach science at a CC and I have more flexibility with helping in my kids' classrooms. I also am off for two weeks in January and from May 15 onward, I can go on field trips, class parties, etc. The end of the school year is full of these activities, and teaching HS is unlikely to afford the ability to attend many/any of these, since you'll be at work the same time. At least at our elementary school, almost everything like this is held during school hours, so if these things are important to you, it's something to keep in mind. I also can't tell if you are male or female, and in my experience, these things often fall to/are more important to women.

--As a HS teacher, you would likely have better overlap with the kids' vacations and not have to cobble together care for school vacations. I live in the Northeast, so my kids have a February and an April vacation. I have spring break in March. Again, not a major thing, but it is something that will become an issue down the road.

I know these things might not be on the radar of most people, but since I'm in the thick of it right now, I thought I'd mention it.
I see lots of good comments above, so I'll just add a "ditto" to many of them and only elaborate on the ones that first came to mind. I am assuming FULL TIME instructor at the university. If the university job is part time, HS moves up on the list.

First, full-time instructors at a university are not colleagues. They are a convenient tool to free up the "real faculty" for more important work. That goes triple if you don't have a PhD. (A PhD is less of a status issue at a CC as long as you know your subject area cold.) In contrast, a chemistry teacher at a HS (especially if good at it) is likely a god-like entity. Just don't assume that you have any control over the curriculum or that you won't have to spend a week helping prepare them for the math and reading graduation test given in the spring at public schools.

There are enough full-time tenure-track faculty at my CC who started by teaching HS that I can say that they uniformly say the discipline differences are a big deal. Unmotivated students simply don't attend class in college, whereas you are REQUIRED to find a way to get them a passing grade in HS.

IMHO, the hours are much longer at a HS but total work might be about the same. Full time t-t and n-t faculty at my CC work the same hours, which requires about 2/3 of a "40 hour" week to be on campus. You can stay around longer and grade and prepare there or work those extra hours at home depending on what works for you. HS is a lot more time during the day (actually away from home) with a lot of preps and you still have grading to do. Be sure you get a real good mentor to help you with the grading aspect of the job during your first weeks on the job.

The hours can be flexible in terms of start times teaching at a college. (Not at all as an adjunct instructor the first year, however. Your schedule is set.) Several arrange them to complement a spouse's fixed 9-5 schedule (e.g mornings with a young child or afternoons for afterschool activities).

A few other things:

If the university job is full time, it should have benefits regardless of track, but that might depend on the state. Ours come with health insurance and contributions to a 403(b) plan, just no promise of continuing employment. There are full time instructors at nearby universities who have been there for decades.

I have no idea how a principal judges a HS chemistry teacher during the probationary period leading to tenure, but it likely is based on the pass rate and how your kids do on the "high stakes" tests if it is a public school. You should know as much as possible about that before you take the job.

Long term future of a full-time instructor position is an unknown. Some CCs are using those more because they see enrollment drops in the future and those jobs will be the first to go. Ditto at a university, but they are actually a growth area at wannabe flagships that insist that their real faculty produce lots of research. If you are the only chemistry teacher at a HS, or replacing one that retired, that position is likely more secure.
One other thing to consider, really for either job but I'll address the high school one because I've taught HS but not college, is that there are many different kinds of high schools. You specifically mentioned "make a positive influence on students from diverse backgrounds", which makes me think you may be considering a school with a lot of students with lower socioeconomic status and/or a lot of members of racial/ethnic minority groups. This is a noble goal, but if you didn't go to that kind of school yourself or come from that background your picture of what high school looks like and what your actual high school job will look like can be pretty different.

I've taught in a school like that, and it can be very different than the kind of high school experience you may have had if you went to a school where, say, you could have fundraisers and the parents would open their checkbooks and things would get funded. At the urban low-SES school I taught at, we'd given up on fundraisers entirely. We used a comibination of funding from the state/district and a variety of crazy and highly restricive grants. As a result, one year I had two "teacher laptops" but no batteries for my graphing calculators since no one thought to throw those into a grant. I kept one laptop at home and one at work, which was very convenient since I took the bus and didn't want to haul something that heavy and expensive around, but I would have traded for a classroom set of new batteries in a heartbeat.

Also, instead of helicopter parents (of which you will probably still have one or two) you will have a lot of parents who you never see and can't get on the phone. I had kids that I taught for two years and never met their parents. Some I never met an adult of any kind (aunt, grandma, older sibling) despite really trying to reach out and find some adult in some kind of caregiver role to talk to about that kid. I know some of my kids were basically couchsurfing and didn't even have a real adult in their lives to rely on. I think I had a grand total of two parents contact me, the math teacher who based most of the grades on the chapter tests, upset about the grades their kids got the two years I taught there and it wasn't because I gave out easy A's to avoid arguments. On the other hand, when I borrowed the digital scales from science for a math lab activity, I was warned to keep a close eye on them because they'd be valuable to any kid who also sold drugs and might be stolen, and I once had a kid punch out my classroom window as he was being escorted down the hall by security. I also remember the time a kid got suspended from school for his behavior in class and no parent came to pick him up or anything - they just told him he was suspended and he left campus by himself to take the city bus home or wherever he felt like hanging out for the next week. I actually liked a lot of parts of that job, but it was miles away from my own high school experience.

Of course, colleges also come in kinds. I doubt that any are quite as dysfunctional as the HS I taught at (because no one is required to attend college and you don't admit people to classes in the middle of the term, so you weed out some of the problems I was dealing with off the bat just becuase going to college requires at least some motivation) but I've taken classes at a CC, a SLAC, and a large sate university and they are all very different from each other. Your mental picture of college may also be off.

Try to find out as much as you can about each school. Maybe buy lunch for a few potential colleagues and try to get them telling stories. What they think is worth complaining about over lunch will give you a good idea of what kinds of problems you'll see.
I can second what many have said about choosing between a job teaching high school and being an instructor at a university. Here are a couple of additional observations

I gather that the instructorship you are looking at is at a research university. Generally, instructors are full-time employees who get medical insurance benefits as well as access to retirement plans, but they are considered as being contingent employees who are on one-year contracts. These contracts are subject to indefinite renewals, depending on funding availability. However, there is no guarantee of continual employment from year to year. You could find out to your horror that for whatever reason or for no reason at all you won’t be getting a new contract for the next year, and you will have to scramble for your next gig in an utterly miserable job market.

As an instructor, you generally will get little or no respect from the tenure-track or tenured faculty at the university. You are not a colleague to them. They will look down their noses at you as being an inferior scholar with few or no publications to your credit, someone who is definitely lower-down on the food chain. After all, your main task will be to teach all of those pesky and time-consuming introductory courses, freeing up the “real” faculty to publish more papers and to seek more grant money. You probably will have little or no access to shared governance at the university. But this could be an advantage, freeing you up from having to serve on all of those committees.

Assuming that your ultimate goal is to land a tenure-track assistant professorship, is there any reasonable prospect of being able to convert a one-year instructorship into a tenure-track gig? At one time, this could be fairly easily done, but nowadays this is increasingly more and more difficult to accomplish. But is this what you really want? If you succeed, you will now have to grub for tenure and will have to enter the publish-or-perish mill. In addition, just like a candidate running for political office, you will have to spend a large fraction of your time in fundraising. As tenure review approaches, you will become more and more paranoid, imagining that there are dark, malevolent forces in work against you. Do you really want to live like this?

There can be some advantage to being off the tenure track, with no up-or-out decision being held over your head. As a visiting instructor, without the continual pressure to publish papers and to seek grant support, you will be able to concentrate more closely on effective teaching. And in most cases, if you keep your nose clean, you don’t get too many students angry with you, and you don’t offend the wrong people, you can usually count on getting reappointed to another year as an instructor.

What you might want to do is to sniff around at the university to see if you can find out how these one-year instructorships are handled there. Are there several instructors who have been there for at least two or three years, or is there a revolving door of instructors, with most of them being kicked to the curb after only one year? If you find that there is a reasonable expectation of continual employment as an instructor, this might be a good choice.

What about teaching at a high school? I am not sure whether the schools you were looking at were public or private.

If it is a public high school, what you choose to do may depend on the type of school you are looking at. If it is a school in a snooty and rich suburb, you will have to deal with all of those helicopter parents. “If you give my Johnny a B, he won’t be able to get into Harvard medical school…” . If it is an inner-city school, you will have to deal with drug addiction, constant gang activities, and lots of violence. Some of your students may actually be homeless. But the tenure chase at such schools is generally a lot less stressful than it is at a research university. If you don’t screw up too badly and don’t get the principal too angry with you, you can usually get tenure without too much trouble after only two or three years. But the office politics in a typical high school can sometimes be difficult to navigate.

If the school has a teacher’s union, this can be a benefit. There has been a lot of bashing of teachers unions in the media, but I imagine that being in a union could protect you from management crowding your classes with 60 students and could prevent them from firing you and replacing you with the superintendent’s son-in-law.

What about certification? In most states, in order to get a job teaching in a public school, you have to be certified. This means that you have to spend a lot of time (and money) taking a whole bunch of education classes, most of which are a complete waste of time. But sometimes you can sneak in the back door of these public schools without being certified, if you know the right people. However, certification is not required for private or religious-based schools.

Everyone's saying that non-tenure-track instructors are second-class citizens at research universities. I'm sure that's true to some extent, perhaps more at US schools. But my experience here in Canada is different. (I'm tenured, so I may miss some things).

We do have a number of "Continuing Lecturers" in our (very large) engineering department, and from here, they seem to be fully engaged in the department. They serve on committees, take admin jobs (the next Faculty over has a Lecturer as an Associate Dean, and the Director of Software Engineering is a Lecturer).

Policy is clear in that lecturers do not have tenure. However, dismissal of a lecturer must follow the full faculty dismissal process.

The prof teaching load in our Faculty is 3 per year, while the lecturer teaching load is 5 per year. So yes, of course lecturers free tenure-track faculty from teaching. But it seems to me like they are treated like regular faculty members as well, and that is the language used in policy.

One more difference is that the lecturer salary cap is lower than the prof salary cap, but it's still quite high compared to what I've seen in the US.
I am an associate dean and a tenured faculty member in a SLAC in the Northeast US. Our instructors (we call them lecturers here) are full members of the faculty. They are not second class citizens. They are involved in all levels of service and decision-making. They frequently serve as chairs of academic committees. They do have a slightly higher teaching load (4 classes per semester instead of 3 classes) and do get paid about 20% less, but they are most definitely considered colleagues of the tenure-track folks.
I'm glad I don't work where some of the other commenters seem to. In my chemistry department, at least, our instructors aren't treated as second-class citizens. One position is temporary, but we've been very clear about that up front. The others are "permanent." Yes, the people could be fired for incompetence or let go if the needs of the department or the funding of the university changed drastically, but this is no different from most employers. Yes, the instructors have higher teaching loads, but they aren't expected to run a research lab, and the difference in teaching loads is only one course.

I guess my point is I wouldn't rely on site-specific anecdotes about what being an instructor is like. You'll need to research the specific place you want to work.
The treatment of full-time non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty will vary from institution to institution, ranging from really lousy at some to fairly good at others. Don’t confuse full-time non-tenure faculty with part-timers and adjunct faculty—the treatment of these folks is really lousy at just about all institutions.

At research-intensive universities, you have to remember that the non-tenure-track faculty are really there primarily to free up the regular tenured and tenure-track faculty to do more research, to publish more papers, and to chase after more external funding. They are also there to fill in for faculty who are on sabbatical leave or who have been given relief from teaching duties to pursue research interests. Since most non-tenure-track faculty are not expected to do any research, their teaching loads may be significantly higher than those of the regular tenured or tenure-track faculty.

Since non-tenure track faculty generally don’t do research, they are often looked down upon by the regular tenured and tenure-track faculty as being inferior scholars, definitely lower down on the academic food chain. Since they are hired primarily to teach, non tenure-track full time faculty often have little institutional support for professional development, no access to money for attending conferences or presenting papers, no support for professional association memberships, no possibility of sabbatical leave, and no possibility of any partial relief from teaching duties to pursue research interests.
Full time NTT faculty are usually paid as much as 20 percent less than their tenure-track colleagues, but at a few research universities NTT faculty are actually paid higher salaries than those on the tenure track. NTT faculty members often do not have access to the regular salary increases, merit raises, and bonuses that are available to the tenure-track faculty, but some universities do have a promotion and salary advancement system in place that covers their NTT faculty. NTT faculty members usually have access to a full range of medical insurance and retirement benefits. Many institutions state in their by-laws that they offer their NTT faculty members the same level of protections regarding academic freedom as they do for their tenure-track faculty. NTT faculty often have some level of participation in institutional governance, the level of which varies from one institution to another—all the way from absolutely none at some to full participation at others.

The real disadvantage of being a NTT faculty member is of course the lack of any long-term job security. Every year, you have to worry about whether you will actually get another contract renewal for the next term, and you could be denied renewal for any reason whatsoever or even for no reason at all. Some full-time NTT faculty view themselves as simply being in a temporary holding pattern, waiting patiently for the day when a tenure-track job opens up at their institution or at some other school. However, others have abandoned any hope of ever getting a tenure-track position and have been at the game so long that their job has become a permanent lifetime career. Some full-timers report that they have been working on a contingent contract basis at their institutions for more than 20 years. Although some contract employees are happy at being able to avoid the tenure track, others express feelings of bitterness and exploitation.

Is a non-tenure-track full-time teaching gig a good bet for you?

This will depend on the type of institution you are looking at. What you should do is to invite a couple of NTT faculty members who are teaching at that school out to lunch and get them to open up about what their lives are really like at that school. Are their teaching loads so heavy that they rarely get to see their families? Do the regular tenured and tenure-track faculty treat them with respect, or do they look down their noses at them? Do they get to fully participate in shared governance, or are they effectively excluded from the regular social and professional life of the university? How are they evaluated by the administration? How are student complaints treated? Do they feel that there is a danger that they will be kicked to the curb when their current contracts expire, or is there a reasonable chance that their contracts will be renewed if they manage to keep their noses clean, keep their students reasonably satisfied, and don’t manage to offend the wrong people?

If the answers to these questions are positive, then becoming a full-time non-tenure-track faculty member at that school may not be all that bad a deal for you. You will generally get access to medical insurance benefits and retirement plans that are just as good as those given to the regular tenure-track and tenured faculty. And being off the tenure track can be a good thing. The absence of the pressure to attain tenure removes much of the “publish-or-perish” pressure, leaving you freer to concentrate on good teaching. It can also be a relief to be free of the constant pressure to seek and obtain external grant support.

In addition, since you are not on the tenure track, there is no up-or-out decision held over your head at the end of the probationary period. Assistant professors on the tenure track report a high level of stress--the whole tenure and promotion process is always first and foremost in every assistant professor’s mind, and every tenure candidate gets more and more anxious, suspicious and paranoid as their date of tenure review approaches. The whole tenure process is shrouded in secrecy—you don’t know what is going on at the higher levels, rumors fly around at the speed of light, and you get different stories from different people about what the criteria for success are. This can lead to a feeling of extreme persecution mania and a general suspicion that dark, malevolent forces are at work against you. Do you really want to live like that?

And even if you don’t get to participate in shared governance, this might actually be a good thing—you won’t have to attend all of those dull and boring committee meetings, freeing you up to spend more time in advising students, preparing your lectures, and in improving your teaching.

To second a few other comments...

I worked FAR more as a HS teacher than as a full-timer at a CC and about the same as when I was on the TT at an R1. The work is very different.

My HS evaluations had nothing to do with state test scores, although that's changing in most places. They were based on an observation rubric, all reasonably sized school districts now have a standard one. Google Charlotte Danielson to check one out that's used in a lot of places.

Observations are now often being coupled with state test results... From what I can tell, observations are more important.

Also, 97% plus of k-12 teachers are rated as "acceptable" or better every year and have their contracts renewed. You've got to be pretty terrible to get fired.
Also, 97% plus of k-12 teachers are rated as "acceptable" or better every year and have their contracts renewed.

That's true, but I think it is a misleading statistic because over 50% of teachers quit within the first few years. Thus, there are many many many people who can't handle teaching HS and self-select (partly because kids make life very difficult for teachers who struggle).
CC & HS Bio... true that.

It's a bit interesting in that even the ones who quite were getting 'acceptable' reviews.

Also, not all the people who leave can't handle HS teaching... While the plural of anecdote is not data, in my work maybe 50% who decided to do something else were doing really well in the classroom and made the decision for other reasons (e.g., partner lost a job, need to make more $$; return to grad school for a phd; ...)

But, I'd guess that it's probably closer to 80% who struggle and self-select out in the general group...
Well say there is not big difference between SAT MATH and ACT MATH. These both tests required different approach for test. How we can give best performance in math portion of SAT test. In case of any problem in SAT MATH then must solve it.
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