From PhD to Prep School Teacher

This is the first of two blog posts from an interview with Rachel Bundang, who recently spoke on the Writing/Teaching/Editing panel of the virtual Beyond the Professoriate conference. In this post, Rachel talks about her path out of academia.

BA: Why did you decide to leave academia?

Rachel: It was more a situation of feeling that academia had left me. My first foot out the door happened in the wake of the 2008 economic crash. At that point, I had a postdoc under my belt and was in the middle of a Visiting Assistant Professor position. I had gone into the job market that year with 10 or so conference interviews lined up. By Christmas, though, all but one of those jobs got shelved. An editor friend suggested that I seek work in independent schools to tide me over. I thought it would be a temporary thing that would enable me to pay my bills until the job market improved.

In the meantime, I kept applying for tenure track jobs. Over 7+ years of being on the academic job market, I think I had probably close to 100 interviews (both first round and on-campus). As the months became years, though, it got more and more difficult to suit up, rock the interview, and yet come in second place every single time. It began to feel like an abusive relationship, honestly, where I would be recognized for my skills and talents on the one hand, but ultimately and repeatedly rejected on the other.

BA: How did you transition out of the academic job market and into the job you have now?

Rachel: That first prep school job enabled me to leave the Midwest and return to my beloved NYC. I lasted 3 years in that position, then was not rehired. At prep schools, typically contracts are year-to-year, and the common practice is that if one gets past the third year, that’s essentially their equivalent of tenure. What followed was a grueling year of unemployment, adjuncting, and freelance—anything I could do to make rent.

What saved me—and served as my second foot out the door—was a call from a PhDRAB-CHS friend who was teaching at the school where I now work. There was a late summer opening in the Religious Studies department at the girls’ high school division, and he encouraged me to apply. I doubted anyone would take me seriously because I was in NYC at the time, not anywhere near SF. But he insisted that I apply. Within a week, I had a phone interview. Six hours later, the school called back and asked me to fly out to do a teaching demo, which I did the following week… while new faculty orientation was already happening.

One week later, I got the offer, just as classes were beginning. They asked how quickly I could move to SF, and I requested 2 weeks to put my life into storage and figure out immediate details. On Labor Day 2013, I left NYC, landed in SF, and began teaching at 8AM the next day, with absolutely zero prep time. In the meantime, a teaching intern from an entirely different discipline subbed for me during those first two weeks until I arrived.

BA: Was the transition difficult?

Rachel: In some respects, yes. I miss the relative flexibility of a higher education teaching schedule, where I could work odd hours or leave for a conference. In a K-12 setting, I have to be there every day for an 8am class, and I’m simply not a morning person. It’s much the same as teaching a 4-4 load at a small liberal arts college, where the semesters are just full, and you have to pace yourself to get to the next break.

The other big differences for me have been:

  • Managing parent expectations—there is sometimes a sense of entitlement that accompanies the paying of tuition, particularly if the parents are anxious about their child’s performance. At the secondary level, you cannot push away these difficult conversations, whereas you must do so at the college level to protect student privacy.
  • Dealing with students’ learning differences—nothing in my doctoral training prepared me for how to take these into account in my teaching. I’ve had to partner a lot with learning/academic support specialists to figure out how to handle this. Thankfully, they’ve been very patient with me.

For whatever it’s worth, I do think I’ve become a better, more confident teacher over the years, just through lots of practice.

And on a more personal note, dealing with so much upheaval during this period (4 cross-country moves in 7 years) was really difficult. Being at a place where I can feel appreciated, rooted, and stable makes a huge difference for my own well-being.

BA: As someone who is still interested in participating in academic culture, how have you managed to incorporate that into your job?

Rachel: I am fortunate now to work at a school that supports my professional development. They recognize that I still have currency in academic and religious circles, so I’m happy to put my skills and networks to use on their behalf there.

I still try to keep up with academic conversations, though my own research has to shift to accommodate time constraints and limited resources. For instance, I have to work around not having regular, easy access to a research library. All this time, while on a high school schedule, I’ve managed to do at least one conference talk, one workshop, and one small publication (like an essay or book chapter)—and occasionally more—most years. I also involve students in my research in small ways, such as sharing with them what I’m reading or test-driving ideas under development.

At the same time, I will confess to feeling the inevitable, occasional twinges of envy when I see colleagues from my PhD cohort posting on social media that they got tenure, launched a new book, or earned a sabbatical. Unemployment was certainly not a sabbatical, and the non-stop job hunting was definitely stressful, not restorative. I do have a different life from the one I had imagined for myself.

BA: When you began your new job, what kinds of fears and doubts did you have?

Rachel: My main concern was whether I would be able to teach at this level. What I’ve found is that high school students, especially juniors and seniors, are not so different from college freshmen and sophomores. The only thing is that they may not yet have the same stamina for reading or writing in long stretches, so those skills need developing. While content is important, I’m ultimately teaching students road maps for their own learning and thinking.

For my own teaching sanity, I could not go below 9th grade. At one prep school, I interviewed—disastrously—for a job that would have had me split between 11th grade ethics/philosophy and 6th grade humanities, and that was just too much of a stretch.

BA: On a more positive note, what were your hopes going into this new career?

Rachel: Even though this was not the tenure track job I trained for, I hoped I would find it rewarding enough to make it worth staying and building a life.


(End Part 1)