Can a Philosopher Really Land a High School Philosophy Job?
A former student of mine, who is now at Georgetown University and was working in its philosophy department at the time, contacted me one afternoon. Two tenure track positions in philosophy were open, and she had already filed over three hundred CVs for the jobs! “That’s insane!” I thought. I began to ask myself whether I would even have a remote chance of landing such a gig given the competition. There was no way. I am A.B.D, but even if I were finished with my dissertation, I don’t have the pedigree, the publications or the “pop” on my CV that makes a department like Georgetown say, “We need this philosopher!” But I didn’t need the position; I wasn’t looking for a job. I had a job.
I teach philosophy at Wayland Academy, a private boarding school nestled among the farm towns of South-Eastern Wisconsin. The Georgetown University job search caused me to reflect upon the two questions of this essay: How did I land this job? And what does it mean that I am a philosopher teaching High School?
There are High School philosophy jobs in the United States, but they are rare (they are less rare in Europe, but still not easy to come by). It is mostly the private schools, and even then mostly the elite, private boarding schools, that have the relative freedom to offer such a course or courses. Where philosophy is offered, it is usually offered as an elective to seniors, and not usually taken seriously as an academic course. That is not to say that the teachers aren’t serious or that nothing serious ever gets done, but it is often the case that it is difficult to sell the dean on a rigorous philosophy course that has no specific place in the curriculum. But it can be done!
Six years ago, when I was hired at my current post, I was not hired to teach philosophy. I was hired to teach Honors U.S. Literature and freshmen World Civilizations. I have neither an English degree, nor a History degree, but I had taught High School English and History before, and the school liked my advanced education. I was fortunate enough to enter into a dynamic conversation among the faculty and administration about cross-curricular studies and the development of an intensive writing initiative on campus. Over the course of many conversations that year, I was allowed the opportunity to begin a series of history of philosophy classes that would be offered for advanced credit to upper-classmen. The Dean of College Counseling visited one course, then sat down with me to work out a draft document that could be sent to colleges for those students taking the course in order to explain the rigorous nature of what was being offered. There is more to the story, but the point is that I began teaching philosophy at an academy that believed in what I was doing, and didn’t shy away from making it known outside of the academy. This singular fact, that the academy was interested in what I was doing, created an opportunity that I did not think imaginable. I am a philosopher, and I teach High School philosophy. My course offerings since then have included courses in ethics/political philosophy, introductory logic, and independent studies in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and the philosophy of language.
So that you do not think that Wayland Academy is the only school with such an opportunity and a vision, explore some of the links below. While I cannot say that there will be a job posted in the “Jobs For Philosophers” section of the APA any time soon, with a little creativity, a supportive administration, some ambition and sometimes a lot of convincing, landing a job teaching High School philosophy is definitely possible.
What does it mean to be a philosopher who teaches High School?
I really do love my graduate institution, and I have never been more supported in my education as I have been by the faculty at Marquette University. Yet, even there, it is difficult for some to understand why I would not make the jump to the college level. To be honest, I reevaluate this question every year, and it is an ongoing conversation that I have with my closest colleagues in the field. But as for the question, “what does it mean to be a philosopher who teaches High School”, there is very little question about it.
1) I do not publish, and I rarely submit to conferences. It is not that I am uninterested, but I don’t have as much time to research as I would like. That said, I am finishing my dissertation, and I have been teaching High School full-time all the way through my graduate studies at Marquette. I imagine, then, that when I am freed from my academic obligations that I too will be able to teach and publish. The most important fact, however, is that I am not expected to publish. I am expected to be an excellent teacher, to coach, to supervise, and to mentor. That’s it. If I publish, when I publish, it will be because I want to, and because I need to say something, not because my tenure depends upon it.
2) I teach four classes each semester with elective options each year. My average student-load is around 55 students, and my average class size is 14 for under-classmen courses and five for upper-classmen electives. I, therefore, can spend a great deal of time crafting lectures for my students, lectures that are specifically designed for that group of minds in front of me at that moment. I do not need to be original or profound; I just need to connect with the students in front of me, who genuinely look forward to anything interesting that I have to teach. Which brings me to my final point:
3) My students are young. They are inspired, and they are not yet jaded by their education or their world. Therefore, if I can show them that what I am teaching is worth studying, they will worthily study it. They live for those “A-ha!” moments, which makes teaching them refreshingly rewarding...and they succeed because of it. My former student, who is now at Georgetown, once submitted a paper to the Wisconsin Philosophical Association annual conference. Under blind review, her paper was accepted….and mine was not. After delivering her paper and fielding questions, she was asked what college she was attending. She demurely replied, “I will have to graduate high school first before I can answer that.” Wayland is not a school for “smarties.” It hosts average students, whose faculty have enough time for them and where they are encouraged to be inspired by what they are learning.
As a philosopher, then, I have a job where I can think and teach for the same reason that I began studying and teaching in the first place, because I love it! My job gives me the relative leisure (heavy on the relative…boarding schools are still busy places) to craft my ideas for the sake of teaching students who want to learn (mostly…they are people after all). It gives me the freedom to publish, if and when I have something to say, and because it’s worth saying (some of my colleagues continue to publish and give papers in their respective fields every year for the sole reason that they want to). Teaching pre-college philosophy allows me to be a philosopher, in the way I understand being a philosopher, perhaps not with all of the professional trappings that the university offers, but a philosopher nonetheless.
I thank those of you who contributed both publicly and privately to the ongoing conversation of teaching pre-college philosophy. I am glad to have gotten to know some of you through email, and I am sincerely grateful for your thoughts. The primary purpose of the piece was to introduce people to teaching philosophy at the secondary school level. I gladly anticipate your responses whether publicly or in private.
For information regarding private boarding schools:
For information regarding private day schools:
For information on where to begin looking for a job: