Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Blog XLIV (44): The History Ph.D. as School Teacher

Today marks the return of this blog's series on jobs outside of a traditional history department. Eric Gruver is a member of the honors faculty and Director of Honors Advising in the Honors College of Texas A&M University--Commerce. Before earning his doctorate, he spent four years teaching history at Harlingen High School in Harlingen, Texas. For three of those years he was department chair. His research focuses on the Depression and New Deal time periods and on issues involving the life and career of Herbert Hoover, the regulation of broadcasting, the history of public education curriculum, and national education policy and implementation.
Teaching is teaching; all that matters is how the individual doing the teaching frames the content for the audience. This sentiment sparked a debate between public school teachers and university historians who at the time were meeting to discuss how they could align their curriculums in order to facilitate a smoother transition for students from public education to higher education. As expected, the university historians concentrated more on teaching skills—reading, writing, analyzing—than on specific content, while the high school teachers complained that they could not cajole their students to read or do homework of any kind. In the end, both groups left the meeting frustrated feeling that neither side understood the other. As a former high school history teacher attending the meeting as a university historian, I felt sympathy for both sides. I had experienced the anti-reading, anti-homework—arguably, anti-intellectual—routine and nature of high school students and teachers, but was at that moment delighted that my university students were doing history. High school students can do history; mine did once I created an environment that piqued their interest and stimulated their psyches. So, how can a PhD historian use the degree to become a public school teacher, and should this be a viable career option?

For an individual holding a PhD in history who accepts a high school teaching position, one thing will be abundantly clear: high school students loathe the study of history as much as many college students. Students’ disdain for the subject stems from years of endless memorization of dates, names, and other factoids that students perceive to be irrelevant to their lives. High school teachers with advanced degrees in their field of study, however, possess several significant advantages over their baccalaureate only colleagues. First, advanced course work and doctoral research present extraordinary stories and historical twists-and-turns not found in the bland narratives of sanitized public school textbooks. The textbooks, moreover, are dominated by political, military, and economic topics and details, with mentions of women, minorities, and other fields of history relegated to the margins. For example, studying the purposes of the bevy of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs is not near as exciting as hearing stories about how ordinary citizens reacted to the programs: people rioting because the government destroyed food while they or their neighbors starved; farmers using wooden planks to “convince” their mules to plow up the sown fields; and, children writing letters to Eleanor Roosevelt requesting assistance so their parents would not be unhappy. For all of their anti-adult, anti-authority blather and behavior, adolescents care about humanity and they will read things that interest or stimulate them. Primary documents—letters, newspaper columns, diaries—contain the richest personal parts of history, and PhD historians are the most qualified at locating, selecting, and helping students understand original material.

And high school students will revel in any information that shows people opposing government or any entity that possesses authority or power. Rebellious and arrogant, students in high school exist in a middle-ground of believing everything they have read and heard about how society in the U.S. has made steady advancements toward liberty, justice, and equality, while at the same time reveling in the fact that people in history have consistently opposed the government in a variety of ways. Teachers who possess a depth of knowledge beyond the undergraduate experience can capitalize on this dualism tocreate the conflict method of teaching history that has become popular for teachers and students alike. One of the best questions a student ever asked came in a high school history course: How do people protect themselves against a government—the student did not specify the U.S.—if the government or pieces of it wield the final decision on the meaning of law? What teacher wouldn’t enjoy basing a series of lesson plans on that question?
Second, utilizing the rich stories of history, PhD’s in high school classrooms have a better opportunity to compel students to consider ideas beyond, and that perhaps contradict or differ from, their familial and regional influences. Pre-college students assume that everything in print has been researched, verified, and edited before someone smarter than they declared the material fit for publication, which makes students extremely vulnerable to the national mythology and half-truths contained in the history and social studies textbooks adopted by state legislatures. Only teachers with a deeper knowledge of history can help students become aware that history is more complex than what they think they know about it, and teachers do this by requiring students to read and analyze primary sources. In other words, rather than standing at the front of the classroom proselytizing about historical events and historians’ interpretations of those events, locate primary sources that communicate the same message(s) to students. I refer to this method as leading students to intellectual water and letting them drink. For example, many high school teachers omit most details regarding peace treaties or foreign policy decisions, leaving students with no understanding of why things occurred as they did. To paraphrase a former high school colleague: students do not need to know the inner secrets of people who negotiated agreements; they need to know who authored the agreement, what the agreement said, and when it was signed. Nothing could be further from the truth.
One of the best lessons I ever developed required students to read portions of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and a few excerpts of the Treaty of Versailles. Though students needed assistance understanding some of the vocabulary, they understood that the latter document did not fulfill the former’s objectives...and they were obviously disturbed by what they read. Why would Wilson lie? Why did Germany sign the treaty? Did Americans read this stuff and know what Wilson did? In a classroom full of regular high school students who on the first day of class had shown displeasure at the idea of reading anything, I presented them with material that made them mad, confused, and curious, which allowed me to teach more history to a receptive audience.
Often, PhD historians teaching in higher education complain about ignorant, unskilled freshmen who cannot do basic analysis and writing. If you find yourself teaching in high school, seize the opportunity to create a product that your college-teaching peers think impossible. This third advantage of PhD teachers is the ability to teach students how to “do history” and to write history beyond the normal history classroom experience. Students in traditional high school courses have endured memorizing the presidents, reciting the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, spouting the Gettysburg Address, and building models of historical sites (the Alamo, Brooklyn Bridge, Mount Rushmore just to name a few). Likewise, writing anything more than a simple sentence induces fear in or apathy among students, and many teachers of regular students accept one or two sentences as essays. One colleague explained that history teachers teach facts, not writing. Thus, for all their efforts to please their teachers in order to earn a high grade, students rarely understand the context or impact of the “history” they encounter. A PhD knows how to teach students to do history and how to develop their abilities to incorporate their historical “doings” into solid papers. Obviously, this occurs over time as the teacher trains students to analyze documents and the authors’ intent, formulate a thesis from which to argue, and select evidence with which to support the thesis. Teaching these pieces of doing history can be laborious and frustrating for both teacher and students, but undoubtedly the PhD teacher will have gained this experience during the various teaching assistantships and seminar discussions for which they were responsible as doctoral students. By helping students examine and do history in meaningful ways—not building a model of the Alamo out of popsicle sticks and clay—teachers help students become curious and interested in the past.
Perhaps the final advantage is the most important for a high school teacher with a PhD: use your experiences to build rapport and credibility with students. Students who perceive a teacher’s lack of concern for them as people will never respect and work for a teacher. To my teacher trainees during the last decade, I explained that treating students as people and talking to them in order to become acquainted with their lives, struggles, and goals is more vital to the learning process than how much a teacher knows about a subject. A teacher with a PhD has undoubtedly encountered a wide variety of students with an even more vast array of abilities and aptitudes, which makes them prime candidates to work with high school students (even in private high schools). Identifying bright students who aspire to careers beyond their family environment but who nonetheless accept that their lot in life does not include a college education is a tremendous task that graduate-educated teachers can do with ease if they only engage students on a personal level. Likewise, these same teachers can more readily adjust assignments for students with special needs (e.g., special education, emotionally disturbed, other health impaired). A student who has difficulty writing—physical or mental—may be gifted in writing poetry or composing and playing music. Talk to the student and design a project that capitalizes on the student’s innate abilities that covers the objective of the lesson or unit. Usually, students who work on projects such as these spend more time than those who write a traditional research paper or essay. The student with special needs tends to be a perfectionist, thus spending an inordinate amount of time refining the project. In both of these scenarios—identifying bright students while helping others experience history in a different medium—PhD teachers become mentors, and academic and career advisors, enhancing their roles as teachers. Not surprisingly, many high school students do not understand the concept of graduate school nor do they know what a PhD is, how to earn one, or why they would want to anyway. Only someone who experienced a doctoral program can provide truly informative answers to those questions.
Obviously, teaching at a high school, whether public or private, is not as easy or simple as I am suggesting. Pitfalls abound for any high school teacher, but some are unique for those entering the secondary classroom with a PhD. Depending on the size (and location) of the school district, the high school, and the history or social studies department, perceptions of arrogance will exist in a bi-directional paradigm. First, high schools do not claim many teachers with advanced degrees in their teaching field; in fact, most teachers who have a post-baccalaureate education likely received it in courses designed to improve pedagogy. Repeated regional and national studies of teachers’ qualifications frequently remind us that less than half of the students in public school history and social studies classes receive instruction from individuals with even a minor in their teaching field. Thus, some new colleagues may presume that the PhD knows more than they and will undoubtedly tell them so soon. Second, the PhD teacher may (and rightfully should) have some thoughts that the many years of education and practicing history surpass the experience of new-found high school colleagues. Rather than allowing feelings of superiority to color relationships before they begin, initiate conversations that illustrate your interest in learning from the grizzled veterans as well as the young teachers. Being honest with them regarding school procedures and what you can or should expect from students in the way of abilities, aptitude, and behavior can allay their concerns of the know-it-all PhD and provide a foundation for future conversations. Teachers who have taught together in the same department for a number of years can be provincial in their view of “outsiders,” and it is best to try to assimilate slowly rather than acting as if no challenges lie ahead because you earned a PhD and have some teaching experience in higher education.
A second pitfall facing a PhD in the high school classroom is the tendency to provide too much information to students too quickly. Teachers and professors who live and die by the syllabus usually ignore the efficacy of their methods, vowing to cover the material despite student needs. High school students can learn at high levels—much higher than most politicians, education officials, school leaders, and teachers encourage—but the education system has conditioned students to learn small bits of information during a fairly sizable chunk of time—that is, a teacher might spend two weeks of 37 to teach the French Revolution in a world history class that covers the ancient world to the 20th century. Teachers can counteract this conditioning if they teach students how to organize the information and actually do history in a way that helps students remember how the information fits together. Many people think that teachers must dilute the material—the amount or the level of difficulty—in order for students to earn passing grades. In fact, the opposite can be true. Teachers who deliberately train students to analyze and interpret events will soon find that students become inquisitive and thirsty for more knowledge regarding a given historical topic. Those teachers who fall behind the time-prescribed curriculum during the first few weeks of the school year because they spend time helping students learn how to do history will discover that they will catch up as students learn material more quickly after mastering the tools of the historian’s trade.
An example where PhD teachers could help students learn the skills to do history is often contained in vocabulary, something students loathe to do because of how many teachers require students to perform the task. In order to understand, comprehend, and recall meanings in history, students must have a grasp of concepts that usually begin with specific terms. A teacher beginning a lesson or unit on the Enlightenment period will need to present students with several key terms to define and understand before beginning formal instruction (e.g., natural rights, natural laws, reasoning, scientific method, morality, tyranny, representative democracy). Given the level of training during doctoral studies, few if any high school textbooks will define the aforementioned terms in the way the PhD teacher wishes, and neither the internet nor the school library are likely to provide quality assistance. How, then, should a teacher proceed if students cannot locate appropriate definitions for a lesson? Two options present themselves. First, a PhD teacher can provide students with the list of terms in advance of the lesson and write the words so that they are visible to students during class. Structure the lesson in a way that both defines and explains the relevance of the terms to the historical content being examined. This teaching style will require students to remain attentive to the presentation while simultaneously providing information to which students can connect their new vocabulary words. Obviously, this technique will occur slowly during the early part of a school year; students will need time to acclimate to listening to the presentation. Second, a teacher can provide primary documents that contain these terms—perhaps one document per small group of students—and then students can work to define the terms themselves using context clues. This will require patience on the part of the PhD teacher as students assimilate the new expectations and requirements, but a slow, steady pace early in the course will evolve into a much quicker process as the weeks and grading periods pass. For example, students often presume they understand the meaning of the term “democracy,” but use documents that define its various meanings as they pertain to U.S. history (e.g., Mayflower Compact, Articles of Confederation, The Federalist Papers, Iroquois confederation documents). A PhD teacher would not assign the complete texts of the aforementioned documents, but brief sections of these writings are indeed appropriate for helping students how different people defined democracy.
Obtaining a public school teacher certificate—licensure or credential, in some states can be confusing and complex for any individual, especially PhDs who have little knowledge of public education policy and particularly more so for PhDs who did not attend public secondary schools. Given the variety of post-baccalaureate (a.k.a. “alternative”) credentialing agencies, including those offered by universities, state-approved educational service and/or support offices, and for-profit companies, as well as the variety of programs and requirements created by the aforementioned entities, PhDs who decide to pursue any sort of teacher certification or licensure should investigate all options before selecting a certification program.
History PhDs who aspire to become public school teachers should expect a very different application process when compared to the fairly standard routine of applying for positions in higher education. Today, most urban and some rural school districts—defined loosely as the entity that supervises all schools within a single governing boundary—have automated the application process, but each district may have its own list of materials they desire from each applicant. Unlike the traditional dossier containing a curriculum vitae, letter of interest, syllabi, and writing sample, PhD applicants may need some non-traditional materials when applying for jobs in public education. For example, PhDs should have a command of public education jargon and include it in application materials. Some examples include lesson plans, curriculum alignment, the proper name of the state’s curricular program, assessment and evaluation, and classroom management. PhDs should also have a written teaching philosophy regarding secondary level teaching and learning, not one that focuses exclusively on the teaching field or what has been done in higher education courses. Additionally, the public education applicant should also include a letter of recommendation from at least one person currently working in public education; hiring personnel will not consider an application that lacks a letter from someone in “the business.”
Locating vacant teaching positions can also be frustrating for a PhD who is accustomed to viewing higher education job listings in standard and predictable media. Public schools do not always post vacancies and are not bound by strictures governing state agencies and higher education search committees. A PhD should scour school district websites, regional education service center sites, state-monitored databases, and probably career and placement offices of nearby universities.Finally, a PhD who accepts a high school teaching position can and will enjoy a rewarding career in the classroom if s/he utilizes the very skills learned during the graduate educational experience. Helping students understand and appreciate the story from all perspectives will eliminate their disdain for the subject and keep the teacher energized. All students deserve the best, most knowledgeable teachers to engage them in the learning process of their own intellectual growth, and a PhD can use the plethora of school holidays and an extended summer vacation to remain active in the discipline.


  1. Just from reading this, while the PhD brings some more experience, it sounds like the most important aspect is the love and dedication to the subject being taught: History. you can only transmit an interest and respect for history if you have one yourself.
    It makes me wonder about the generic education degree as a priliminary to teaching, rather than a specialization in a subject.

    "The condition of success in higher education is that the teacher himself should be a student. He should have in his subject that vital interest which comes of the endeavour to extend his mastery and to widen in his own particular branch the existing bounds of knowledge and achievement. The true teacher does not study his subject in order to be able to teach, but teaches because he is possessed by his subject."
    "The Brain of an Army"
    Spenser Wilkinson 1891

    Phil Ridderhof

  2. This article was intriguing and brings up some very good points. A high school class full of students who are engaging documents and dealing with the big questions sounds wonderful. However, these students will not fair well on state-mandated end of course exams which, unfortunately, require rote memorization of names, dates, and places and assess that knowledge via a multiple choice test. Wonderful idea, but the teacher won't be employed long if their students are tanking the EOCs.

  3. I received my Ph.D. in history from Georgetown a few years ago, and am now getting my M.Ed. from George Washington University. Given the constraints of the postsecondary job market and the growing glut of history Ph.D.s since the 1970s, I have wondered whether an increasing number of history scholars will eventually proceed into precollege teaching.

  4. I agree that Teaching is teaching.Its true that teaching changes its meaning from high school to universities.This post is very well written by you.You really using well your experience of education and teaching.Thanks for sharing your precious thought with us.

  5. All of these qualities define some of the characteristics of good teachers. If it is not your goal to become a good teacher at the very least, perhaps thinking about the above will help you see other career alternatives. A good idea, when first making such a decision, is to talk to teachers. Find out what they do, and what led them into teaching. Do a personal inventory of your own values, personality, preferences and goals.

  6. I always hated fill-in-the-blank prompts for writing. You should give your students also the option of doing a response that is corresponding in depth and detail, but does not use the canned method.

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