On Friday November 2, PATHS welcomed UChicago alums Brady Smith (English) and Fran Spaltro (Classics) to share their experiences teaching at independent high schools. Facilitated by Professor Zachary Samalin (English), the discussion highlighted the rewards, challenges, and practicalities of pursuing a career as a teacher in secondary education.

Based in New York City, Brady Smith teaches writing at Avenues: The World School in the High-Intensity Practice Thinking Program (HIP). HIP is a unique pedagogical approach that helps students develop and exercise heightened skills in critical thinking. Before Avenues, Smith gained teaching experience as a Humanities Teaching Fellow, and mentoring experience as a College Housing Resident Assistant, both here at UChicago. Over the course of the discussion, Smith explained some of the similarities and differences working with undergraduates and secondary school students. In some ways, many of his current duties are similar: curriculum planning, course design, and mentorship. Yet the scope of these tasks differ quite significantly. Regarding mentorship, Smith conveyed that his current position requires significantly more time with students both inside and outside of the classroom—goodbye academic solitude! Most satisfying, however, is getting to work with the same students over multiple years, seeing how they develop both as scholars and as young adults. Whereas undergraduates (especially at UChicago) are generally self-motivated and understand how to work independently, high school students require assistance to cultivate these skills. In terms of training, Smith explained that high schools are keen for their teachers to continue refining their pedagogical practices thus offering ample opportunities for professional development. 

Fran Spaltro teaches Latin and Greek at the UChicago Laboratory Schools and co-chairs the World Languages Department. A class session with teenagers, Spaltro stated, is quite different from one with undergraduates. A lot of this is to do with pacing. Ideally, teachers at the secondary education level should always be thinking up new, inventive ways to engage teenagers with short attention spans. 

Spaltro explained that a successful high school teacher knows how to “take the temperature of the classroom” and has the ability to keep a session moving by mixing up activity types and transitioning smoothly between them. Regarding pedagogical satisfaction, both Smith and Spaltro spoke of abundant “magic” teaching moments—moments when students came up with outrageously wonderful and perceptive insights.  
What, then, could interested graduate students be doing to prepare for this career path? Smith and Spaltro gave much valuable advice: 

  • Observe as many high school classes as you can. See how different teachers command the classroom space and engage with teenagers.
  • Talk with teachers! Arrange informational interviews! See if you can obtain guest lecture spots in their classes. 
  • Apply to be a substitute teacher. 
  • Don’t assume a Ph.D. is an open door to a career in secondary education. High school experience really is favorable. HUGE numbers of Ph.D. holders are applying for these jobs already—this job market, like the academic job market, is also highly saturated. 
  • In your cover letter, application materials, and interview, have a story to tell. Why do you really want to teach at a high school?