PhDs as K12 teachers

It seems that my husband and I are somewhat unique–we both have PhDs and have chosen to return to the high school classroom rather than pursuing careers as college professors.

I often feel like the world looks at this choice we’ve made as some sort of failing condition. Once in a while I get a student asking me, carefully, why I’m not teaching college if I’ve got my doctorate. The assumption often seems that it’s because I couldn’t make it as an academic so now I’m stuck teaching high school.

The truth? When I was away from the high school classroom working on my doctoral course work full time, I missed the high school classroom so significantly that I realized I needed to get back to it as soon as possible. I felt unmoored when not in the high school classroom. I felt my work had been stripped of its relevance when I sat in my grad school classes and imagined the world of teaching practice. There are plenty of academics who can balance this distance from practice–I could not. And this lead to a bit of a crisis for me–why endure a difficult PhD program if I wasn’t heading for academia afterward?

I had to figure that out. And I did. The dissertation experience and my committee taught me how to write about my classroom with rigor. The researcher stance allows me to see things going on in my classroom I never noticed before. All the theory I’ve met through the doctoral experience has helped me to better articulate what’s going on in my classroom. And most importantly, I’m uniquely positioned to work on issues in education from the inside–something I could do far more of if only I could figure out how to bend the space-time continuum to give me more time (a full time high school language arts teaching position is pretty much all-consuming). I know that I am a far better teacher now after the experience of getting my doctorate and studying my own teaching for my dissertation. I’ve also been able to contribute in significant ways for my school, district, and state, ways that would not have been possible before all I got out of my experience in graduate school.

My husband holds a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology. He did not intend quite exactly to return to the high school classroom when he finished his program, but we were moving across the country for my doctoral program and he needed a job to support us. A high school job came up and he went for it–and he has never looked back. His training as a scientist via his PhD program is what has been critical for him. He now knows how to get his students thinking like scientists–they read scientific articles, they do sophisticated statistical analyses, and they engage in the scientific process through inquiry. In fact, he’s teaching a class for a local school of education this summer about just that–getting students to think scientifically. He was a good high school biology teacher before he left for his doctoral program, but now he’s a great one. And he has also contributed on the district, state, and even national level toward science education. Coming back into K12 practice with his PhD has been significant to the teaching of science.

If only graduate schools valued and encouraged returning to (or entering) K12 practice as an outcome for the PhD.

And then there’s the recent editorial (November 25, 2011) in the journal Science by editor Bruce Alberts. Alberts begins by acknowledging that our nation’s economic situation has also affected academia making funding more difficult to secure for early career science PhDs. He acknowledges that many of them are looking for alternate career paths besides becoming academic researchers. Then he writes of the import of science education across the country in our public school districts and suggests that science PhDs could play an important role in improving science education. It was about at this point that my husband stopped reading this editorial silently to himself and began reading it aloud to me as we both sat reading in our living room a few weeks ago. We looked at each other excitedly–was the editor of the journal SCIENCE about to call for science PhDs to go into the K12 classroom in order to work on science education from the inside? Was this to be the moment the tide turns and the K12 classroom would finally be considered an honorable, valued career for a PhD?

Not exactly. Alberts writes:

Thus, I would like to challenge a group of the relevant experts—teachers, principals, superintendents, education researchers, scientists, policy-makers, and experienced science curriculum specialists from school systems—to create a 15-month program aimed at preparing and certifying outstanding Ph.D. scientists as “science curriculum specialists” whom U.S. school districts would want to hire. These individuals would need to be competitively selected, provided with prestigious fellowships to cover their living expenses, and networked to each other and to the scientific and engineering communities. The goal is to produce large numbers of school system administrators with “science in their souls,” passionate people skilled at working inside the system to connect it to the very best resources available for helping science teachers to inspire their students.

I’m sorry, Bruce, but you totally missed it here. There is nothing more effective in education than a passionate, well-trained classroom teacher. We do not need more administrators, especially administrators who have maybe never had K12 classroom teaching experience. But getting more of the most talented teachers IN classrooms would be powerful. Why not call for PhDs to enter K12 practice and work on the teaching of science from the inside? Why not call out the academy and ask it to start encouraging PhDs to choose this path? Certainly not all who complete a PhD program are cut out for K12 teaching, but I would venture that many of them could be awesome at it. And many of them don’t even consider it because the academy doesn’t encourage them to.

Alberts writes:

The timing is perfect to spread science and its values by “spreading” young scientists and engineers into new types of careers.

Yes. I agree. Let’s encourage them to take on the K12 classroom.

In my mind, there is no more important work than that.

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24 Responses to PhDs as K12 teachers

  1. Cedar Riener says:

    Well said. I think Rita Colwell, director of the NSF a few cycles ago (1999?) either suggested or instituted such a program. But I think it was only for a couple of years, instead of encouraging careers of teaching. Alberts’ recommendation sidesteps the status issue, which is important. Why not celebrate great high school science teachers as doing work that is just as challenging as research 1 bench science? Why not use his influence to raise the status of high school science teachers, in general, rather than trying to find some sort of high status administrative position to lure them away from higher education?

    • DocZ says:

      Thanks for the comment! I totally agree with you. This editor could absolutely use his influence to raise the status of high school science teachers. My husband and I are planning to write a letter to him, by the way. Interested to see what kind of response we might get. Thanks!

  2. M. says:

    This is a great article! I am in my mid-20s and have been substitute-teaching high school for three years. It’s a rough job, and when I discuss it with my peers, I often hear, “I couldn’t do high school, it’d drive me nuts!” It’s a comment I can’t quite understand. As rough as the job is, I do kind of love it and can definitely see myself going back to teaching high school—but I don’t think I’ve ever seriously considered teaching college, particularly not a high-level college class.

    It is not that I have a problem with advanced college courses; I just feel that you miss out on the immediacy of K12 teaching. Sure, I can see how it would be rewarding to teach an advanced college course and see talented achievers all around you, but I find it plenty rewarding already to be in the K12 classroom and be involved in spurring students into *becoming* talented achievers. I also feel that in academia, there is a lot of temptation to disappear inside yourself and allow your teaching techniques to remain static. (I had some professors in college with this problem. Fortunately, they were in the minority.) This, as you would know, is more or less impossible in the K12 classroom, where one is constantly being challenged with new ways to involve and inspire students. It can definitely be rough going sometimes, but when it works, the adrenaline rush can be addictive!

  3. Tanya Roth says:

    It was so good to see this come over twitter yesterday! I completed my PhD in history last May and took a great position at an independent prep school. I really love being here. Everyone asked me if I’d be on the academic market again this year and I thought they must be crazy to ask that – why would I go back? There’s so much about K12 that I love (although I never worked in those grade levels before). I’m disappointed that (given the current “job crisis” so many academics are fond of discussing) no one thinks about K-12 as much.

  4. Nick Quinlan says:

    I arrived on your article quite by accident. While reading your post, I couldn’t help but think of a teacher I had in High School who had his doctorate, he was by far one of the best teachers I have ever had. As I continued reading your post, nodding my head in agreement, I began to notice a disturbing number of similarities between my teacher and your husband. Upon finishing the article I began searching your blog, only to discover your husband was my high school biology teacher.

    As I student, I feel I gained a great deal from having a PhD teach my biology class. I feel in the high school environment I was able to gain far more knowledge than a college lecture. This idea was cemented after I took BIO 101 in college. The class was taught less and comprehended an even smaller fraction of the knowledge I was taught by your husband. Your husband’s teaching style, in a class that other teachers might not care about (normal high school biology, not Advanced or AP), had a profound impact on the students and classroom. I am profoundly grateful for that.

    Thanks to both you and your husband for coming back to K12 and teaching where, I feel, you have a greater chance of changing lives.

  5. Heather Schilling says:

    Bravo, DocZ! You are brilliant, and your students benefit from having you (and your beloved husband) as their teachers. After twelve years of teaching at the high school level, I now have the privilege of preparing teachers for the classroom. This blog provides me with even more fodder for why our teachers must be expected to develop their own rigor and excellence. Seeing the entire spectrum of learning improves teaching. You both understand what college students must be ready to do, and that gives you a different perspective. In all honesty, every once in awhile I really miss teaching high school students. I miss the moment when my sophomores read the climax of To Kill a Mockingbird as well as the conversations that followed. I hope more educators (of all grade levels) consider pursuing advanced degrees or national board certification.

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  7. Andrew Roedell says:

    I am always very encouraged by essays such as this one. I received my Ph.D. in history from Georgetown University several years ago, and, given the challenges of the academic job market, have worked as a college administrator ever since. But after a couple of years in the position I realized that I would be far more satisfied teaching young people than as a manager and administrator. I have used my tuition-remission benefits to get an M.Ed. in secondary education part time, and will shortly begin hunting for my first teaching job. I wholeheartedly endorse your sentiments regarding Ph.D.s and K–12 education.

  8. Jeannine says:

    This was great to read (albeit nearly a year later!). I completed my PhD studies in Music Education this past spring and just landed a position in the k12 classroom teaching strings (orchestra) while most of my colleagues are Asst. Profs in colleges and universities up and down the East Coast. I could not agree more with this post and most importantly with your 4th paragraph! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Jeannine says:

      I do have one random question for you. Do you students refer to you as Dr. or Ms.? This is a conundrum I am facing at the moment.

      • DocZ says:

        Thanks for reading! And best of luck with your k12 teaching gig!
        I go by Dr. There were already a few other PhDs on staff in my building when I completed by degree and they go by “Dr.” so it made it an easy decision.

  9. Jeannine says:

    Thanks! I’m the only one on the string staff with a PhD, but I do prefer to be called Dr. So long as the kids aren’t confused by it. I’ve worked this hard for the title, it better be put to use! 🙂 Thanks for the fast response!

  10. DocZ, this piece delights me and I need to talk to you! I am looking for STEM PhDs who are currently teaching high school, to write about their careers for my website The Versatile PhD (oldest, largest online community for grad students and PhDs interested in non-academic careers). Would you be able to connect me with your husband plus any others you may know? ABDs are OK too. Especially looking for people who left the academy in 2008 or later, because they got their jobs in the post-2008 economy. But longer ago is OK too. They can email me at paula at I will tell them about what I want them to write and then they can make their own informed decision. Can you send some people my way?

    Appreciating any help,

    Paula Chambers, Ph.D.

  11. Anonymous says:

    While this sounds like a great idea, there are quite a few limitations. If a school district does not even have “Ph.D.” on the pay schedule, then that first needs to be established. This requires the involvement of the union. Considering the union’s role yet further is the fact that one MUST be paid according to one’s education. Unless you can somehow lie about your Ph.D. and only admit to having a BS/BA and/or MS/MA, they will be required to pay you according to your background. Given the area where I live in Pennsylvania, our pay schedule discrepancy at step one is approximately $20,000. Most schools don’t have that much extra money to pay a Ph.D. instead of a recent graduate from a four-year program.

    • DocZ says:

      Yes, this is a real issue in many districts. Happily, my district has recently negotiated a professional salary schedule that encourages teachers to seek higher education and draws experienced teachers from other districts to us.

    • James says:

      I appreciate this article quite a bit, especially as a doctoral student (music education) looking to continue my K-12 work. I often hear warnings like the one above, that teachers with doctorates (or even master’s degrees) are less likely to be hired because of pay concerns. I’d like to add that this isn’t necessarily the case in all jurisdictions. In my state, base teacher salaries are set and *paid* by the state, not the local hiring school districts. Districts can and typically do offer above the state minimums, but those additional payments represent a fraction of a teacher’s pay. I think this has an advantage if freeing districts up to hire the best qualified teachers for their positions, not just the “cheapest” among minimally qualified candidates.

      I know this post is a bit old, but I think it’s important to point out for those who stumble upon this article as I did–particularly those not yet involved in K12 teaching.

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  13. Qian Mitloehner says:

    I just finished my PhD. and am very interested in becoming a high school science teacher. However I am not sure if I am qualified for that or do I need to get a teaching credential?

    • Mr. S says:

      It depends on where you are and where you want to teach. In most American public schools you need a
      Credential to teach. There are varying paths to getting a credential though. Start with your state’s department of education. -Mr. S

  14. Still looking for PhDs in any humanities, social science or science/math discipline who have gone into high school teaching. I want to hold those people up as role models so that my community (Versatile PhD dot com) can see that yes, it is not only possible, but for the right kind of person, awesome to become a K12 teacher with a PhD. Please either respond here (I am following the thread) or email me directly at paula at versatilephd dotcom.

  15. jdou says:

    I wonder if there are any people out there who are well-established tenured professors with 20+ years in academia (like me) and who have managed to become a K-12 teacher in their 50s? I welcome any advice.
    Thank you.

  16. Chris H says:

    What a wonderful and encouraging article! I found this after Googling “PhD science k-12 educators” as I’m starting my student teaching (officially with students tomorrow) and this is a “pipedream” of mine – go do a PhD, get back into K-12 and introduce kids and get them involved in real science going on right now – not just working through textbooks or known content (though still important). It’s nice to know that others have done this.

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