Switching Gears

As a Ph.D. student in biochemistry at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Lynn Horton planned to become a college professor. When someone asked her if she had considered teaching high school, her reply was "I'm not getting a Ph.D. to go into high school teaching." But after two postdocs and a 1-year teaching stint at Hiram College, she ran out of college-level job prospects. Then a friend told her about an open teaching position at Hawken, a private high school in the Cleveland area. She applied and was hired to teach biology and chemistry. Now in her fourth year at Hawken, Horton says she was arrogant to think that teaching high school was beneath her. "I realized later how incredibly limited that point of view was," she says. "I didn't plan on being a high school teacher, but here I am loving it and finding it fulfilling."

Horton's story isn't rare. Many, perhaps most, Ph.D. students expect to end up on a college faculty some day, teaching, researching, and doing all the things that college professors do. But along the way, an experience--maybe a formative teaching experience, maybe a dead-end job search, maybe something else--propels them toward careers as schoolteachers. Michael Danahy, Lynn Horton, and Yan Li are cases in point: scientists who made the switch from bench to blackboard. Their stories are different, but they share some common factors. All of them entered teaching because they love science and interacting with students. In each case, teaching helped resolve some dual-career-couple complexity. And none of them are in it for the money.

The Boarding-School Experience

Michael Danahy is a second-year chemistry teacher at Choate Rosemary Hall, a private boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut. He started his teaching career right after graduate school, and for him--and for the time and place--Choate was a perfect fit.

Danahy (pictured right) earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from Princeton in 2004, but his wife was in law school in Connecticut, so he had to look for jobs in that state. He had a very clear idea of what kind of job he was looking for: He wanted to teach science, but he wanted interactions with students that weren't limited to the classroom. "When you teach college, you only know them as chemistry students, but at Choate, I can see them as athletes. I can see them in the dormitories. I can see a larger aspect of their lives," he explains. "Also, with these boarding schools like Choate, the caliber of student that we have here allows me to do a higher-than-normal level of high school chemistry. I'm doing a lot of college material."

Choate didn't require a teaching certificate, but Danahy came with lots of teaching experience from graduate school. He took his recitation sessions at Princeton very seriously, working to stay attuned to different learning styles and keeping an interactive classroom. Still, he found that running a college class is a lot different from running a high school class, mainly because student expectations and teacher responsibilities are different. Choate's mentoring program for new teachers helped him learn some of the intricacies of high school teaching--like how to run a classroom and grade exams--from a senior teacher on campus. The rest he learned on the job.

All Choate teachers must participate in extracurricular activities. Danahy coaches cross-country in the fall, track in the spring, and intramural sports in the winter. He teaches three sections a day, with 15 students in each section. The small class size promotes good teacher-student interaction; in some ways, he suggests, class time is just a natural extension of the rest of life at Choate Rosemary Hall. "You have to be a good teacher, a good coach or adviser for a club on campus, and a good person in the dorm," Danahy says. "You're basically a dorm parent, [so] you really need to like kids."

Liking children is definitely a plus for Danahy, given his housing situation: He and his wife share an apartment in the sophomore and junior dormitory. When Danahy is "on duty," he keeps his door open and patrols the dorm to make sure the students are studying and behaving. His accessibility invites interaction. "Even when I am not on duty, I still get knocks on my door from students who want extra help or who just have problems," he says. "So at a boarding school, being a 'teacher' does not really encompass the job; it truly is more of a parental role."

After 2 years, Danahy has come to miss the intellectual stimulation that comes from teaching more advanced courses, and his wife will be finishing law school this summer. Danahy thinks that now may be a good time for a change of scenery. "We both keep saying we’re at the nexus of our careers and are deciding what we want to do next," he explains. He has started looking at other teaching options, particularly at small liberal arts colleges in New England. "We say that Choate was perfect for when we needed it, but now we're ready to move on. No regrets."

A Serendipitous Career Move

Horton's employment decision was also influenced by spouse-related geographical limitations. Her husband is an M.D./Ph.D. clinical scientist; at the time Horton was looking for jobs, he had just received his residency assignment in Cleveland. "He really couldn't look outside the Cleveland area," she recalls. "I ended up calling a professor of mine, Russ Maurer, from my graduate school days, and he was teaching at Hawken." One thing led to another, and soon Horton was teaching chemistry and biology at the private school. Hawken had attracted several former scientists to their teaching staff, so Horton felt right at home.

Like Choate, Hawken wasn't bound by state teaching requirements, so Horton (pictured left) didn't need a certificate, but the lack of a formal education background, she says, limits her choice of education jobs. "I don't regret getting my Ph.D.," she says. "It was a good thing to do, but if I had it to do over again, I would probably get a master's in education."

In addition to teaching four classes a day, with a maximum of 18 students per class, Horton helps coach the speech and debate teams. Because Horton was a swimmer in high school, she could be called upon to coach the swim team if needed. Teachers are asked to wear a lot of hats, so anyone who has a variety of skills on their résumé has an advantage during the job search.

Horton says the interaction with the students is what she loves the most--she would never consider going back to the stressful world of research--but teaching, she admits, is in some ways even more stressful: "It’s a different kind of day-to-day stress. You have to get grading done at specific times and their work back to them in a reasonable time. It seems much more deadline-driven." On the other hand, you're not worried about where your (or your staff's) next paycheck is coming from, a situation postdocs (and PIs) must deal with sometimes.

Horton's two great joys are knowing that she has helped students understand and appreciate science and that she has influenced them to continue studying science. "I love hearing from students who come back from college saying, 'I took a biology course, and it was so easy. I knew everything that was going on.' I can say, 'Wow, we actually prepared them.' "

Blending Culture and Education

Yan Li received her undergraduate degree in engineering in China but left her native country in 1997 to begin her Ph.D. studies in Singapore. After completing that degree in 2000, she stayed on in Singapore for 3 years, working as a software engineer in a semiconductor factory for 2 years and as a research fellow at a local university for 1 year. In May 2001, Li gave birth to her first child, and at the end of that year, her husband moved to the United States to begin a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania. She followed him west, moving to Philadelphia in 2003.

Because Li's H-4 visa stipulated that she could not work in the United States, she remained unemployed for a year. During this time, however, she started wondering what kind of career would offer more time for childrearing. Her answer was teaching. "I had a little knowledge about the U.S. educational system, and knew I had plenty to offer because of my cultural experiences," she says.

Li (pictured left with her son) took the Test of English as a Foreign Language exam and applied to teaching programs at several universities but found that they only offered tuition assistance to citizens or naturalized residents. Li and her husband filed applications for green cards and special paperwork that would allow her to work. Li worked for a while and had a second child.

Then some friends told her about the Transition to Teaching Program, a collaborative effort between the school district of Philadelphia and Drexel University. She joined the program in the fall of 2005 after securing her green card. She is now approaching the end of her first year of teaching at Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia, where she teaches Chinese and math enrichment.

Li is also nearing the end of her certification training, which takes 1 year at Drexel. A Transition to Teaching grant--funded by the U.S. Department of Education--is paying her tuition. But the best thing about the program, she says, is its "fast-track" route to the classroom. "Once you are in the program, you are put on a list for the Philadelphia school district," Li says. "If there is a vacancy, the district can apply for an emergency teaching certificate for you. Drexel assigns a professor as a teacher coach who will help you survive the first year." Li encourages those who are interested in a teaching career--and also those interested in saving time and money--to look into Drexel's program or one like it.

It's Not About the Money

Teaching public or private school offers a variety of benefits: geographic flexibility, a stable career, employment opportunities with health benefits, manageable work hours, and often 3 months off during the summer. All three of the teachers interviewed for this article agreed that if they had it to do over again, they'd still become teachers, despite the occupation's notoriously low salaries. "I knew as a teacher I wasn't going to be making the huge bucks that I could [make] if I worked in industry, biotech, or [as] a research professor," says Horton. "Teaching isn't about the money. You go into it knowing you're going to be happy doing your job."

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Robin Arnette is editor of MiSciNet.