How To… Be a Teacher Historian

We’re often told that there are options to practice history beyond the academy, but what are they and are they viable? In this wonderfully generous post, Dr Michael Molkentin shares with us his personal experience as a teacher historian and the challenges and highlights of following this career path. He discusses the way having a PhD has influenced his teaching, how teaching has allowed him to broaden his knowledge of the discipline, and the genuine thrill of introducing students to studying the past.

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Dr Michael Molkentin is a secondary school History teacher and an adjunct lecturer at UNSW Canberra. His latest book is Australia and the War in the Air (OUP, 2014).

“Just don’t expect to get a job in academia when you are finished”.

It was my first day in the PhD program and my supervisor had taken me out to lunch to talk about my project and, apparently, disabuse me of any unrealistic career aspirations.

“And if you do want a university gig you’ll have to be prepared to move anywhere and teach anything. And – if by some miracle – you land a permanent job in a university: never leave it. Be prepared to die there”.

While such a pragmatic outlook might have been deflating to others in my situation, I was actually OK with this. I had come to the PhD after five years of teaching secondary school History, a job I really liked and was happy to return to if necessary. I was doing a PhD, I assured my supervisor, to develop my research and writing skills and because of my interest in the topic. Oh, and I wanted access to funding to research in overseas archives.

He approved; we were off to a good start.

Three and a half years later I graduated and found, just as my supervisor had warned, academic job prospects were indeed limited – especially secure, full-time ones and especially for historians of military operations. I didn’t even get an interview for the first university job I applied for – despite my teaching experience, a fairly prestigious award for my PhD research, and the two books I wrote before completing my thesis. Even more discouragingly, the job went to someone considerably more senior than the position’s ‘Level B’ designation (and its salary) implied.

So I returned to the secondary school classroom with aspirations to continue researching and writing. I was fortunate to find a permanent position at an independent school that had a culture of further education; many of the staff were pursuing or had completed post-graduate qualifications. I also secured a university adjunct lectureship, helping me to maintain contact with colleagues and providing access to a research library. My plan was to pursue a kind of hybrid career of teaching and research.

In many respects, this has worked during the five years since my doctorate was conferred. The teaching has provided a steady income similar to the rates offered to lecturers and public servants of my age and experience. And I have maintained a research output that I think is comparable to my peers who graduated around the same time and pursued academic careers.  I have published my third book (based on my thesis), contributed chapters to three other books, written some reviews and presented a couple of conference papers. I have another book under contract and am on track for its scheduled for publication in 2019. I am also currently co-editing a special edition of a peer-reviewed journal.

Importantly, I have also found the teaching to be enormously rewarding and satisfying. I have enjoyed the History teaching itself, of course, and have found some good opportunities for contributing to the professional learning of colleagues through the History Teachers’ Association of NSW. After the pinhole-narrow focus of a PhD I found the breadth and diversity of the secondary syllabus refreshing. In a single week I might teach ancient Mesopotamia, the industrial revolution, the US Civil Rights Movement, the Stalinist purges and finish with some postmodernism and history.

I have also enjoyed the relational side of the job. Working alongside students and introducing them to our incredibly important discipline is hugely rewarding. It is genuinely thrilling to see a student develop an interest in studying the past and to see how this transforms their mind and equips them to engage with the world in a rich and meaningful way. More broadly, it is a privilege (and sometimes a challenge) to work with students as they develop character and form the values that will define them in their adult lives.

Having a PhD in my field has made me a better teacher. While I certainly don’t need the level of specific content knowledge that I demonstrated in my thesis, producing it nevertheless endowed me with research, writing, speaking, thinking and project management skills that have a practical application in the classroom. My doctoral research (and my current work) also gives my teaching credibility and authenticity: it enables me to be involved in both the creation and the dissemination of knowledge. There is a body of research that indicates the impact that ‘teacher writers’ can have when teaching writing to students. As Jennifer Dove and Susanne Gannon, put it: “Teachers’ dispositions towards writing shape those of their students. The skills they demonstrate inform what their students are able to achieve”. (Still, as the old saying goes: nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Teaching is fundamentally relational and a PhD and a swag of publications will, in themselves, not contribute much here).

Whether or not having a PhD improves one’s employment prospects in teaching is a bit ambiguous. At this stage there is nothing ‘official’ in the employment criteria, pay scales or performance review processes to recognise (or reward) teachers with PhDs. On the other hand, I have heard anecdotally that having a PhD distinguishes job candidates in the independent schools sector – especially for leadership roles. I have also heard of non-government schools targeting subject specialists to teach senior courses. At the very least, having a PhD is likely to distinguish your CV in a field in which few practitioners have one.

All this is not to say everything has gone to plan – or that being a ‘teacher historian’ is without its difficulties.

After three years of teaching part time at a secondary college and a university I needed to take a full time secondary teaching position. Ultimately, it proved too difficult to organise a timetable that suited two institutions and the university work proved frustratingly unreliable. Jobs at secondary schools also tend to be organised, first and foremost, around full-time positions.

Research funding is difficult to secure as a teacher. Although the leadership of my school is enormously supportive, this cannot extend to funding overseas travel. I’ve had papers accepted at overseas conferences that I could not attend because I have not had access to funding (this is less likely to be the case in schools that are larger and have higher fee schedules than mine). Nevertheless, I have found that there are other sources of funding. State Libraries, for example, offer various fellowships, as do various community history organisations. For my current book I secured a grant from History SA that has covered interstate trips and paid for a research assistant overseas.

Finding time to write is challenging too – though most of my friends who work in the academy say the same. A standard full-time teaching load includes about 20 hours of face-to-face teaching each week. Besides this there are various other rostered duties, a large administrative and marking burden and, in an independent school like the one I work at, an expectation of staff to take on a sport or co-curricular responsibility (I teach co-curricular writing and edit the year book – both are pretty enjoyable actually). So-called ‘new scheme’ teachers like me (post-2004 graduates) are also now required to undertake a quota of professional development hours and undergo periodic performance reviews. On the positive side of the balance sheet are the holidays – 14 weeks in some systems. With some of the discipline and time management they daily exhort their students to demonstrate, a teacher can find time to research and write.

With the dearth of academic jobs, teaching therefore represents an alternative career path that post-grad candidates and ECRs might consider. It certainly isn’t an easy job and it probably isn’t for everyone – but it is one in which a talented historian can put their skills and their passion to very good use and, in the meantime, secure a reasonable salary and some time to keep writing.

With the oft-reported oversupply of PhDs, I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an increasing number of ‘Dr Sirs’ or Dr Misses’ in Australian classrooms. Government attempts to raise the standards of teacher qualifications and training (the basic qualification for teachers at many universities is now a Masters of Education) make me optimistic that there will be, in future, be better defined career paths for PhDs who want to teach. There are already some examples, from overseas, of policy to attract PhD qualified practitioners into secondary school teaching.

Even as we wait for the wheels of the educational bureaucracy to harness the potential represented by PhD qualified teachers, teaching represents a slightly unconventional but, I think, viable and even attractive option for those of us looking to take our expertise and passion for History into a career outside the academy.


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