What does life after the Brittain Fellowship look like? What opportunities within academia or in other sectors do Brittain Fellows pursue? And how does the postdoc prepare Brittain Fellows for these positions?
The Professional Development Committee reached out to former Brittain Fellows and other experts to find out the answers to these and other related questions. The interview below — with Stephen Addcox, a teacher and administrator at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta , as well as a former Brittain Fellow — is the seventh in this series and our third interviewee to work as a high school teacher. In part 2 of this interview (see below), Stephen talks about working with high school students, mental wellness, and strategies that Brittain Fellows can use to find a new and rewarding career teaching in an independent high school. In part 1 , which appeared earlier this week, Stephen reflects on his current position and his personal experience transferring from the Brittain Fellowship to teaching at a prestigious independent high school.
Do you find that your students are fairly open with you when they’re having issues?
That depends on the faculty member. I will just tell you, quite frankly, that I, for whatever reason, don’t think that I’m unapproachable, but I have tended not to be someone who gets a lot of those kinds of interactions from students. But we have a very good counseling team, so if a faculty member ever had a concern, it’s a very simple process to just sort of say, “You know, I’m worried about such and such a person,” and then at that point, they can kind of take that off your plate. Usually you’ll get follow-ups.
You know I was just talking about this the other day with our writing center administrator here, which is the whole reporting out thing. For minors, there’s a lot of reporting out and so that’s a little bit of a change to where you are expected to be giving information about these students to their parents or to other faculty members or to administrators now–obviously for very sensitive situations. It’s not like we’re just blasting out info about students all the time, but there’s definitely more information sharing because of the nature of the institution. Quite honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if that starts to happen more in universities too just because of the way mental health is becoming, more and more on the radar of awareness. And maybe they already are, I just don’t know, because it was not ever something that I intersected with. But I would imagine that there’s a lot of those conversations that are happening. But the universities that I worked at, they’re so big, so it’s easy for a student to get lost. Whereas here we have a high school of four grades with a little over 800 students. So, it’s relatively small.
It seems like it has become something that cannot be ignored by anybody—the collective mental health of the University; it seems like always in our face. The teachers themselves have to deal with their own mental health, and I think that leads to hypersensitivity to the mental wellness of those around them. I know that once we got deeper into the pandemic, I was referring students to Student Life and the counseling center all the time because it was like, “They disappeared. I don’t know what to do about this. I’m sure something’s wrong, but I can’t do anything about it.”
Yeah, exactly. I mean, that doesn’t surprise me at all that that would have been your experience. At Westminster, we were back on campus last year in the fall, so we were only off campus in the spring of 2020 from March until the end of the year. But we returned to campus in August of 2020 with required masking in all indoor and outdoor spaces. No visitors were allowed on campus last year for any reason beyond [an] AC repair guy or something, that kind of thing, right? But parents were not allowed on campus. There were very limited guests allowed at sporting events. All of our theater program stuff was online. I think maybe the parents of the actors were allowed to come to the performance, and that was it. Mandatory weekly testing, and we did have a few outbreaks of COVID last year, but they were relatively minor. I think for the most part the school’s approach has been very good because the testing is so frequent, and they’ve been doing contact tracing very, very effectively so that the only time we ended up going back to digital learning last year was after Thanksgiving because everybody traveled. So, we did go back to digital at that point, but the rest of the year, we were pretty much on campus the whole time and now, of course, we’re back.
So, you’ve touched on a lot of the things I hoped you would, but one of the big things that I wanted to ask you about to conclude is what would you say are 2 or 3 primary things that Brittain fellows could do if they wanted to consider teaching at a private high school? What can they do now to start preparing to make that transition?
The first thing I would say is stop considering everything else “pursuing the dream.” If you apply, and the impression you give is that you’re settling because you can’t get what you really want, no one’s going to hire you because you’re not the only one who is not getting what they want, right? This job market sucks, and it has for a long time.
[Working in an independent high school], you are going to be focused on teaching, but you can still do research. I actually have a colleague in History who continues to publish articles basically every year, and she goes to the big Kalamazoo medieval thing, or whatever that conference is. So, it is possible to do it, but there’s not going to be a whole lot of institutional support for it. You’re going to be a little bit more on your own, but that’s not to say that it can’t be done.
One of the things I would encourage people to do, too, is to put out of your mind the notion that not working in a university is a failure. I think too often we are conditioned to think that way about our careers, and I think it really poisons the well of possibility for people in a way that is harmful. So that’s the first thing I would say.
The second thing I would say is that the compensation is often competitive, if not better, so if that’s what you’re worried about, you might find that you can do even better in an independent school than you would at a university. Westminster is one of the more well-resourced schools in Georgia and maybe in the southeast (if you don’t include Miami, because they’ve got some pretty nice schools down there).
But I think you want to be focused on your teaching. Really be thinking about how you can be creative in your teaching, and really think about how you can be collaborative [in] your teaching. The biggest lesson that I have had to learn, and that I’m still learning, is that you’re going to have to be willing to teach texts that you either don’t know or don’t like. So, you’re going to have to give a little to get a little sometimes, particularly starting out. I got lucky because I came into a school where there was some flexibility in the curriculum, but you may come into a school where it’s like, “No, you’re teaching ninth-grade English, and here are the books.” So, you’re going to have to find your way to inject creativity and think of the restrictions like an opportunity rather than a ball and chain. I think that if you go into a professional environment with that in mind, you’re much more likely to be successful.
The other things that I would say are that there are two placement services that are pretty much invaluable if you’re looking to get into the independent school business. The first is Carney Sandoe & Associates, and the other one is called the Southern Teachers Agency, which is more focused on our region. I used Carney Sandoe. You do have to apply to get in, and then they will help you find job offers. I actually got lucky because (again, the kind of the serendipity of the job market) there was another Brittain fellow who was applying for jobs who was a 3rd-year the year I was a 2nd-year, and they got offered the position that I ended up taking. But they decided to take a position at a different independent school in another city. In the interim what I was actually doing was getting my materials into Carney Sandoe for the fall job search for the next year. But when I was putting my materials in, this other Brittain Fellow elected not to take the position at Westminster. The chair of the department went back to Carney Sandoe, and I popped up and I hadn’t been there initially. I got a call the first week of May, and I had a job offer ten days later. It was that fast, so, you never know when these things will happen. I used to hate, hate, hate, hate when I would go to talks [about the job market], and someone would be like, “Well, it just happened.” That drove me crazy. But it very much ended up being that way for me. I was in the right place at the right time under the right circumstances.
The thing with independent schools is that there are so many of them, and if you’ve got a PhD, that puts you out in front in terms of the job market, if you can show strong teaching instinct with students, ability to connect on a personal level, and creativity in the classroom. If you can show those things and you’ve got the credentials as well, that makes you a very, I would think, strong candidate. It doesn’t make you a shoo-in, so don’t rest on your laurels. Just having a PhD doesn’t get you the job, but it doesn’t hurt, either.
When I came to Westminster, I had a student in one of my advisement groups because you’ll often have an advisement group of students that you track with or you do things with that are not academic, and he just couldn’t get over the fact that I had come to a high school from a university. And then I really blew his mind when I told him, I was actually getting paid more, at the high school where I was working than I had been at the university, and he just couldn’t wrap his mind around that. And I said, “Look, you know, for you as a student, yes, your academic progress goes in one direction but after you’re out, professional progress is not the same as academic progress.” And I think what happens to us is that we’ve been students for so long. [I went through] high school, college, master’s, PhD, [so] I never wasn’t in school until I was 32, right? You spend all this time in school, and you’ve been moving in that one direction that whole time, and then you’re in your early- to mid-thirties, and now someone is saying, “Well, maybe you should go backwards.” Yeah. Feels wrong, right? It feels like it’s a step back, and you really have to reorient and say, “Now that I’m in the professional space, I am no longer on this linear path towards a degree. I’m now in this different kind of environment. And where the academic level at which I do my work is not a reflection of my professional success. Teaching English to 11th graders does not necessarily mean that I am less successful than someone who is doing a graduate seminar.” You just have to think about what counts as success for you, what counts as doing good work. I think that is something that if I was to write an Inside Higher Ed blog about the job market, part of me would say, “As much as possible, don’t think of not being in the university as a failure.”