Essays

Got an MFA? Teach High School.

By posted at 6:00 am on August 1, 2012 29

1.
In early 2012, Joshua Boldt launched The Adjunct Project, a website containing a collaboratively updated spreadsheet of adjunct salary and work conditions. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported the site had nearly 800 user entries in the first month. While comparative salary data is useful, the most disheartening element of the site is the short narratives. Adjuncts accept poor pay with silence, “terrified of being even more broke than we are.” Other grievances include no health benefits, rushed contracts, and — despite the fact that adjuncts comprise nearly three-quarters of university faculty — paltry voice and representation in university matters.

I am unable to offer an absolute solution to this institutionalized, national problem. But I have, and will continue to, make a suggestion to the graduates of MFA programs who often enter these adjunct positions as perceived full-time employment. Before you join a dismal system where you might teach an overloaded schedule on multiple campuses and still earn less than $30,000 a year, pause for a moment. You have other options. Continue to fight your good fight, and bring this academic sharecropping, as some have called it, to public attention. But consider another career. Teach high school. It works for me.

2.
The Adjunct Project’s hard data and brief narratives are best complimented with the nuance of explanation. I have been an adjunct since 2009, and have had a great experience, yet I know my situation is unique. I have also taught high school full-time since 2004, so my adjunct work is for supplementary, rather than essential, income. For many adjuncts, employment is a constant struggle with little or uneven returns.

MFA graduates who are able to teach creative writing courses appear more satisfied than those leading composition courses. Andrew McFayden Ketchum, who adjuncts at four different Colorado universities, makes an important distinction between those types of instruction. Ketchum explains that composition instructors are “expected to teach critical thinking, writing, and even research skills” to students in a core course. Besides the “undoable” workload and “atrocious” pay, Ketchum notes a fascinating bit of misinformation: “students think adjuncts are ‘professors’… [and those] students who aren’t already well-prepared or extremely dedicated to learning either fall through the cracks or are ‘saved’ by the SuperAdjunct.” Such an educational structure “is not what schools advertise, and it’s not the sort of education students paying extraordinarily high tuitions should receive.”

One writer, who wished to remain anonymous, had been a Visiting Assistant Professor for five years before “that line was terminated” and replaced with an adjunct position. The resulting “commute times, low pay, and lack of support and office space for adjunct faculty” made her “less able to write or concentrate on publication than I was when teaching full-time.” Such a lament is echoed by other adjuncts. Book and significant magazine publication are often necessary to become competitive for tenure-track positions, yet the adjuncts longing for those positions are unable to devote sufficient time to writing and scholarship, thus creating a nearly inescapable cycle. She notes that others, some holding a PhD, must seek government aid. Another recent report from The Chronicle revealed that 360,000 Americans “with master’s degrees or higher in 2010” received “some kind of public assistance.” While that number pales next to the 44 million total Americans receiving public assistance, these are highly educated professionals struggling to survive.

coverJay Varner’s first book, Nothing Left to Burn, was sold soon after his graduation from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington MFA program. Although the book was well-received, and Varner interviewed for several tenure-track positions, his search was ultimately unsuccessful. The tenure-track market is oversaturated with “highly accomplished” writers with “recent teaching experience” who are “vying for few jobs,” the same coveted by adjuncts. Varner recently began adjuncting at James Madison University, and quips that “some of my adjunct friends look at me a bit strangely when I say” such work is fun. He recognizes the tenuous financial reality of adjuncts, but also the need to gain further college teaching experience.

Michael Nye, managing editor of The Missouri Review, was an adjunct at several universities in St. Louis between 2006 and 2009 and taught undergraduate creative writing courses, composition, and a graduate-level course. Nye did not enter his MFA program planning to teach. His first adjunct position at Washington University in St. Louis was as a last-minute replacement for a sick faculty member. Nye was not “considered part of the faculty or team” nor was he a member of committees or departmental discussions, but he didn’t expect such participation as a recent MFA graduate. Although Nye also bartended and worked as the managing editor of River Styx, he had sufficient time to write.

Nye no longer adjuncts. His work at The Missouri Review is considered full-time, and is a success story among the typical career trajectory of adjuncts, who have their eyes on future Associate Professor positions. Such “midcareer” positions follow years on the tenure track where professors are, according to The Chronicle, “protected from work outside their research and writing.” The Chronicle quotes David Harvey of New College of Florida that once administrative and other responsibilities accumulate, Associate Professors “go from being one of the rising young stars of the department to being one of the workhorses.” The long slog of adjunct work does not end in immediate bliss upon tenure.

Since many MFA graduates perceive adjunct employment as their only possible track toward tenured positions, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the MFA itself. Few graduate degrees are as misunderstood, or lambasted, as the MFA in Creative Writing. The MFA is a convenient generalization, an acronym without individual personality. The image of short-sighted, novice writing students lounging at a rectangular table, nitpicking a draft into a sanitized work of chaff has become a straw-man target for any perceived misstep in contemporary published writing. Misconceptions have even found their way into the programs themselves. Graduates of MFA programs might think becoming a college adjunct is their only academic career choice until the possibility of a tenure-track position, but such a view is unfounded, and not the fault of MFA programs.

I have not yet encountered an MFA program that guarantees book publication or professorship. I have seen MFA programs that sell themselves to applicants as places where students can study literature and creative writing within a supportive community, but not as training schools for tenured professorships. The same sense of camaraderie and inclusiveness that creates a successful MFA experience might also delude students into thinking such support will exist after the degree in temporary teaching positions. And yet MFA graduates continue to settle for adjunct positions and then subsequently criticize the degree.

Such unhappiness should cause self-reflection, but often that reflection is rejected. Seth Abramson’s approach to ranking MFA programs for Poets & Writers has resulted in equal parts blowback and praise, and those reactions can often be delineated between programs who think they should be ranked higher and those who have earned the top spots. Yet Abramson’s research has moved the MFA conversation in directions of greater transparency and awareness of practical considerations. He is correct to stress that applicants should research program funding, talk to current and former students, and consider cost of living expenses as they weigh their decision about an expensive art degree. In 2012, those responsible recommendations should extend to decisions about graduate education in any discipline.

Abramson has recently debunked the myth that more than 800 MFA program are “now in operation,” replacing that figure with roughly 200. Even with this decreased amount of programs, the resulting number of MFA graduates far outstrips the supply of available tenure-track positions in creative writing. The announcement of a non-composition teaching job with a writing-heavy schedule creates a windfall of applicants, pining for the promise of tenure, even in a world where universities like Wayne State are radically redefining, or ending, the practice. As mysteriously as they appear, advertised positions disappear due to lost funding, or are filled in silence, leaving anxious applicants to refresh the Creative Writing Academic Jobs Wiki page. New graduates are competing against seasoned writers and teachers; whereas a decade ago significant magazine publication might enable a writer to be competitive for a tenure-track position, now multiple, well-received books appear to be a necessity. The simple result is that the MFA system creates far too many well-trained graduates than can be placed in tenure-track positions. Yet the assumption that MFA graduates enter academia on the tenure track is grounded in a false economic model, one that presupposes the degree exists to create such academics. It does not, and it never has; as Abramson notes, the MFA is a “patronage system for artists” that “provide[s] a nurturing space for their talents.” It is not a place to groom future professors. So is there another option for the MFA grad looking to teach but frozen out of the higher education system? I believe there is.

3.
Graduates of MFA programs should consider teaching high school. I recognize that such advice might be rejected outright. Even adjuncts are “professors,” while secondary educators are “teachers,” and the difference in connotation might bother some. Additionally, MFA graduates will need to be certified to teach at public schools, although many states offer expedited, alternative routes toward certification. The shift from higher to secondary education will require planning. And any criticism that English teachers are not in demand as much as other teachers in other disciplines seems petty compared with the equivalent competition for adjunct positions with less pay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average median salary for a high school English teacher in 2010 was $53,230. Granted, the pay is less than that of an Associate Professor, but certainly more than even the most oversubscribed adjuncts. While the shape of tenure is even changing at the secondary level, the job security is far firmer than as a traveling adjunct, and secondary educators have better health and retirement benefits. An adjunct could go from teaching composition to 35 19 year-olds for a meager salary to teaching literature or creative writing to a classroom of 25 students between 15 and 18, with far better pay, more stability, and the ancillary benefit of helping young people at a crucial time in their development. Aren’t the arts supposed to cultivate our most selfless tendencies, anyway?

4.
covercoverWhen I was hired at a public high school in 2004, I was halfway finished with an MA in English Literature, and had no pedagogical or instructional experience. I taught AP Language and Composition and Introductory Creative Writing. In my first year, students compared the poetic philosophies of T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and Robert Frost, contrasted 1984 with some of Orwell’s lesser-known non-fiction to see the narrative and stylistic breadth possible for a single writer, and wrote raps in the voice of Macbeth characters. Not every moment of teaching is a success.

coverBut I hope that I’ve gotten better. I now teach AP Literature and started a course, Advanced Creative Writing, in which students write, revise, and workshop short fiction, research literary magazines, and study contemporary writers. The class ranges from 14 to 22 students, and most enter for the right reasons: they want to become better writers. Many have succeeded, and their achievements include the Davidson Scholarship, winning The Florida Review fiction contest, and publication in Flyway, elimae, The Louisville Review, Willows Wept Review, and other magazines. Two students appeared in the lauded W.W. Norton Hint Fiction anthology alongside Joyce Carol Oates and Ha Jin; one student appeared twice. Those stories were written in class.

These are 16 to 18 year-olds. Kids. At least part of the time while teaching them, I was pursuing an MFA in Fiction. Granted, I began my high school teaching before I entered an MFA program, and continued it afterward. That might give me an advantage over others, particularly people who have never taught at any level. But I don’t think that negates my advice. I like to think that if someone pursues an MFA in Creative Writing, they love both reading and writing, and have also gained quantifiable skills in literary analysis, writing, and critical thinking. I believe one can learn how to transfer those skills — to teach them — to young students.

Consider this: a good MFA program stresses breadth and depth of reading, close attention toward personal crafting of writing and subsequent revision, and the ability to articulate one’s self in a workshop setting. One must offer criticism that is at times pointed and also constructive; one must be aware of tone. But we can refine these skills further. Again, a good MFA program — and I know not all are created equal — contextualizes that aforementioned reading both historically and stylistically; a class might read Raymond Carver’s fiction in comparison with Bobbie Ann Mason and Elizabeth Tallent, wondering why all three were classified together by Bill Buford in Granta, opening conversations regarding British perspectives of what makes American fiction “American” (or even look at Gordon Lish’s editing of Carver’s writing from both craft and conceptual senses). And the workshop is not merely a convenient way for professors to structure a class meeting; it is an organic discussion of ideas and aesthetic approaches, where students offer skepticisms of the traditional model, perhaps channeling the approach of Michael Martone in recent articles published in TriQuarterly. A thorough MFA curriculum provides comprehensive literary training. That training might assist a writer in her own work, but as an ancillary benefit, it prepares her to view those skills on both practical and theoretical levels, and such duality is essential in becoming a reflective, successful secondary teacher. Wouldn’t an MFA graduate with such training be an incredibly useful addition to a high school English department, and wouldn’t students reap the benefits?

I suspect the MFA graduates would, also. I certainly don’t mean to derail the potential careers of those convinced they ultimately want to teach at the college level, but I don’t see how a stint teaching high school will not make them better teachers and writers. Teaching high school reminds you that instruction requires empathy. Awareness of audience is essential. So is a sense of humor: the bullshit detectors of teenagers, confronted with a pretentious “emerging” writer, will drown the room.

I have had some particular benefits in my teaching experience: open-minded and intelligent students, a very supportive supervisor, and a community focused on education. I have also had roadblocks: a Board of Education that has stalled and stonewalled contract negotiations, and an increasing perception of non-university educators as test-prepping, unintellectual drones. Writers I publish with give a look of pain when I tell them I teach high school, wondering how I have any remaining interest or energy to write. I argue that I not only have sufficient time — the summers certainly help — but the emotional freedom that sometimes is only provided through job security. In the past two years, while teaching high school full-time and working as an adjunct part time, and having a minimum two-hour round trip to work, I’ve had two books of poetry published, am finishing a book of criticism to be published next year, have published more than 30 reviews, and other essays, fiction, and related work. That’s with no sabbaticals and no artist residencies. God bless those who can manage them, but I can’t. I agree with Faulkner: only “demon driven” writers will be successful. You’ve got to make it happen.

Some might think it a waste to earn a terminal degree in creative writing and then work the same job that one could get with a bachelor’s degree. I recognize that the MFA is not designed to prepare students to teach at the high school level. But we should be honest here: the MFA is not designed to train novelists, either, yet most fiction graduates of such programs think that was the intention.

Adjuncts already do good, necessary work. They often teach students needing remediation, students from low-income families, students who need personal mentorships. The adjuncts I know are idealistic, skilled, intelligent people, who are working for less than they are worth. They can be equally idealistic as high school teachers, while also making a more reasonable income, becoming a more stable yearly employee in their community, and most importantly, helping young people.

coverAs someone active in publishing, I have sometimes felt like a lone wolf in secondary education. Then I discovered that Lauren Berry, whose debut collection The Lifting Dress was selected for the National Poetry Series, teaches high school. Ryan Call, winner of a 2011 Whiting Award for fiction and an editor at HTMLGIANT, teaches at a private high school in Houston. Call began teaching freshman and sophomores in the fall of 2011, three years after graduating from the George Mason MFA program. During that time he collected the stories that comprise The Weather Stations, which won the Whiting Award.

Call finds high school teaching very different from his previous university work. In the college environment, Call “didn’t really know anything about my students” beyond the experiences borne of the classroom. In high school, Call sees his students in class, on campus, at lunch, and as a cross country coach, expanding the dynamic to where he can now see “how these people navigate their young frantic lives.” He praises the collegiality of faculty. He also admits that, as a beginning teacher, his writing output paused. Teaching “took a lot out of me . . . physically, mentally, and emotionally,” but realized he could “afford to pause in my writing given what I’d achieved,” and that the break “was good for me.” He’s greatly rebounded as a writer during the summer, producing much work, and now feels more confident that he can both write and teach during the upcoming year. Call’s example shows how idiosyncratic this, and really any employment decision, must be: his experiences as a first year teacher sound like the experiences of a longtime adjunct, and yet the differences are essential. The support of his colleagues, the inclusive dynamic of his school, and the rewards of working with younger students creates a sense of optimism that pushes him forward. I do not see the same hope articulated by adjuncts, who feel like the light at the end of the tunnel is a flashing mirage.

I hope MFA graduates can pause their skepticism. Now, more than ever, we need intelligent and passionate teachers to lift the profession. The organic training and experiences of an MFA student might just be the perfect recipe for a successful high school teacher. Try it. You might find that those three letters on your degree feel like they carry much more weight.

 

Image via Phil Roeder/Flickr





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29 Responses to “Got an MFA? Teach High School.”

  1. Patrick Murtha
    at 1:23 pm on August 1, 2012

    Another option for MFAs or holders of any master’s degree is teaching abroad, in a private language school (generally a less desirable option) or a university or an international high school (much better). I teach humanities (a broad spectrum – history, philosophy, social sciences, literature, and art history) in English at an excellent university high school in Latin America, and find the working conditions (including reasonable contact hours, plenty of planning time and vacation time, and a private office) superior to anything I ever had at an American high school (or as a university adjunct, needless to say). The pay for such jobs will sometimes not look like much translated into USD, but is often excellent in relation to local standards; sometimes it even includes housing (although my opinion is, better to select your own place). For a creative writer (or anyone else), the sustained exposure to a new culture may prove immensely stimulating.

  2. Emily B
    at 2:03 pm on August 1, 2012

    Not much to add other than my appreciation. It sounds like I’ve had a similar career path to you, Nick, and since I’ve graduated with my MFA, I’ve often felt pressure to get into adjunct work, even though I’m quite challenged and happy teaching creative writing to juniors and seniors in high school. This perspective was an insight and a lift. Thank you.

  3. Jess
    at 3:56 pm on August 1, 2012

    I greatly appreciate this post! I graduated from an MFA program seven months ago, and am just about finished with my alternative teacher certification. It has not been easy; this year has really tested my commitment to writing and yet wanting better employment. Luckily, I have had a lot of support from friends, family, fellow artists and teachers. At this point in the game, I am so happy that I chose to forge ahead on the secondary teaching path instead of adjuncting, waitressing or taking another office job. I recently accepted an assistant teacher position at an arts-focused charter school, and before that was teaching at-risk high school students at a therapeutic boarding school. For anyone who is thinking of teaching, I heartily recommend it! There are many people who will be happy to help you get there!

  4. leah
    at 8:21 pm on August 1, 2012

    Nick, a great article! September will be my 6th year teaching middle school/high school english. I did my MFA in Poetry in O4 and my MA in English Secondary Education in 06. Though I’ve published in various literary journals, it is only now, in year 6 of my teaching career that my 1st collection of poetry has been accepted for publication by BlazeVOX! I couldn’t be happier and to be honest, it’s my students who will truly be excited, I totally agree with you- the key to a good teacher is passion (esp in an english class) and that’s something I’ve always had loads of. I’m very much looking forward to the upcoming school year.

  5. Ty
    at 10:45 pm on August 1, 2012

    As a full-time high school teacher and occasional adjunct professor at local universities, I heartily endorse Nick’s encouragement to pursue teaching at the high school level. Typically, I find my high school students to be more engaged in and enthusiastic about literature and creative writing than the students in the classes I’m assigned as an adjunct. The relationships I build with my high school kids over nine months are much deeper and my impact on their growth as readers, thinkers and writers is far greater than I can achieve with my college students in a three hour course over a semester..My high school teaching pay, benefits, and reasonable teaching load and class sizes also allow me to devote part of my evenings and weekends and all of my summer months to writing. As a result, I earned a two-book deal with Random House and published my debut YA novel SO SHELLY in 2011. As a YA novelist, my classroom is a gold mine for writing material and invaluable for understanding my audience. At this point, I can’t even imagine leaving my teaching job or trading it for a full-time university position.

  6. JR Simons
    at 7:50 am on August 2, 2012

    I got my MFA in Creative Writing in 2009, the same year that I lost a full-time collegiate academic job in a different field where I also hold an MA. That fall, I became an adjunct. I teach at two community colleges with occasional forays into a small private university program. I also advise a high school drama club. I find that my greatest satisfaction comes from advising the drama club. College students are seldom interested in the joy of discovery and the enjoyment of the learning process itself. They enter college “to prepare themselves for a job,” which has diluted the purpose of a college education and reduced colleges to nothing more than vocational schools. After three years of adjunct teaching, I readily agree with this article’s advice. While it is probably too late for me to land a high school teaching position this school year, I will certainly use the next year seeking one out so that I can continue my writing and the development of my own small press. In addition to alternative routes to certification, some states offer what is known as a non-profit certificate or license. While most alternate certification routes require taking 18 or more graduate credit hours of Education coursework for final certification, those teachers hired into private non-profit schools (church schools and private academies) can be sponsored by those schools to receive a non-profit certificate which allows them to teach without having to take that extra coursework in Education. Certainly, the median income for private school teachers is lower that that of public school teachers, but when you consider that an adjunct teaching 5 courses per semester (the regular number of courses taught by a high school teacher) makes about $28,000 with no benefits and crazy commuting schedules, then $38,000 or even $45,000 with benefits and only one place to go each day makes a whole lot of difference in a writer’s life.

  7. Portinfer
    at 12:56 pm on August 2, 2012

    Thanks, Nick, for a fascinating piece. I’m due to start a CW MA this September and, though I’m under no illusion about my chances of landing tenure down the line without serious publishing success, hadn’t realised that the transition to high school teaching was even possible for CW graduates (albeit with further qualifications required). The insight is much appreciated!

  8. Jana Llewellyn
    at 1:38 pm on August 2, 2012

    While I admire the spirit of Nick Ripatrazone’s article, i don’t think it’s realistic to assume full-time high school English teachers can also lead vibrant writing lives. I was a high school teacher for seven years (in two different schools, one private and one public) and an adjunct at various community colleges for three years. While my job as an adjunct could be frustrating because of bureaucratic and hierarchical systems Ripatrazone mentions, it was much more conducive to my writing aspirations. As a mother of small children, I had a flexible schedule and could do much of my work at home. I had freedom choosing content I cared about as well as fewer papers to grade, since I wasn’t meeting five classes of 20 or more students five days a week. Further, and most importantly, I had no parents or administrators to deal with, aspects which took up a significant amount of time when I was teaching high school.

    Standing in front of a classroom, assigning work, grading papers and disciplining for six hours or more makes it extremely unlikely that you’ll find the energy to write, in my experience. While I understand Ripatrazone’s point that job security helps a person’s ability to be creative, I don’t know why an MFA graduate would choose a teaching career over an office job. At least at an office job, you can go offsite, find a quiet space, take a lunch break.

    Further, what frustrates me most about this article is the way it makes teaching English look easy, like a side job to your real and primary one: writing. When you’re teaching high school, the kids have to be first (which is why I’m no longer teaching high school—I want to give my writing more priority). Doing a good job requires a lot of time and energy, whether you’re teaching struggling readers or honors kids. It’s easy not to do a good job, which is why we have such issues with our education system. I ran into plenty of teachers who could fill 45 minutes with tangents, who wrote novels during their prep time, but their students didn’t learn much. I don’t think we should continue to encourage anyone to teach if they are not fully committed to the task.

    Another thing Ripatrazone doesn’t acknowledge is that even with an advanced degree and years of experience, many people won’t get a teaching job in English unless they know someone in the administration or do a hefty amount of substituting. I struggled for years to get a job teaching English in a public school so that I could achieve the magic words “tenure,” “job security,” “pension,” only to find that the environment made me feel more like a postal worker than an academic. In my state (Pennsylvania), there are hardly any English positions available to begin with, and once you get a job (usually as a long-term sub to start), you get classes of struggling readers and writers, not the Honors and AP classes that tend to be reserved for more senior teachers. And those summer and vacation days you hear so much about? Most of them get filled up with nonsense classes and workshops you need to take to keep your teaching certificate valid.

    My experience teaching has been valuable in so many ways, and I could go on and on about the skills I gained and what I learned about institutions and human behavior and adolescence, the success stories of students I taught. But I think it’s misleading to imply that teaching English is an easy solution for aspiring writers. I don’t know any writer who has been able to maintain their enthusiasm for personal writing after endless days dealing with hundreds of kids. If you don’t believe me, read Frank McCourt’s memoir Teacher Man. He describes perfectly what it feels like to be a teacher in a culture that doesn’t value them. And he didn’t start writing bestsellers until he retired.

    What teaching English to high school kids enabled me to do was reread, analyze, explore, and share great writing on a daily basis. Only when I stepped away from that profession could I use those skills toward becoming a more committed writer.

    (Currently, I’m an editor, an office job which leaves me enough time and energy for my own writing.)

  9. Patrick Murtha
    at 2:12 pm on August 2, 2012

    Ms. Llewellyn’s comments underscore why I called attention to the international option. At my university high school, I have 35 hardcore teaching weeks per year (15 fall semester, 15 winter/spring, 5 summer). That leaves 17 weeks – 5 vacation weeks, 5 exam weeks with very light duties, 7 planning weeks with no scheduled duties. I teach 5 or 6 classes, which meet 2 or 3 days per week for 90 minutes per day. This fall, I have 19.5 contact hours per week; last spring, I had only 15 contact hours. Some international university jobs offer even better hours than that. Every teaching day,, I have ample hours for planning and whatever else I need to do.

    I am not a creative writer, but if I was, I would have plenty of time to write. As it is, I have plenty of time for my research and related activities – I am fortunate that my work and leisure pursuits are largely indistinguishable, because I teach subjects that interest me and that I would be working on anyway. The institution that I work for builds lots of time into a professor’s schedule for thinking and planning, assuming that it is needed – imagine that! At American high schools, the administration finds ways to fill every paid minute and many unpaid ones with “duties.”

    Another issue that should be mentioned is that the education schools in the United States are continuing to pump out an over-supply of teachers at a time when school-age populations are contracting in many places, and state and local funding for public schools is drying up. One reason why international positions are easier to come by – not easy in absolute terms, but easier – is that probably 98% of Americans cannot or will not consider such a drastic lifestyle change as living abroad, maybe for years, maybe forever. But if you are in the adventurous, flexible 2%, there is every reason to “go for it.”

  10. Josephine Brinkman
    at 9:50 pm on August 2, 2012

    i have been teaching high school English for the past several years. Before that I taught fourth grade for six years, same district, same neighborhood. I hold an MA in Curriculum Design: Word Expressions-Increasing vocabulary to improve writing skills for English language learners (2005.) At present, I am completing my MFA in Creative Writing Fiction and Non-Fiction. I am a full-time teacher which allows me the income to pay a mortgage, continue my professional development, all the while improving my writing. It is my own choice to keep the crazy schedule but it benefits my students foremost.

    I teach in a low-income neighborhood where gang activity is high. It is a tragic situation for the many families who have lost loved ones to gang violence, and even more tragic for the teachers who have taught some of these students. I have known and taught at least three students shot and killed for being on the wrong side of the street. Teaching is not an easy job but it is the job I have chosen. Yes, it is hard, yes, the students can be difficult to say the least, but I want to be here and I want to be the best I can be for all the students who pass through my class. For some of those kids it is the only place they can feel safe. It is imperative to be an excellent role model for the students, and they know a slouch when they see one, they are sharper than some teachers give them credit. I want their respect, I want their dedication to improving themselves and I want them to love reading and writing. What more can I hope for? I want to give all my students the opportunity to learn how to read and write from a qualified writer, and a competent teacher.

    Teachers need continued professional development but it is so hard these days because of the downturn in the economy. Everyone is hurting financially, so it makes it even harder to pursue professional development, but it is worth it. It is also true that in our profession the hours are horrendous, the workload is endless, and the class sizes are increasing. I teach five classes, three of them are mainstream English classes with at least 38 students in each at the beginning of each year. I also teach two classes of English language development to students who speak little to no English. They come from China, Russia, Mexico, El Salvador and the list goes on. Needless to say this requires an extraordinary amount of planning. Teaching this subject also requires on a daily basis for me to be organized, structured, energetic, motivating, in order to keep my job, and keep their interest.

    I am a “highly qualified” tenured teacher but it is only because of my ongoing professional development that I can say this with confidence. I am writing a novel for my thesis and it is becoming increasingly difficult because I give my students my full attention when I am in the classroom, lesson planning, going to meetings, being on committees, tutoring after school, and adjunct duties like being a chaperone at after school activities and advising clubs. I know this must all sound like I am crying the blues, but I’m not. Even with all the work at work, I love my MFA program. It gives me great joy, not only because I love writing but because I also love to read and most importantly, I love learning.

    Everything I have learned in the past two years have improved my teaching skills, made me a better writer which has impacted my teaching. Any teacher that thinks pursuing an MFA to go on to a community college or university should probably think about how expensive it can be and how few jobs are out there for veteran teachers like myself. Everyone is different.

    I read Frank McCourt’s book too and I know he taught in a very tough area of New York, but he must have loved it to stay in it as long as he did. If he had not experienced what he did, would he have had the material for that book? Maybe if it was fiction but it wasn’t. What he had to say made people look at teaching differently and that was a good thing too.

    So, teachers who have the desire to improve themselves, their teaching, and the writing of their students, please continue to improve our profession. When more of us do that, maybe the public will see us as professionals. Maybe not. I can only do what I can do. I know I can give students the opportunity to learn how to write by providing a safe, nurturing environment one day at a time. Maybe I will not be able to produce Pulitzer prize winning authors but I can give it my best each and every day. That is all I ask of my students. I

    hope that some of what I have written will encourage more high school teachers to continue their professional development any way they can, not just because they love writing but because they love teaching writing.

  11. AP
    at 8:18 am on August 3, 2012

    I teach at a public high school, and, like Ripatrazone, have taught AP Language and Composition as well as creative writing. I also teach more genreal seminar classes for freshmen and sophomores. Everything about teaching has made me a better writer. Ripatrazone mentions empathy, and attention to detail, and I’d absolutely agree, but teaching also forces me to read in a way that even grad school did not: how is this thing put together? How can I make students understand what the words on the page are doing rather than what they are saying?

    I am busy during the school year. I coach three seasons, I take my teaching responsibilities really seriously. High school students do have emotional needs that college students don’t, and we work at least two more months of the year (at least in CT public schools) than most colleges. All of that is part of the reason high school teachers get paid more. But, it is so worth it. My job is rewarding, and fun, and involves talking about books and running through fields with energetic young people. What could be better?

    The one thing I’d add, or at least draw out more, is that teaching is hard, especially for people who are made nervous by or intimidated by high school kids. Teachers who want to be liked, who have thin skin, who are nervous to upset with a garde, or, conversely, who want to put kids in their place, resent the privileged lives of many students at “good” public schools, or expect to leave work at work each day, will struggle.

    I write because it feels inevitable: I must. I work because I know it’s inevitable: I must! I know I will write no matter what I do, and as jobs go, teaching is about the most rewarding, fun, and enriching option I can imagine, both in terms of my writing life and my personal life.

  12. Josephine Brinkman
    at 11:50 am on August 3, 2012

    One other thing I would like to add, my only son is firefighter/paramedic. He constantly talks to me about similar issues, low pay, low public opinion, and troublesome folks that use 911 for things like sore fingers, loneliness, drug addictions, and because they have no insurance. He is not complaining but at one time he was new at his job and it was intimidating, scary but God bless him, he never wanted to quit, he loves helping people, even when he gets called every filthy name in the book, thrown up on, and almost taken a punch or two. His “brothers” are always behind him to support him. That is key, support. What people should remember is that a student is a parent’s most prized treasure, the public needs to step up and support the hard work that goes into. People also should remember that when they dial 911 for a paramedic to show up and save their loved one’s life, these guys who work 72 hour shifts make only $12.00-$25.00 per hour depending on where they work. This is no lie. Check it out. If a paramedic is a firefighter then the pay is of course much better. But think about it like teachers, these guys are in direct communication with the students and sick people of our nation and do not get the pay or the respect they deserve. For God’s sake, this is America right? People should care more. Yada, yada, yada, I know but I just had to add that because my son loves his job, he loves to serve. and being my only child, I love him and he deserves better.
    P.S. There is a correlation to what he does and what teachers do.

  13. Susan McNerney
    at 12:15 pm on August 4, 2012

    I have an MFA, and I work in the tech industry as an analyst. I find the idea that teaching – at any level – should be the default day job for a writer strange. My writing skills are crucial to writing software requirements, and the steady paycheck gives me peace of mind. I don’t get summers off, but I found a company with good work/life balance and work on my writing at night.

    I would encourage MFA grads to look at a wide variety of careers and focus on companies, government agencies, or non-profits that treat their employees well. It may take a few years to find the right match, but I can’t see how that would be worse than being a starving adjunct.

    And whatever you do, don’t buy the myth that liberal arts degrees aren’t worth anything. The unemployment rate for English grads is similar to other majors, and the salary 10 years after getting a BA is only slightly lower than business majors.

  14. Dr Bob
    at 3:46 pm on August 4, 2012

    As soon one who tried to make the transition from college (adjunct teaching) to 7 – 12 public school teaching, one phrase of caution:

    ARE YOU TO EXPENSIVE TO HIRE WITH YOUR ADVANCED DEGREE?

    By the time you have a teaching certificate you will have at least a BA/BFA + MFA + teaching school courses (minimum of 6 in Ohio) plus experience (as adjunct), etc.

    I was promised a fair shot at a job if I obtained my teaching credential; then, no interview (even where I was a substitute) because my education + experience made me too expensive to hire. Your SOL!

  15. Patrick Murtha
    at 5:59 pm on August 4, 2012

    “I find the idea that teaching – at any level – should be the default day job for a writer strange.”

    Well, it’s not a default, it’s a choice. But I can describe the logic of the choice thus. The issues are the same for creative writers, independent scholars, and dedicated intellectuals. A living has to be earned. But many of us would rather not spend 40 plus hours per week on activities that are completely unrelated to our real interests and values. I’ve done that, I’ve worked in Corporate America, and I found it distinctly unrewarding. What I learned is that I do not want to spend any of the precious minutes of my life working on stuff I don’t care about, in order to make someone else rich. No thanks!

    So teaching full-time can be the solution to these difficulties – not a perfect solution, because nothing is perfect, but often a very good one. Not only do I get to spend 100% of my time on subjects that I care about, but in the ethical scheme of things I feel that I can hold my head high. I’m not harming anyone, and I’m probably doing some of my students quite a bit of good. This psychic benefit is enormous. I don’t have to live in cognitive dissonance; my work expresses my values as well as my interests.

  16. Jen
    at 5:53 pm on August 5, 2012

    Unless you really love teenagers, enjoy spending a lot of time with them and also like lesson planning and adore teaching, then this is just bad advice.

    Teaching isn’t for everyone, and students deserve someone who is in it for the right reasons. Merely liking literature and writing doesn’t cut it. You have to have a real thirst for teaching to put up with everything high school students will put you through.

    No amount of boring and useless education classes required for teaching certificates prepare you for the discipline issues you’ll face. Take it from someone who tried it and quit in debt from the education classes. It’s really easy to get a teaching certificate. I thought so anyway. Whether you should have one is a whole other question.

    And I had zero time and energy for writing. Do something else, anything else. That is, unless you love teaching. You know if you do. Be honest.

  17. Newsday Tuesday « Books and Bowel Movements
    at 2:12 pm on August 7, 2012

    [...] Have an MFA? Teach High School @ The Millions [...]

  18. Barnstorm | Wednesday Linkstorm
    at 10:55 am on August 8, 2012

    [...] Millions makes the case for using your MFA to teach high school. Or we could all bang our wrists together until we pass [...]

  19. Susan L
    at 1:26 pm on August 9, 2012

    Beautiful piece, Nick. and good comment discussion, but it just confirms that teaching experience can be so very different, depending on the school culture, the student population, and CLASS SIZE. I am a publishing poet, have taught at a university as a full time instructor with low salary but job security (pre-MFA) Then 15 years ago switched to a private high school, teaching AP Lit and creative writing. Very hard transition, but worth it. My school A. dramatically increased my salary over time B. paid for my MFA degree, which fed both my writing life and my teaching, C. gives me huge academic freedom and summer off with pay. I have been adjuncting at local college and universities the whole time, but this year I declared my independence from the moonlighting stress to focus more on my bright, deserving HS kids. My students and I are launching an online arts journal this year, with the full support of admin and colleagues. (anybody done that? ideas?) Yes, HS teaching can be exhausting, but it gives as good as it gets in the energy department. I am actually looking forward to starting yet another year.

  20. Elissa Field
    at 3:29 pm on August 10, 2012

    I’ve come across this article twice now, and absolutely applaud the writer for adding the suggestion of secondary teaching, as a path in addition to college options. I do, however, second the cautions offered by Llewellyn & Brinkman. I am working on my phone, which makes it hard to type or proof, but will do my best to sharey experience, in case it is helpful.

    I came to teaching after having worked in law (from temp jobs, to paralegal, to assistant to a judge) for years. I had also worked as a freelance writer for businessed, in between jobs or as extra work. In my last role with the courts, I’d been rehired as a PT training manager, writing their newsletters, annual reports, press releases, etc. The economy changed (eliminating my court job) at the same time my schedule became less flexible, with two tiny sons at home. Iwanted constant income to pay my mortgage and support my sons, so avoided going back to freelance (which is great work, with constant clients, but was inconsistent at that point). I had a natural urge to teach, was fascinated by child development, etc, so was drawn to make the switch to teaching. I volunteered
    near-daily at a school, subbed, and began the certification process — with “promise” of “ave salaries of $50k” once I got hired. I have been very successful, starting my third year as a classroom teacher this week; I teach at a fabulous school and love my job. BUT…

    There is *nothing* easy about getting or having a teaching job. For one, I have NEVER had to work so hard to get hired for a job I was qualified for. After 1 year subbing (subsidized with unemployment to top out at $14k that yr), I was hired for a PT position. I currently have a great role, teaching 6th, 7th & 8th grade Writing, and running the litmag — but that income is well below $20k, well below the part time wages I had for my last office job, and I have nobetter been hired FT in my certified areas. In my last office job, I worked 20 hrs a week, mostly from home — and when the work was done, my mind was free. Teaching is not that kind of job. I’m paid to be there from 12-3:30, but I spend hours before and after that planning and grading – not to mention staying after to give extra help, or hours spent on professional development. And, going into my 4th year with the same school – where I had an “in” (I’d volunteered there, my kids go there, they admired my skills, I got ready interviews and did my practice teaching as a sub), I am still struggling to get into a full time position. I took 2 years (& $5kin course costs and cert exam fees) to earn certification in social studies and English; 3 times now we have had openings in those areas, but they have gone to existing teachers whose schedules were changing, while I was retained PT. It works for me – there is enough flexibility to my schedule to be valuable to me, and I can take on freelance, tutoring or sub hours to earn more… but it is not an easy solution. It’s worth noting that an MFA is not a secondary teaching degree – even as a Writing teacher, my school would not seek a candidate with that degree; they consider it study done for yourself, not professional ed for teaching. (Worth noting: that’s for good reason – teaching adolescents and young adults involves understanding of brain development, learning theory, differentiation etc – WAY more than grammar, lit and writing style).

    I do love the experience I’ve had teaching (and parenting) both of which have exposed me to insights and awakened ideas I would not have otherwise had. I love the intensity of the classroom, the creativity of it. As a writing teacher, I am glad to be working in my field — but as others have noted, teaching is too often suggested as an easy fallback, which it is not. I have drafts written for 2 novels, but the intensity of the school year offers tiny windows of free brain-time, not the long stretches of time to effectively work on a novel. I’ve written, revised and submitted short stories, written blogs, done novel research or short scene drafts during the year, but have to budget to use summer to work on novels. It’s not impossible — I’m excited at how much I get done, and the intensity of a teacher’s pace probably leaves me less afraid of hard work, but no question, hands down, I had more money, more time and a freer mind for writing when I worked for the courts.

    This writer is so right to have suggested high school as another option, as many MFA grads really would enjoy the job and the environment. But I think it’s important to approach teaching with eyes open to what a demanding career it is. If you are energized by the environment, it could be an inspiring fit. But do not expect it to be easy to enter, or a quiet sideline to your real passions. It will take more from you than that.

  21. Benjamin
    at 6:33 pm on September 8, 2012

    What about a PhD? I got an MFA, then the PhD so I could prolong the inevitable. You think it’s rough on the job market with an MFA? It’s just as bad with a PhD. But I had no illusions–for me, the MFA was time to write and learn, as was the PhD. I’m an adjunct, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with teaching part time, and wanting to teach in college as contingent faculty. The issue is pay–if you have a PhD you get paid the same as a TA. You might have taught 40 classes at every level, have books, have top journal pubs, but you get paid the same as a TA. I can do without benefits (for now), but it’s the pay. This doesn’t mean I want to teach high school for job security, but it does mean all adjuncts need to find a way to step up now, and also inform parents about what they’re paying for. Last year, when a student found out I was an adjunct, they felt screwed. They still said they learned a lot, but seemed cheated in some way. I told them to tell their parents. Tell the college.

  22. California District CPUSA – Northern Region » Part-time faculty pay reaching poverty level
    at 1:57 pm on September 22, 2012

    [...] The political will must also be found to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations, who benefit from the presence of public universities and a well-educated labor force. Full time and part time teaching staff must forge organized and unified fight-backs, to press universities to benefit the teaching staff who attract students to the school. Resisting the privatization of our public resources will also help reverse the trend of making education jobs poverty-level. [...]

  23. Part-time faculty pay reaching poverty level 09/21/2012
    at 12:32 am on October 1, 2012

    [...] The political will must also be found to raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations, who benefit from the presence of public universities and a well-educated labor force. Full time and part time teaching staff must forge organized and unified fight-backs, to press universities to benefit the teaching staff who attract students to the school. Resisting the privatization of our public resources will also help reverse the trend of making education jobs poverty-level. [...]

  24. Anastacia Golembiewski
    at 4:48 pm on December 2, 2012

    As someone considering an MFA, I’d thank to thank you for this article and everyone for their comments. There is not that much discussion in colleges about what happens after graduating with a Bachelors degree in the humanities. I find that surprising, considering that I was sold on college because it is supposed to increase job opportunities. As a student, my creative writing professors have been of great inspiration to me but I feel as if they do leave you on your own as to what to do with what they teach you after their class is over.
    If writing classes are meant to help people get excited about writing, than god bless them. If writing classes are supposed to create a career path, than I’m not so sure about them.

  25. Tyler
    at 5:20 pm on December 6, 2012

    Hey Patrick Murtha,

    If by some minute chance you happen to read this, would you please email me? I’d appreciate it tremendously, thank you.

    tyler.bradley1187 at gmail

  26. Danielle
    at 10:23 am on March 23, 2013

    Hi! Thanks for writing this. It was actually exactly what I had been looking for…

    I’m interested in teaching special-ed (mentally handicapped students). I have my Master’s in Fiction writing..Can you tell me what else I would need to get my Special Ed degree and how long it would take to get it ? I want to teach in California.

    Thank You :)

  27. Ellie
    at 6:58 pm on June 27, 2013

    Problem with this advice. HS English jobs are very, very few in numbers. Very common certification. You’ll literally be competing with hundreds of people for each job.

  28. Do, Don’t Complain: An Interview with Nick Ripatrazone | MFA Day Job
    at 2:35 pm on July 25, 2013

    [...] a regular contributor to HTMLGIANT, Colorado Review, Iowa Review, The Rumpus, The Millions, and conduct weekly interviews at my Catholic literature site, The Fine Delight. It only feels [...]

  29. Josh
    at 8:50 pm on August 13, 2013

    Start your own business, slaves. I did, and 1 year after graduating from my MFA program I’m making 3x more than I ever have and hopefully soon will have the money and freedom to do what I like with my time.

    Teaching high school? What this post is basically about is: how to make money. And if you’re a person with half a brain there are a million better ways to do it.

    I taught school in Harlem, and let me tell you it was no walk in the park! …Or maybe it was a walk in the park, if you get mugged during that walk!

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