Not About the Money

I’m getting my Ph.D. I’ll graduate in December. I was lucky and was offered a job in my career of choice this past January, even though I have not graduated yet. That job is a public high school biology teacher.

When people learn that I’m finishing my Ph.D. while working as a high school teacher, I get two main questions:

  1. “So, what are you going to do when you graduate?”
  2. “Don’t you know you can make a lot more money teaching college?”

These questions have been bothering me, and I’ve been trying to place why. I think I’ve figured out some of it…

As a whole these questions bother me because they often come from those who are teachers. It seems to me that educators should quickly be able to see the value of an educated teacher in the classroom. It also seems that they might understand the drive to pursue more education, since many of the teachers I know have at least a Masters degree. So, I guess I just don’t know where this question is coming from when it comes from other teachers, and I find it confusing.

More specifically, the first question bothers me because it seems to hint at the idea that a high school, or other K-12, teaching job is beneath someone with a Ph.D. My thought on this is: shouldn’t that be the standard for anyone who is teaching in an education setting? Shouldn’t we expect teachers in our classrooms to be experts in their fields? I think most people would hypothetically say “yes” to these questions, but the reality is that we don’t have those expectations.

I want to be clear that I am not poo-pooing anyone with a Bachelor’s degree in their field. You can be an excellent teacher without a graduate education. On the other hand, I know some highly educated people who made really crappy teachers. Content knowledge doesn’t necessarily make a good teacher…

I do understand that a K-12 teaching job is not what most people dream of when they pursue their Ph.D., while some do! I was one of the former when I entered my doctoral program. I thought I wanted to teach at the college level, and I needed a Ph.D. to do that. But as I progressed through my program, I got a better picture of what it looked like to be a college professor. I saw the lecture-style education paradigm. I saw the distance between the professors and the students with class sizes of 200. I saw the time spent on writing grants for nearly everything you wanted to do. While I had many excellent college professors, the more I learned about what it looked like to be a college professor the less I wanted to be one.

Many of my peers feel the same way. Though they may not be looking for K-12 jobs, they are looking outside of collegiate academia for some of the reasons I mentioned.

I learned I loved teaching when I worked as a Teaching Assistant for the first time during my Masters degree. I began to realize the environment that would be best for me and my interests was in a 9-12 setting as I progressed through my Ph.D. program. It took me working through my respective graduate programs for me to discover my path.

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Which brings me to the second question I’ve been getting from people: “Don’t I know I could make more money teaching college?”

Considering I’ve spent nearly 8 years of my life in graduate school, why, yes. Yes, I do know that. I could also make more money being a biologist for an oil company. Or perhaps stripping. There are a lot of things I could do that would allow me to make more money than being a high school biology teacher. But you know what? Those things wouldn’t feed my soul. I’ve only been teaching high school for 5 months, and I can already feel I’m in the right place. Despite the politics, the hierarchy, the bureaucracy, the bad attitudes from many of the students I already feel like I’ve made a difference for some kids. I know that I will continue to make a difference.

Do college teachers make a difference? Absolutely. I could give you name after name of college professors who have helped me get to the place I am today. But that atmosphere is not the one I would thrive in, at least at this point in my life. And, in addition to that list of college professors, I would have a longer one of K-12 teachers who made a difference in my life.

“Do I know I’d make more money?”

Yes! And it isn’t about the money!!

Granted, I always want to be able to pay my rent and keep my fridge filled.

At the age of 34 or 35, I finally started figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up. What a frickin’ relief!!! I got offered my dream job before I was even looking for a job (talk about the universe conspiring for me). I am finally living a life that feeds my soul. Just because I don’t make as much money as many college professors (There are many college professors that make less than I do.), does not mean that it is a less valuable job. The one is as important as the other.

The only reason I thought I wanted to be a college professor was that I thought I would love it. It would be a good gig, but it’s not what I wanted. I love teaching. I love working closely with the kids. I love helping them work through life issues as well as teaching them about biology. Some of these things I can’t get in a college environment.

It’s not about the money. It’s about happiness. And that looks differently for everyone.

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