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I can surmise that some of them mightn't have gotten tenure and needed to find another job, but wouldn't these former professors be bored teaching the same (relatively basal) material yearly?

Let me know of other examples, but I was riffling some fee-paying schools and lighted upon:

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    Sweet Briar College almost closed a few years ago and is still in dire financial circumstances. chronicle.com/article/After-All-but-Closing-Sweet/241100 – Ellen Spertus Jun 19 at 2:53
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    be bored teaching the same (relatively basal) material yearly --- My experience was entirely the opposite of this. After many years (during graduate school, then a few years after my Ph.D.) of teaching college algebra, precalculus, trigonometry, and mathematics appreciation courses (only a couple of first semester calculus courses, and nothing more advanced), I taught several years at a state-wide "magnet" boarding high school in which I got to teach several levels of calculus each semester, differential equations each year, (continued) – Dave L Renfro Jun 19 at 7:14
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    and topics in precalculus courses that I wouldn't have touched when teaching college students (because the HS students were so much more talented and capable). Three or four of the students I taught at that HS were more mathematically talented than anyone I would likely have seen in a lifetime of teaching at most any (U.S.) state regional public college or mid-ranked private college. Back in 2009, out of curiosity I googled a bit to see how many Ph.D. mathematicians I could find currently teaching high school in the U.S. I found 15 of them (not including me, as I taught HS in the 1990s). – Dave L Renfro Jun 19 at 7:22
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    Your examples are kind of a mess, and don't seem to demonstrate what you are talking about. Budding: your info doesn't show that she ever was a professor at Harvard or anywhere else. Gomprecht: your info could just mean that he got a postdoc, but never got a professorship. Naaman: it 's not clear whether she was tenure-track. – Ben Crowell Jun 19 at 23:42
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    What possibly made you think it was OK to randomly select these individuals and post their details along with their names, just to bolster your question? I think we could all assume that you aren't making things up. Can't the examples be anonymised, at no cost to your question? – Michael MacAskill Jun 20 at 23:47

13 Answers 13

161

I have done this so perhaps can answer your question. I was a tenured full professor of physics at a state university but currently teach high school.

There are several reasons I chose to do this.

  • Most importantly, I love teaching and am great at it, while I dislike the constant drudgery of research and will not be winning any Nobel Prizes. I never have to hit my head against the wall of grant competitions or peer review.
  • There came a time when I needed to solve the Two-Body Problem and the high school option made me far more mobile.
  • I get more time for myself. Classes generally require only about 5 minutes of prep time each, if that. The time between periods is sufficient. Grading takes less than 10% of the time it took at college because of the level of study and can often all be done in class while students are taking a quiz or test. When school is out, I go home and forget about work. There is no constant e-mailing from students wanting help and extensions.
  • My interactions with high school students are closer and more positive than those with most of my college students. I never learned most of my college students' names. In high school, I have a relationship with every student.

The down sides are minor. The pay kind of stinks compared to what I used to make, but the free time makes up for that. I sometimes have to loop in the Headmistress when making grade decisions that involve teacher's discretion, which grates on my sense of academic freedom. But I think I can deal.

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    What kind of genius are you that requires only about 5 minutes of prep time for each class? – user4052054 Jun 19 at 14:36
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    Ya sure? I mean, of course the material is easier, but you also have to direct that super-easy material to kids' minds, and make the class last the correct time. I don't think that teaching high school is much easier than, say, calculus. – user4052054 Jun 19 at 19:05
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    @Nobody Respectfully, you’re probably wrong. A teacher’s preparation isn’t usually visible but “effortless” lessons usually take a ton of preparation. In fact, both students and parents substantially underestimate how much work lesson preparation is. I’ve done enough teaching (and gotten good feedback), that I’m quite confident in this assessment. Conversely, I know of teachers who think they can give great lessons without preparation. They … don’t. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 19 at 20:13
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    To be fair, I can imagine that the prep for a class might be very short when you've given it every year for the last ten years. It's not the same as the first time. – Flyto Jun 19 at 21:55
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    @Nelson If you think that a high level understanding of the subject itself means teaching at high school is a breeze, then I don't think you have understood teaching. For instance, I think that teaching fractions to middle schoolers (a subject I have some expertise in with a masters degree in algebra) sounds more difficult than teaching basically anything at a high school level. Teaching something like introductory general topology or commutative algebra to graduate students would be a breeze; I think I could do a decent job at that with 5 mins prep time. – Arthur Jun 20 at 10:43
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I suspect the answer is they don't, at least not with the frequency your examples would suggest. Let's look at your examples.

....Ph.D., Harvard University 1998....

This does not mean that this person was a professor. This means they earned a PhD. A PhD qualifies one to do research; it does not give them a permanent position. If they cannot find a permanent position, or are not interested in continuing in research, they will have to make other plans.

... After working as a research mathematician for a few years ...

This person was probably not a tenured professor either. A "research mathematician" is a bit vague, but I suspect it is a post-doc position, or perhaps a non-tenured faculty-level position. Either way, when the temporary position expires, they will need to find a job.

Former Associate Professor of Classics, Sweet Briar College

So this one definitely has "professor" in the title, and this person probably has tenure too. However, "professor" is an overloaded term -- I suspect your question refers to professors at major research institutions who do research and publish and teach college classes and advise graduate students. In contrast, this person was a professor at Sweet Briar College, which has about 300 undergraduates, no grad students, and no mention of mathematical research on their website (that I could find) at all. So being a professor here is not all that dissimilar from being a high school teacher, and is quite different from being a professor at a major research institution.

As others have noted, Sweet Briar College has had severe financial and other problems recently; this could explain this particular decision.

...Asst. Professor of Arabic, Williams College (7 yrs 1 mon)

Assistant professors are generally not tenured, and 7 years is usually the longest one can postpone a tenure decision. I'm not sure what happened here, but I'm guessing that tenure was denied.

So, I would challenge your premise: you have not provided any examples of tenured professors at major research institutions who left their position to teach high school. I suspect this happens very rarely, and when it does happen, it's for highly personalized reasons.

You also ask:

wouldn't these [PhD mathematicians] be bored teaching the same (relatively basal) material yearly

Well, maybe, but if you don't become a professor you have to do something. Personally, I find "the assumption that you would not want to be a high-school teacher if you could be a professor [to be] a bit belittling" (to quote @Jeffrey). Some people probably enjoy teaching and working with younger students; others just need a job and prefer the familiarity of the classroom to the unknown of industry.

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    The assumption that you would not want to be a high-school teacher if you could be a professor is a bit belittling. – Jeffrey Jun 19 at 13:15
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    "Research mathematician" doesn't necessarily imply an academic position. – chepner Jun 19 at 13:20
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    Your assertion is clearly false, as other answers have shown. It's also a bizarre assertion on its face. People do all sorts of things, including changing types of jobs. I'm not sure why this answer has received upvotes. – Ben I. Jun 19 at 13:33
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    Did you read the entire answer, or just the first sentence? My answer clearly states that while this does happen rarely (see A Dave's excellent answer), it is very rare, and the trend that OP noticed was clearly due to not understanding the academic career path. – cag51 Jun 19 at 14:09
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    Concerning Dr. Gomprecht: Sweet Briar College nearly closed in 2015, with most faculty receiving termination notices at that time. Due to legal action, the college didn't close after all, and most faculty were offered their positions back; but there was also a radical academic restructuring at the time, and I can completely understand a professor jumping ship for a more stable job around that time. – Michael Seifert Jun 19 at 15:11
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Implicit in your question is the idea that it is "better" to be a professor than to teach at high school. If this weren't the case, then it's not surprising that some people would choose to teach at high school instead of be a professor. This assumption isn't necessarily true. It might be for you, and it might be "obviously" true for some people, but it's not true in general.

There've been a variety of essays by people who've left academia on the reasons they did it. Here are some examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. You can Google for a lot more (search for "why I left academia" or "why I quit my professorship"). Common reasons cited for doing so include:

  • Dismal academic job market
  • Constant competition for (too little and decreasing) funding
  • Low pay
  • Lack of permanent contracts
  • Constant demand to be "available"

For example here's a paragraph from (5) above:

In fact, scientific life was proving tough. [Young researcher] found himself working 60–80 hours per week doing teaching and research. His start-up funding had run out, he had yet to secure a major grant and, according to a practice common in US academia, he would not be paid by his university for three summer months. His wife had not been able to move with him, so he was making tiring weekend commutes. It seemed that the pressures had reached unsustainable levels. Something had to give.

Many of these problems are not present when you teach at high school. You might earn less, but you also work less, so it's not fatal. You have job security. You have well-defined office hours. You won't be receiving emails from students begging for help in the middle of the night. You don't have to worry about what happens if your next grant fails to come through.

At this point you might as well flip the question around: why aren't more professors with PhDs leaving their professorships to teach high school? I'm not making a statement here that it's better to teach high school compared to being a professor; I'm just saying that it's conceivable that reasonable people will choose the latter over the former. Society might consider the former as more prestigious, but that doesn't mean it's "better".

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    Actually, maybe you don't work "less". But you work different. – Buffy Jun 19 at 13:29
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    @Buffy The young researcher in the quote worked 60-80 hours a week. I might be wrong, but I'd be surprised if high school teachers don't work less. – Allure Jun 19 at 13:33
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    Actually, I have counterexamples. And note that some high schools have higher academic standards than some colleges. Generally, though, we need to better reward pre college teachers at all levels. – Buffy Jun 19 at 13:35
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    @Allure I have worked as a secondary (high) school teacher in the UK and I can tell you it is not at all unusual to work those sorts of hours during term time, but there is some degree of compensation when the holidays come around. – user2390246 Jun 19 at 15:57
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    At least in the US teachers don't get paid for the summer either. Just like professors they are able to make additional money. I think people are very unrealistic about how much time teaching takes, just to start they are in school usually from 8:30 to 3:30 and teaching a lot more things and expected to grade homework and do class preparation after hours. – Elin Jun 19 at 19:39
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Because not everybody wants to do research their whole life, and because being a high school teacher is a fairly fulfilling job for many people.

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    Edited to remove ad-hominem attack. Please keep things civil. – eykanal Jun 19 at 2:43
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    +1 because it’s the only answer which focuses on something besides pay and prestige. – Michael Jun 19 at 10:35
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Some reasons might be:

  • Didn't get tenure
  • Better pay
  • Prefer to be a big fish in a small pond
  • Don't enjoy research
  • Never got a tenure track position (e.g. research mathematician)
  • Wanted to be in a certain city
  • College potentially shutting down (e.g. Sweet Briar)

In some disciplines, such as physics or classics, the number of tenure track positions is very low and many people never go into either tenure track or "teaching professor" roles.

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    RE the last point, my roommate at university wound up as a (tenured) professor at a school that folded. It took him 2 years (!!!) to find another professorship. Sometimes the dice just don't roll your way. – Jared Smith Jun 19 at 13:08
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    I have a feeling that Trinity (elite and very wealthy school in Manhattan) probably is a lot more enjoyable to teach at and better paying than Sweet Briar even with the pressure of the world of private schools in Manhattan. According to Wikipedia "Trinity is also notable for having a full Classics department, which is widely recognized as one of the strongest in the nation. Nearly 40% of the student body takes either Latin or Greek." With its $40 million endowment no worries about closing anytime soon. – Elin Jun 19 at 19:51
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    "Wanted to be in a certain city" is a good one. Most people in the academic job market take what they can get, which usually means having no choice in where they live and living far from family. – WaterMolecule Jun 21 at 8:38
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    Probably additional point for your list: "Don't want their job to define their life." – Weckar E. Jun 21 at 20:41
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I really don't understand why you find this all that mysterious. Some people with PhDs end out focusing on teaching, for whatever reason, and sometimes for them the best teaching option is at the high school level.

Some people from your list teach at the Dalton School. According to Wikipedia, "The Dalton School, originally the Children's University School, is a private, coeducational college preparatory school on New York City's Upper East Side and a member of both the Ivy Preparatory School League and the New York Interschool." Suppose you had to choose between teaching there and teaching lower level college math to classes of 100+ engineering students primarily concerned with their grades, and who mainly have little to no interest in the course material. (Yes, a lot of college math teaching is like that unfortunately.) Why is it so shocking that someone who is dedicated to teaching might prefer to teach at the Dalton School?

You ask "wouldn't these former professors be bored teaching the same (relatively basal) material yearly?" Guess what, most college teaching is the same way. The exception would be graduate-level teaching, but jobs with a lot of such teaching are hard to get, and usually go to people who have a substantial research focus. The ones who don't do a lot of research are mainly going to be teaching the lower level courses regardless.

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    I'd like to add a footnote to your last paragraph: Sometimes it's not about the material you teach, sometimes it's about the lives you impact. – J.R. Jun 19 at 18:23
  • @J.R. I've never taught professionally (well, at a school), but there's definitely loads of material that's taught on high schools that plenty of adults don't get and their lives would be far improved by a better understanding. Things like how fractions and percentages work. The impact of understanding e.g. that 2% growth is still exponential and unsustainable is quite eye opening, but something most people still don't get, and it doesn't require anything beyond high school level knowledge. Or that a 20% flat tax does mean high-income people pay more taxes, all else equal. – Luaan Jun 21 at 7:29
5

The three schools in the four examples you've given are widely considered to be in the top ten private schools in the United States. The academic standards at many top private high schools are much higher than you find at small colleges around here. My wife taught at a small directional state university and then followed that with one of the top private schools in NYC and has been much happier with the quality of the students she has here. She teaches college material (biology & chemistry) to students four or five years younger and not only do they grasp it better, but they try harder.

Plus, well, top private schools pay more than small universities.

4

I went to high school in Canada. It was a regular high school, not particularly prestigious but not known to be a terrible school either. Couldn't get any more "average" than that in my neighborhood.

I mention this because some answers have said that teaching in some private schools can be as prestigious as in a University. I was not at one of those schools, and one of the religion teachers had a PhD in theology.

Theology might not be the "typical" PhD, maybe there's not as many avenues for careers in research, but his rationale behind teaching in high school rather than doing something else was to pass on his passion to people who may not have been exposed to the subject yet (or at least not properly or in deep detail).

This rationale applies for other fields too, few PhDs get to introduce their fields to people who are truly new to it. For example, a physics undergrad student (and even more so for grad students) should already be at least somewhat knowledgeable of what physics is and be generally interested in the field as a whole.

Someone who has a passion for teaching might find it more enjoyable to introduce new people to their fields than to help advance the people who are already in it, regardless of their own degree of education.

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    And as a sidenote, he was the best religion teacher I ever had, he analysed the Bible instead of blindly preaching its contents. – Alexandre Aubrey Jun 20 at 18:14
2

I agree with all the answers, including the skepticism that it is as common as OP thinks. But one more reason I didn’t see mentioned is the offensive actions of some administrations done for the sake of publicity and/or athletics.

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    Can you elaborate? E.g. with an example (that is public)? – Peter Mortensen Jun 20 at 4:09
  • I’m sure most of us are aware of many scandals regarding athletes. And it’s not just a new thing. Long ago, a college basketball player was discovered in bed with a female he shouldn’t have been with (back in the days when that was taboo). The president of the college gave a long speech about mercy and forgiveness, and he continued to play. Later that year, the art student that had built a hollow sculpture near the running track was expelled because some other people were caught smoking weed inside it. – WGroleau Jun 20 at 5:25
  • @WGroleau neither of those are examples of professors leaving their positions because of offensive actions of administrations. You made a good point that some may leave because of such actions, but it would be worth elaborating upon it. – Alexandre Aubrey Jun 20 at 20:28
  • He asked for a reason. That would certainly make me leave—or rather choose not to enter. – WGroleau Jun 20 at 23:47
1

There is huge workload being a professor. Lots of duties and stress. You are responsible for courses, research in your department, maybe applying for grants, writing papers, teaching, supervising PhD students and people writing their MSc thesis.

At some point in life it can simply become boring and too draining on health to keep working as professor.

Other things simply start becoming more important in life. Maybe wants to spend more time with family. Pass on knowledge to future generations. Write memoirs. Maybe start doing other things altogether. Compose music, travel, any hobby you could think of et.c.

0

I don't think they leave professorships unless it is for a job of 'higher academic standing'.

As an example, my son goes to a private secondary school in the UK, St Paul's School (SPS), which is known to be very academic and very well-endowed (they have a Scanning Electron Microscope, so it's much nicer than any 'high school' I've gone to). Several of his lecturers have PhDs, and some have lectured (i.e., assistant prof-ship, perhaps temporary, or postdoc-ed) at good Universities, such as Harvard and Cambridge. AFAIK, none of his lecturers have been tenured at universities. Note that at SPS, they should have relatively high pay compared to their secondary-school-teaching peers, and effective tenure. They can and do publish some academic research.

The High Master (equivalent of head-master) is a full professor of History at University of East Anglia. In becoming the high master, he had an effective promotion, housing provided, and I'm almost certain higher pay. He did take a leave from his professorship rather than to give it up altogether. He did continue to do research and for instance, has written a recent book together with some of the other History lecturers at SPS. This year, however, he is leaving his position at SPS having served something like 6 or 8 years. And, he will return to being a full-time professor, focusing on his research and teaching.

In other words, money and stability can be an incentive, but tenure at an established university is likely to trump all others. Temporary positions, career difficulties, all can drive people from pure academia to high schools.

Perhaps the most notable example of career difficulties (forced to resign from U of Minn because of post-war harassment by the House Un-American Activities Committee) is Frank Oppenheimer, former Professor, later High School Teacher, and founder of the Exploratorium (see Frank Oppenheimer (1912-1985). In that instance, Wyoming High School students were probably amongst the luckiest in the US.

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    "I don't think they leave professorships unless it is for a job of 'higher academic standing'." ... "Temporary positions, career difficulties, all can drive people from pure academia to high schools." Your answer seems built on a very narrow assumption that everyone is driven only by prestige and no one would move "downwards" unless they were forced to by some unfortunate circumstance. Have you considered that there may be reasons other than "academic standing" that may cause someone to change jobs? – dwizum Jun 19 at 16:47
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    This is absolutely a fair comment and my comment was unnecessarily strong. Some professors will opt for high schools. It is also true that some professors opt for colleges with little to no postgraduates and lots of teaching rather than the “prestigious” schools, at times because they actually enjoy teaching. I believe Oppenheimer, perhaps because of his high school teaching experience, learned to be an educator, wanting to drive change in education, something truly noble. – Nick Firoozye Jun 19 at 17:18
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    "and spent the next ten years as a cattle rancher in Pagosa Springs, Colorado". Whoa, way to prove that you're an American! – darij grinberg Jun 19 at 17:19
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    Or to prove you are “Not an Un-American.” – Nick Firoozye Jun 19 at 17:20
  • Congrats to your son! Sounds like a smart kid, at least smarter than I. You may be interested by academia.stackexchange.com/q/104193/13306? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Jun 19 at 23:35
0

Well, first of all some universities pay poorly. In my neck of the woods it is generally accepted that if you want to work at a UNI you are going to take a pay cut of at least 20 percent compared to what you would earn in the private sector. For some people this is worth it because the work they want to do they can only really do at the universities. For some people the pay cut is not worth it.

Also it is worth noting that some AP classes are in essence first year college modules, so if you find yourself in a High School with such a program you are not doing a curriculum all that different from a 1st year college tutor.

What is also a real bummer is the cutthroat way in which jobs are allocated. The politics and backstabbing nature of UNI's seems to be a real reason why some grow tired of it.

And lastly, some people are just natural-born teachers. Some don't get the amount of teaching kicks at UNI and yearn for more personal teaching environments. You should really not underestimate how hard it is to teach a 4th grader long division or how rewarding it is when you get a class of 4th graders to do it correctly.

It also seems to be a thing that in private high-schools because the parents have to sacrifice so much to get them in to the school they do tend to have better work ethics, not always but some of the time.

Teaching in such an environment where there is a thirst for knowledge, where you can often be better paid and have regular time of to spend with family and don't have much in the of Machiavellian antics, could seem to many a step up.

0

Labor exploitation at universities in some countries.

At the University the average salary per hour in the classroom for people under 40 years old can be about one half of what is paid to high school teachers (which in practice requieres highschool education instead of doc/postdoc as in the university)

Although the time for class preparation (unpaid in that countries) can be significant in both places, it is easier to safe the situation explaining highschool content, at worst you can be poorly clear. At college the chance that you get stucked in the blackboard are far much greater. For example, many times you have to be hours 3-5 solving problems smoothly in front of 50 students, and the next day (or lately the same day) doing the same in other completely different subject. Many times the positions are not in the ones specific areas of research. So you have to be about 40 hours a week explaining in front of students and almost the same amount of time studying in your free time. Notice that most of the time the positions are not for an specific subjet but for sets of subjects. When the year starts you have 4 or 5 subjects and the second half you may change some (or all) of them, and continues changing by 6; months periods. So the situation does not get solved with time.

The balance is that you can earn the same for real 20 hours a week in high school than for real 70 hours a week at university.

The election of reducing the number of hours at University is not an option because that high load is required for a salary close to the line of poverty.

I bet this is not the situation of the people that you put as example, but are reasons in other countries.

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