(This is a two part blog detailing the pros and cons of a life in education as a writer. The previous blog discusses some of the many reasons to pursue a career in education.)
While many industries seek strong writers, teaching continues to be the implied goal of an MFA grad. In many ways it seems cushy and comfortable and familiar, and a perfect fit for a writer. As a former middle and high school teacher and a current GTA, I have come to realize that a career in education is not nearly as cushy as I once thought. These are some of the things I’ve learned while being a teacher and a writer.
1. Time off is theoretical.
Although the idea of ending work at 3 PM as a secondary-school teacher, or having your first class at noon as an instructor, seems like it offers a daily stretch of four or five hours of uninterrupted writing time, that time is often used planning lessons, grading, running errands, and generally feeling exhausted. But education offers regular breaks and holidays! Yet those summer breaks can be eaten up quickly with conferences, professional development, family vacations, intersession courses, a part time job, and any number of other life events (say, a friend’s wedding out of state). While education offers more flexibility than an ordinary 9 to 5, it’s not by such an inordinate amount of time that you will be able to churn out books at the rate you might expect. Having your first class at 11 AM may let you sleep in, go for a run, and write for an hour before work, but it comes at the cost of knowing that you will be working nights and weekends. Teaching comes home with you. Depending on your own writing process, teaching might make it more difficult to write because there is always some sort of external work pressure that makes it easy to put writing on the back burner. I often found myself grading papers during the time I allotted for writing, which at times made me wish for a job with a regular schedule so that my writing-time was more clearly defined.
2. Work hours extend beyond the hours in a contract.
This point somewhat coincides with the previous point. The idea that you will only work when you are contractually obligated to work is sadly not the case with educators. As a K–12 teacher, the hours are something like 8–3. Community college teachers typically require a 9–5 workday. Instructors are expected to be on campus teaching and holding office hours only at scheduled times, which seems like it leaves vast stretches of time “off the clock.” The problem with all of these schedules is that there will almost always be a stack of papers to grade, literature to brush up on, and lessons to revise. Faculty, team, and mandatory professional development meetings will be held. Beyond the required, there’s pressure to volunteer time to participate in activities for the good of the school: events to chaperone, student readings to attend, clubs to advise, etc. I tended to show up about an hour early to brush up on material for the day, and at the end of the day I stuck around for an additional two to four hours grading, attending meetings, taking care of other duties, and volunteering for the school—most days instead of an eight hour shift, I put in ten to twelve hours. For a tenure-track position, the first five to six years on the job are about proving your worth to the university. This means not only teaching your normal load, which may or may not be in your chosen genre and may be entirely composition courses, but also means continuing to publish—not just individual publications but book publications. All while serving on numerous committees and filing reports. Regardless of what level of education, it is something closer to a 50–60+ hour work week.
3. Teaching doesn’t lead to piles of money.
Teacher salaries are well-documented. All it takes is a Google search to discover the average salary of a teacher or instructor in a state or institution. In addition to not being paid well, teachers are often expected to pay for many of their own materials. Over the years, I’ve spent several hundred dollars on dry erase markers, pens, and resource materials. Also, as far as job mobility, there is relatively little. In secondary education, you can qualify for tenure and expect a modest pay raise every year or so (barring budget cuts and layoffs that leave you happy you have a job even if you haven’t had a raise in four or more years). At the college level, there are several levels of professor, and with each new level comes a pay raise. However, there will undoubtedly come a point at which the only way to make more money is to move into administration. An inside joke in the program where I received my Master’s in Education was that the only people making money in education are the teachers that quit teaching to write a pedagogy book and are now on the lecture circuit.
4. It’s a relatively thankless job.
Without looking into the way that teachers are often portrayed by news pundits, there are other ways to feel underappreciated. First and foremost, some students see themselves at war with teachers. After going out of your way to offer a student an extension, after having a meeting with them to discuss their performance, after sending emails about their frequent absences, a student will still see you as the teacher that made them go to summer school or prevented them from graduating on time. At other times those extra hours you put in might feel expected and are no longer cherished and accompanied by multiple thank-yous. Even the personalized feedback on papers that took hours to write can go unnoticed as a student looks at the grade and then files it away. In my experience, the teachers that are often most highly regarded by students, faculty, and administration are the same educators that have the least boundaries between their professional and personal lives. For example, even something as benign as a teacher establishing up front that he or she does not check his or her work email after 5 can lead to a subpar student evaluation from a student that felt scorned for not receiving a reply to an 11:59 question. As a noble profession, educators are expected to make sacrifices.
5. The job market for creative writing and English instructors is rough.
One of the panels that I attended at AWP was the “Risks and Rewards of PhD programs.” According to the numbers given at that panel, there were roughly 300 English tenure track job openings at the university level in 2015. That year there were just over 900 new PhD graduates and however many thousands of MFA graduates all competing for those jobs. That doesn’t take into account the additional thousands of previous PhD and MFA graduates that have been quietly adjuncting, publishing, and building their CVs as they wait for job openings. In secondary education, English is not nearly in demand to the same extent as STEM. Often when a job opens in a more desirable location, rather than hire someone fresh off graduation, a veteran gets that job, which leaves a vacancy someone else takes, on and on, until there is an opening at a school with little to no prestige in an undesirable location. Of course applying in places with greater needs can improve the odds of getting a job. For middle and high school, that typically translates to impoverished inner-city districts. At the university level, that may mean small college towns where they have one creative writer on faculty teaching all genres. The fact of the matter is that any teacher that is unwilling or unable to move for a job must recognize that the odds suggest they will spend years adjuncting or substitute teaching (usually in conjunction with multiple part-time jobs) until there is an opening in a place they love.
Teachers often get burned out and quit after a few years because of some of the grim realities about the profession. A recent Orlando Sentinel article quoted 40% of new teachers leave the profession after five years. However, as mentioned in the previous blog, there are many, many reasons to pursue a career in education—regular breaks, working everyday with writers, and that incredible feeling of making a difference. Yet, teaching isn’t for everyone, but hopefully this pair of blogs help you know what to expect should you choose to pursue the difficult yet rewarding path as a teacher.
Brendan Stephens is a second year fiction student and GTA. Before the MFA he earned a Master’s in the Arts of Teaching from Frostburg State University and taught middle and high school English. He used to be a yearbook adviser, chess club adviser, environmental awareness club co-adviser, chaperone, morning traffic attendant, and bass player for the school musical. This is the faculty picture from his first year teaching.