Jake Shechter Reflects on Job Searching

Jake Shechter
Jake Shechter

Jake Shechter was instrumental in developing the Physics 691G course and will finish his Ph.D. this summer.

As such, he was on the job market this past spring (pre-COVID-19). He was looking for a teaching position, either high school or higher-ed.

Below are his reflections on the job search. Hopefully, this will be helpful to others looking to begin the process in the near future

Overview

What the job search process is like.

There are phases to the job search, they are: Applying (diversity statement, teaching statement, cover letter, CV), interviewing (phone or person), secondary interviews, on-campus visit with teaching demo, maybe another interview with upper administration, negotiating an offer, and finally choosing where you’ll go.

I accepted a job at a private boarding school, so most of this information is in that realm. The company Carney Sandoe and Associates is amazing. You upload your application materials and they match you with schools. You have a hiring contact that helps you with everything. This person was in charge of placing all physics teachers, so she knew what schools were looking to hire. I gave her a geographical location range and she set up interviews at the hiring conference. Attending the hiring conference (Feb 14, Boston) was crucial. Having gone to a small private school for high school I think was beneficial, because it gives me some background into what the schools are like, what the culture is like, values, etc.

I applied to a handful of universities. I did one phone interview, and they offered me to come visit. They offered a hotel room and flight cost out there, but the schools I visited were within driving distance

Applications

The application timeline varies A LOT. Some universities asked for application packets as soon as December 15. Private schools were looking mid February, with secondary interviews and on-campus visits late February to mid March. Public schools start looking after the (high school) academic year, so around June-July (I think). I wrote a general diversity statement, teaching statement, cover letter, and CV, but also left a paragraph in the cover letter to address school specific points. I updated this teaching portfolio between each application deadline

Interviewing

Interviewing was scary at first but it was less intimidating after the first. I know how I teach and how I use class time, so that was easy to talk about. It was definitely good for me to take some time before interviews to remind myself on all the little things that make the class work: Think-pair-share voting questions, whiteboard teamwork, demos, labs, TAs, asking a student to explain things, as-you-are-coming-in, annotated notes, YouTube clips, etc. Having specific examples is important. I printed 1 day of slide from each unit that had a mix of whiteboard and voting card problems. I didn’t use them, but I felt better knowing they were there. Specific examples of how you promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the class as well as ways to get students to participate were big.

Typically, the interviewer was the head of the upper school, dean of faculty, or head of science department. Some schools had multiple people at the hiring conference that were diversity-equity-inclusion (DEI) specialists or Deans of student life.

Some common questions I got

  • Why do you want to teach?
    • When I mentioned my high school teacher was inspiring, a few asked if I’m still in touch with them. Being able to say “yes” to that would be really impressive, I think
  • You have a PhD, why high school?
  • What does a typical class of yours look like, with specific examples of how you:
    • Engage students
    • Promote diversity, equity, and inclusion

It is a little bit of a red flag if they don’t ask about those things.

Some questions I asked (during the interview)

  • How involved in extra curricular are faculty? (this is to bait them into saying if it’s required or not and if so to what extent)
  • What is the faculty culture like?
  • What LMS do you use? (some red flags were that they don’t, or that it’s not consistent in the school)
  • Will I be asked to teach outside physics?
  • What professional development support does your school offer?
    • Most schools offer support to attend workshops or conferences during the summer months. A few commented that there’s more support for newer faculty, but as you’ve been there longer then you might not need to go as much.
  • What makes your school unique
    • I think that weak answers include “strong students”, “athletic”, “involved on campus”
    • Strong answers involve specific programs the school does (visiting speakers, senior projects, student exchange, diverse students)
    • Moderate answer: makerspace, new facilities (if you’ll be using them), focuses on preparing students for life instead of college.
  • When in your curriculum do students take physics? Some schools offer it to freshman and then AP to juniors/seniors. Some schools only offer it to juniors and AP to seniors. Some schools that have students join in the middle of upper school offer both physics at 9, 11, and AP at 12.
  • What support is there for developing new elective courses?
    • One school basically said “no” because they only offer courses that the AP college board approves. That didn’t sound good to me.
  • What does advising students look like at your school (do you get them for all 4 years, does it change every year, etc)

A great question to ask for the 2021 AY is how their school managed the Covid19 virus.

Robotics and “science teacher” vs. “physics teacher”

A LOT of high schools were looking for someone with robotics experience. Some high schools were looking for a physics and something else teacher. Some were looking for physics only. That’s something that you should get an answer to very clearly. I actually specifically negotiated “science teacher” to “physics teacher” in my contract.

Visiting schools

When you’re visiting a school, try to notice how the faculty interact with the students, students with each other, and faculty with each other. Obviously they know you’re there, so be observant of the periphery and background. For example, a white gay couple with their black adoptive daughter passed us in the hall. That tells you about the values of the school. They were also really ahead of the curve when it came to managing the coronavirus. They had students stay on campus instead of going home for spring break (last week of February) and transitioned to online distance learning.

Every boarding school I talked to was also partially a day school. Ratio of boarding/day varied from 40-60 to 80-20. Most, but not all, boarding schools are “triple threat” meaning that you have responsibilities of teaching, coaching, and “dorm parenting”. The load of coaching seems to be 2 out of 3 sports seasons. Dorm parenting is 1 weeknight (Sunday-Thursday) a week and 1 weekend (Friday-Saturday) a month or so. Boarding schools offer housing and food in addition to a salary, which is awesome! Summer months and school breaks have the cafeteria closed, so you have to cook normally.

 “On campus” housing varies from apartments in the dorms, which are about the size of 3-4 dorm rooms that had their adjoining walls made into doorways (private bathroom and kitchen) to houses that are adjacent to campus. Some are broken into apartments; some are whole houses. Housing needs are assigned based on family size and, it sounds like, seniority.

Teaching load is at most 3 preps a semester. They said they’d try to give me 2 preps my first year. Boarding schools often, but not always, have a half day on Wednesdays so that they can have sporting events Wednesday evening. Many of their league schools are far drives away. One school had a half day of classes on Saturday to compensate, but I think it was only one out of five. Regardless of if there are classes on Saturday, they also have sport games on Saturdays.

High schools also have very strange weekly schedules. Typically it rotates such that any class is not at the same time every day of the week. Also, class periods may not all be the same length. At the school I selected, each class meets 4 times a week; once for 65 minutes, three times for 45 minutes, for a total 200 minutes a week.

Selecting schools

Some good questions to ask during your visit. I have bolded some really good ones.

  • Does the faculty have a generally positive working relationship with the administration?
  • How involved is the principal/Head of School in daily operations?
  • What is faculty turnover like?
  • How many hours a week outside of school do you spend working?
  • How much money do you spend on supplies for your own classroom?
  • If you want to attend a conference or other PD, will the school help finance it?
  • What are the most important/visible elements of the student culture?
  • What is the best thing about the student body as a whole?  The worst thing?
  • Roughly what percentage of the faculty supplement their salaries with tutoring, coaching, or other outside income?
  • Do you have to submit daily, weekly, or quarterly lesson plans?
  • Ask to see the faculty lounge
  • It is important to know who is responsible for making different decisions.  Find out who at the school is in charge of/who handles:
    • Contract and hiring decisions
    • Faculty performance reviews
    • Benefits and questions related thereto
    • Curriculum
    • Course assignments
    • Student life
    • Student discipline
    • Sports
    • Health, including mental health, for students AND faculty
    • Performing arts

Negotiating

I went to a workshop hosted by the Office of Professional Development on campus about negotiating and would recommend it to everyone who is about to be looking for a job. They were early in the Fall semester, which is a little early for high school positions but good for university positions. The things I got from negotiating were: raising salary from $42k to $43k, $1500 of moving expenses, and changing “science teacher” to “physics teacher” because I really did not want to be surprised with a biology, chemistry, or math assignment.

Random thought

For every AP class there is a summer assignment, which is some reading and practice problems. The school I selected asked for the summer assignment and book for the class by June 5. They told me on June 2nd, so I didn’t have much time to explore options.