Episode 3 with Dr. Neal Hebert, theater historian-turned-high school teacher – Off Campus: Humanities Scholars In Alt-Ac Careers
In this episode, I interviewed Dr. Neal Hebert, a theater historian-turned-high school teacher. We talk about the ups and downs of teaching, academy’s exploitation of adjunct labour, and what teachers are expected to do outside of the classroom.
Kino: [00:00:19] You’re listening to Off Campus, a podcast about humanity scholars in the alt-ac world. I’m your host, Dr. Kino Zhao. This is episode three, where I interviewed Dr. Neal Hebert, a theatre historian who currently works as a high school teacher. In this episode, we talk about the rewards and challenges in teaching, the Academy’s exploitation of adjunct labor, and what teachers are expected to do outside of the classroom.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:00:50] My name is Neal Hebert. I have a PhD in theatre history and my master’s degree is in philosophy and my undergrad degree is in directing and dramaturgy for the stage. So I’m a bit of an interdisciplinary scholar. I’m from Charenton, Louisiana, which is right next to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s about as far south as you can go and still be in Louisiana and the United States. It’s like literally right up on the Gulf. My parents, neither of them went to college. So I’m a first generation college student. I’m the only doctor in my extended family. And I think I’m the second master’s degree in the extended family.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:01:31] My area of research is philosophy of dance and analytic philosophy, specifically metaphysics, to explain and understand issues in the entertainment form of professional wrestling. So like the stuff you see on TV where people aren’t really fighting and it’s predetermined, that’s the type of wrestling I talk about. For my dissertation, I used a mixture of Theodore Adorno’s philosophy and the metaphysics that Noël Carroll posited for philosophy of mass art to answer a dilemma that was set up in my mentor’s, one of her first early papers in the seventies in the field of Philosophy of Dance.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:02:15] I got all my degrees from LSU, which was not the plan. I was supposed to get just my master’s degree from LSU, since it was in a different field than my undergrad. And in the middle of my master’s degree, my mom suffered a catastrophic stroke that left her paralyzed and half brain dead. My dad is also a disabled veteran and he kind of took on the full time caring of my mom. I tried to help. There were limits to what he could do. Because of that, I wasn’t really able to leave, so I planned on just after my master’s degree. I was working in sales and that was that. My master’s degree took me a little bit longer, just because of all the health stuff going on with my family and my own depression kind of coming to grips with that. So it took me about five years to get through my master’s and, at my defense, the outside reader was a professor from the theater department. She co-opted all of the other members of the committee to force me to apply to their PhD program. She had told me there had been concerns that the last few cohorts didn’t have people in them that were as interested in publication and like hardcore research as I was. And yeah, so that’s that’s kind of been it.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:03:28] I’m one of those, I guess, rare people who’s been offered a tenure-track job and turned it down. I was offered a job right before COVID, and just the university refused to negotiate. It was a university in the Middle East, and I was very into going. One of the things that I’m proudest of about my high school career is how much the Muslim community students that I taught sort of embraced me after the death of my mom and took care of me. And I had such just good relationships with those families that they suggested. I look into universities in the Middle East, but with COVID and the university refusing to negotiate. And eventually my father was one of the earliest Louisiana deaths from COVID as well. I just, I couldn’t get it done. As my faculty have said, I’ve had exactly as many tenure-track offers as they had, and I’m hoping I didn’t lose use up all my luck on that, because most people never even get one.
High School Teaching During Grad School
Kino: [00:04:25] So you were teaching at a high school before you graduated?
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:04:30] Yeah. So what happened was I figured out in the middle of my PhD that the reason I wasn’t being productive after my assistantship ran out was that I found the lack of certainty around my income and my class assignments as an adjunct untenable. Like, I couldn’t focus on my research because I was always focusing on, well, where am I going to get my rent money in three months? How am I going to be able to afford to eat? How am I going to be able to afford to do this? Maybe it’s just because I come from a poor family, right? Like my family was not rich. Money was something I was very concerned with because I just I wanted to do this and I wanted to do this well. Several of my former theater students that I had taught from their first semester to their senior year had gotten hired as theater instructors in the nearby high school system. And they were like, well, Neal, you have a PhD or you’re almost out of a PhD. You already have the same degree we have, and they’re hiring us and all of us make more money than you, so maybe you should come and do that.
[00:05:36] And so I called a couple of my former students to get info. Another former student who I had taught in my first ever philosophy class at LSU put up a message on Facebook that said, we desperately need another English teacher. Are you interested? She just kind of set it up for everyone. And I posted and I said, well, I’m getting my PhD in theater history. I have a bachelor’s degree in theater and I’ve taught composition at the university level. I’m not certified, though. Is that something you all can work with? And the head of their gifted program responded, we can work with that. Come in. And that’s how I got started teaching in the public school system. And once I was teaching in the public school system, I all of a sudden had health insurance. I knew where my income was coming from at all times. I was able to focus in a way that I hadn’t. And I finished my PhD at the end of my first year of teaching, which was a couple of months after my mom had passed away. I tried to finish in enough time that both my parents could see it, but she went on hospice and she passed away before I could graduate. So that was kind of a sad motivator, but that kind of motivated me to finish.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:06:48] Right at the end of the summer after COVID hit, my school had been very supportive, but they also… I ran a special theater program in the city, and they turned my theater into a wait room and they said, well, you should be able to run a theater program without a theater. It turns out you can’t, in fact, run an elite audition based theater program if you do not have a place to put on plays, which I explained over and over and over again, and I tried it for a year. I was just absolutely miserable, even though I loved my students. And I moved into a charter school where I’m now an English teacher, and I went from teaching English one this past year and English four to, next year, I’ll be teaching AP English lit as well as English for and hopefully the market will have recovered a little bit in that time. I was up for a couple of positions this year, but budget cuts hit that university. They wanted to offer me, I was told… I never saw a contract, Right. So all of us take this with the appropriate grain of salt. But I was told by the department that they intended to offer me a tenure-track position, especially with the department chair being one of a two-person department retiring. And she had instructed me, she said, I want you to use my retirement as a negotiating leverage to get more money. Because they found out what I was making at a charter school and it was significantly more than a theater professor would make at a local underfunded HBCU. But yeah, just covid’s kind of wrecking budgets. It’s wrecking everything. So, you know, my eventual goal is still to teach college, but in the meantime, I’m doing my best to enjoy teaching at the high school level. It’s very different. I’m sure we’re going to talk about all the ways it’s very different later in this podcast. It’s also not as fun as teaching college, especially if you’re someone that does a lot of, like, all of the philosophy people I know for the most part, we all kind of have the same complaint. Those of us in high school is that it’s very difficult to get kids engaged in the sorts of higher order thinking that we find sustaining and fun and all of that. So it’s a different thing. I’ve learned so much about teaching, though, just from working in secondary education.
Kino: [00:09:11] Since we’re on the topic of teaching, I assume you taught as a master’s students in addition to, as a graduate student, if only as a teaching assistant. Have you always enjoyed teaching? Is there a kind of teaching that you enjoy more?
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:09:25] So I got bit by the teaching bug very early and in my master’s degree I did have fun being a teacher’s assistant. That being said, it wasn’t until my PhD when I was the instructor of record. I got to learn how much I love teaching because no one would tell me what to do. They would tell me I had to have an exam at the end and I would have to use a certain book and that’s it. I remembered when I was an undergrad that the most valuable things I was taught by my friends who were getting their PhDs was like when they told me the truth about things. So I vowed when I was getting my PhD, I would only tell undergrads the truth if they asked. And that made me about as popular as you’d imagine in a theater program. But it was a promise I tried to stick to since it was so influential in my academic career. So, yeah, so I love teaching.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:10:16] Different kinds of teaching. I love, my absolute favorite class to teach is a toss up between philosophy of art, which I teach as a mixture of primary sources in philosophy and primary sources in art. We’ll read a philosopher, then we’ll read a couple of plays or short stories or a comic book or something, and try to use the secondary sources to explain how the art works. You know, as someone who is active in both the humanities electives and what I taught for philosophy as an instructor of record during my PhD, and when I taught as an arts elective person, when I was getting my theater degree. So it was pretty easy to combine those. So I absolutely love teaching philosophy of art and I love teaching contemporary drama lit, which, my area of research in theater outside of pro wrestling is contemporary plays. So I made it, in the first time I taught a drama lit class, I reached out to professional playwrights that I had heard of that were getting nominated for Pulitzers and stuff like that, particularly playwrights of color, and contacted them and said, hey, can I teach one of your play? It’s like, I can’t buy your plays, obviously, but I’m teaching this course, I want to focus on contemporary playwrights and I want to include more diverse voices. Are you in? And virtually everyone I talked to was like, I’m in. And they’d copy their agents on the email and be like, I’m sending them a script. Let’s work out how to do this legally so that my script doesn’t get stolen.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:11:42] So, yeah, so that’s those are my favorite things to teach and my, my favorite style of teaching. I thrive on teaching primary sources, especially short chunks of primary sources. I’m very much an article assigner, not a novel assigner. And I’m also the exact kind of instructor that I found frustrating but learned a lot from as an undergrad, where I assign exactly as much material as I think I need to assign to get the students to read the percentage of the readings that I think are important. So in one of my playwriting classes, I want to say we read 35 plays in a semester. My intent, though, was I thought 22 plays is the right amount of plays an undergrad should read in an advanced playwriting course. And knowing undergrads and knowing myself, I remember what percentage of work I would do and which percentage of work I would fake. So I would just assign enough so that the people that were like me that would fake the work, would do exactly as much as I thought they needed to, to get out of the class what I thought they needed to get out.
Kino: [00:12:48] That’s a smart strategy. I’ve had profs do that. And, like you said, it is frustrating, but I got to learn a lot despite not wanting to learn, if that makes sense. I wasn’t prepared to learn, but somehow by the end of it, I know a lot more than I thought I would.
Qualifications for High School Teaching
Kino: [00:13:04] We sort of mentioned this a little bit already about the difference between teaching undergrads and high schoolers, especially for philosophy classes, that would be difficult. Before we go into detail, can you just give me a little bit background about high school teaching? I know a lot of people kind of think of that as something that they can do if they enjoy teaching. But I understand that there are certificates. But also there are schools that don’t ask for them. Can you just give me a little bit more information about that?
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:13:30] Absolutely. So first thing, if you are a graduate student or someone who’s just got their PhD and are looking for an alternate source of income, I think teaching is a great choice for that. But you have to like completely adjust your expectations. So I’ll use myself as an example of what not to do. When I found out I was hired to teach at the high school, I worked at McKinley Senior High School. I thought, Wow, this is going to be so great because all of these kids, it’s a title one school. So it’s a school where there are kids that desperately need good teachers. And I was like, all these kids are going to be so grateful because they’ve got someone who can who has a connection to a university in town and would be a strong recommender. And they’re going to really appreciate that. They didn’t. They, in fact, don’t want to go to school because it’s not fun. And they have to be bussed there to go there. And so it turns out all the things that I thought about school, like I loved school, I was a nerd, blah, blah, blah. Most kids don’t feel that way. And my only experience with public school was I went to a gifted boarding school for high school, so I had no idea what I was going into.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:14:47] You talked about licensure and stuff like that. So here’s the deal. If you want to teach public school at a federally or locally funded or a district funded public school, you do have to have a certification of some sort. And different states are going to vary how you get that certification. In Louisiana, my certification is easy because, if you have an undergraduate degree in an area of art, you are qualified to get an immediate ancillary certification as a teaching artist. So I was able to get certified immediately in that. And because of that, it’s legal in my state and I believe in most states for certified teachers to teach one area outside of their certification. So I was hired to be a theater teacher that had mostly English classes my first year, and that’s how they got around that. That being said, other fields have different requirements. So if you want to be an English teacher, you want to do something like that, you would need to find a certification pathway, which in my city and most cities I believe they have certification pathways where they basically teach you to be a teacher and you have to pay some sort of fee. I think it’s around like, I want to say the one here is around three or four grand and they place you at a school and you are a student teacher under their supervision while you teach that first year. So you’d be getting a teacher salary and like a some percentage of that would be going to the certification group that’s training you.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:16:19] If all that sounds like it’s way too much work though, you don’t have to be certified to teach in a private school or in a charter school, depending on the rules governing charter schools. Generally speaking, I’ve switched to a charter school. I get paid substantially more money. I got, I want to say, around an 8 to 10 thousand dollar pay raise, leaving public school just to go to a charter organization. But there are different rules that govern charters, and they’re less, are there fewer protections for individuals. So I no longer have a union that I go to and things like that that would have my back. So yeah, it’s, I think it’s pretty great if you are done with coursework and you are able to finish your dissertation in your spare time.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:17:02] Like I think it would be really dumb personally to starve and try to make do on one class you’re adjunct thing, right? Like I tried to do that and I was just stressed out all the time and I had to take out more loans and it was just, it was just a bad deal. Instead, being able to, like, have health insurance, have an actual salary and be able to budget and do things like that. I was in a much better place to produce quality writing and quality research that I simply wasn’t when I was stressing out about what comes next. Because like I said, I just found it very hard to focus on what I needed to write about when the specter of not being able to pay my rent in three months was there. You know, once I finally started teaching outside the academy, I made a promise that I would never adjunct again unless I thought it would be interesting to teach the class, because it’s very important to me to have a salary, health insurance. And it’s also very important not to alienate the people who value you sufficiently to give you those things once that kind of light bulb went off, I had a very different relationship to teaching in the academy than I did before, and that sort of become my like, clarion call in my career is always focus on the fact that there are people that value you enough to make sure you are being paid a living wage, that if you get sick, you won’t die.
Kino: [00:18:28] What you said about adjunct is super important. A lot of students go into adjunct thing not because they’ve really thought it through and decide that’s what they want, but because it’s easy to get. It’s there. It’s something they’ve done before. It’s something they know how to apply. And then some of the adjuncts, like if you just look at the salary, isn’t that bad and so you think maybe I can do it, it’s better than my TAship. But a lot of the surrounding things take a toll pretty quickly, like the lack of health insurance, the lack of security. I mean, I’m fine now, but will I be fine three months from now? I won’t know until two months from now.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:19:05] And they do not care. Right. That’s and that’s the other thing. Like if you’re listening to this podcast and you want like some really harsh truth, you are valued as an adjunct in so far as you are providing student contact hours; you are not valued in any other way. Now there might be people who think you’re doing really well, this, that and the other, but no single tenured faculty member ever did a damn thing that made my life easier as an adjunct in any material way. I remember a faculty member in the philosophy department was very fond of saying, well, you know, we really need to think about all the contingent faculty and we need to do this. And I’m going to teach-in. I’m going to do a teach-in and I’m going to teach this. And I told them on Facebook, I said, well, I need a class next semester. If I get sick, I’ll die. How will your teach-in affect that? And he’s like, well, I don’t really know. And I’m like, because it won’t. You know, like if you want to do something to make your adjuncts in the department’s lives better, the answer isn’t a teach-in, right? The answer isn’t something that feels self-aggrandizing and makes you feel better about exploiting the labor of these people. It’s, you should do stuff to make the exploitation less awful.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:20:17] And yeah, like you said about being familiar, that’s the clarion call. There’s a philosopher who I’m friends with online, Justin Caouette. I am not sure how to say his name. Caouette? He runs or he’s part of the Daily Nous gang. And he, he said something that really resonated with me where he said a large part of his identity has now become wrapped up in being part of a university. And adjunct is something you can do to keep that connection there. And I did that for a while, but I. I don’t know. I think that that’s that’s something that department chairs use to get courses taught. Right. They use this sort of longing for departmental affiliation to get people to take working conditions that if you told like a carpenter or a plumber about the working conditions of adjuncts, they would be like, why would anyone do that?
Kino: [00:21:10] That’s why I think your teaching story is helpful for a lot of people to hear because, like you said, identity wrapped up with within the connection with a university. But also some people just really enjoy teaching and they can’t see themselves not as a teacher. And I respect that. And then they might feel trapped since they are at the PhD level. I guess the only way I can teach is at a university. And without much research, people might think that if adjuncts are paid poorly, so will be all other kinds of teachers.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:21:41] Yeah. On top of that, I’d also like to say, like, to get salary expectations for teaching in line. It is better than adjuncting. It will likely be better than being an instructor as well. Because I’ve had instructor offers and I’ve had to turn them down just because it’s too much of a pay cut. But if you’re going to teach high school, typically you’ll be making about what an assistant professor in the humanities or arts would be making. And that’s in part just because of like sexism and attitudes toward teaching salaries in secondary education. Since teaching was considered women’s work for so long, you’re making about 70% of what someone with a master’s degree or a PhD should be making. But if you’re used to trying to pull ins together on a graduate teaching stipend, it’s a pretty big bump. I will say, for my schools. LSU’s theater program offered 11,000 a year as their assistantship. The philosophy department threw in an extra 3,000 if I agreed to take one class from them a semester. So going from making 14,000 a year to making around 50 to 60,000 a year, huge, huge lifestyle change.
Responsibilities Outside the Classroom
Kino: [00:22:56] Can you tell me a little bit about the kind of work you do outside of the teaching hours? I imagine with undergraduate like professorship or even instructor, sometimes you have to do a little bit of advising and it’s going to be like thesis writing advising. With high schools, what kind of additional tasks [do you have]?
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:23:14] It’s called professional development. The people designing professional development are frequently people with degrees in education or degrees in educational leadership, and they believe learning can be measured, objectively, quantifiably. In my discipline, we disagree with that, and we’ve actually pushed back very hard against this notion that we’re producing widgets that you can measure and then assess. Right. The humanities and the arts, we don’t do that sort of thing. So first of all, you have to adjust your expectations to this fact that the people that are coming up with professional development probably accept different sorts of things as fact than you do, or at least than I do. And then on top of that, it’s just kind of I don’t know, everyone will tell you professional development is usually soul destroying in some way. And it is. I’ve told every single person who is a friend of mine that has a tenure-track position that when they complain about assessment and when they complain about administrative work, that they shut up just because it’s it’s so like there’s the scope of how just miserable that sort of stuff is for, for like someone teaching in secondary education. It’s like nothing you’ve seen before. Like at least with a Dean’s report or a Provost’s report, you’re aware they’re not going to read it when you produce it. And everyone kind of knows this is the fiction you’re engaged in.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:24:43] It’s almost worse when the people that are making you do this really believe in what they’re doing and are really making you do it and are going to read it, right? So like I’ve had to explain to someone in administration, they were like, well, why can’t you just videotape all of the monologues you do and we can measure them that way? And I said, well, I don’t know if you know this, but theater is live. So if we record the monologue, then it’s, we’re recording film acting and we’d be measuring film acting, not acting for the stage. And the guy was like, Oh, I didn’t think about that. It’s like, you get lots of stuff like that where the people are just they’ve bought into all of the stuff that you hear about the education programs. So professional development is the first thing, where they’re going to have you go to meeting after meeting to pursue things like student learning targets, which are measurable goals that you can hit to show that students learned what you said they learned. They’re also professional development meetings where you have to learn stuff like.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:25:49] This year at my charter. I’ll tell you about some of the PEDs. I’ll give you some examples. We have a person who’s in charge of literacy and promoting literacy. We are a title one school and one of my classes, the average reading age in ninth grade was second or third grade. So we need someone that can do that sort of work to help us improve and reach those kids that are on the lower end of the performance bandwidth. What would happen, though, is she would take classes or courses that took several weeks and she would be asked to sum up those classes in 30 minutes. And then we’d somehow have to get from that 30 minutes, weeks and weeks of training that we could then do in our own school. So that’s one sort of professional development that’s problematic.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:26:33] Another would be like, how to break up a fight, physically. Like how do you touch kids that are fighting so that you can stop them from injuring each other while protecting yourself from them injuring you. We had a couple of days of training on that, which I can’t say I’m particularly confident in my ability to break up a fight from that. From those two days. When a fight did break out in my classroom at 7:35 a.m., when three kids jumped another kid, I did not try to break them up. I just said, Dean! Dean! Until a dean came in and broke it up. Right. So there’s like any sort of area of knowledge you could find yourself having a professional development meeting in. And there are hours of this required each year by every school. At my charter school we have weekly professional development that we have to attend that will account for the mandated hours. At public school, we had a specific all day training sessions for this. So there’s that.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:27:39] The assessment is a different level of crazy as well. So like you have to know enough to teach your subject matter while also preparing students for a test in that subject matter. If you’re in a core area, their progress in your class will be judged solely based on how they do on these high stakes standardized tests. Speaking of data, that’s another thing you’re going to have to care about if you teach high school. Data matters. My charter says, in order to grow the data, you have to know the data. They are all about finding facts and calling them data, and like they want you to know how, I mean, they want to know how many times you send a kid out of class; how many times is a kid suspended; how many times does a kid turn in their work? Do you have a tracker for that? Do you have this so that we’re constantly aware of what the kids are doing? So there’s a different level of supervision of these students. Then you’d get… Also, you have to know their parents. So if you are not the kind of person that can have a good conversation with people from outside your field, you will have difficult going talking to parents, because parents don’t care about your research or what you wrote your dissertation on. They want to know why is their child failing your class? Why is their child getting sent out of class so much or this, that and the other? So there’s a lot more customer service in high school and elementary school teaching than I found at the collegiate level.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:29:15] Also, you know, you you have to deal with stuff like fights if you’re at a school. I mean, I don’t know of a single high school that never had any fights, right? Like, unfortunately, that’s in America. That is how things happen in schools. So you have to kind of come to grips with the fact that, okay, how am I going to respond if a fight breaks out in front of me? What am I legally required to do? What am I ethically required to do? And what am I actually likely to do? Right? And you’ll also have to do, like, I’ve had to be a mandated reporter. I’ve had students tell me stuff in confidence that could not be kept in confidence, because it was something that we had to act upon it.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:29:56] And another thing that’s a little bit more challenging is, most people in a PhD program are not prepared for how to respond when a student invites you to perform a sexual act upon them, or when a student curses you out, right? Just like, stands up in the middle of the class, is like, F you, F this, F this class. I don’t have to do this. Y’all got me effed up, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah and storm out, right? Like there was no seminar I took in graduate school that prepared me for how to deal with that. But because of the age of the people we’re teaching, that is something you also have to be prepared for. In addition to kids having exceptionality, as we call them, there’re exceptionalities that result in students needing more support, and there’re exceptionalities that result in students being pushed harder and put into more advanced courses. In Louisiana at least, we don’t distinguish between exceptionalities in that way. But you are expected to individuate your instruction in a class of 30 so that every student can get the material in the way that they understand. So the amount of pressures that are put on us as teachers are wild. It’s definitely not a job where you have summers off and Christmas off and it’s really great, right? Like people think teachers only have to work X number of days. Well, high school teachers do a year’s worth of work over nine months. That is how it works.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:31:24] I’m going to be at professional development all summer because I’m teaching AP English Lit next year. I’ll be compensated for that. But the job doesn’t stop. I’m so exhausted when I get home. It’s difficult to have a life outside of the job. And that’s one of the things we tell younger teachers and new teachers is you have to be able to maintain work life balance. I love my philosophy professor friends who are getting to grow aesthetically and it’s like, Man, I don’t have the time to do all that. I’m lucky if I get an hour at the coffee shop to read. It’s exhausting emotionally, in a way that very few things I’ve done have ever been. If you’re doing the job right, teaching at the secondary level is all about maintaining and expanding relationships with children and with their families. Because of that, you’re going to get, or at least I get much more involved in the emotional life of these families. I’ve had people call me at 10:00 at night asking a question about their kid because, to them, that question might be life or death for their kid. It’s, there’s a different amount of supervision and a different level of responsibility that we have for kids than we ever do for college students.
Kino: [00:32:36] I was going to say, I just recently finished my PhD, and so a lot of my friends are also recently finishing their PhD and getting to teach their own class for the first time. And so we talk a lot about things that people worry as new college level teachers. And one thing that is common, I think, for a lot of new teachers is to think that, if I say this one thing wrong, I’m going to ruin these students forever. And so we spent a lot of time convincing ourselves, convincing each other that that is not the case. If I misinterpret Kant in this one class because I misremembered something, they’re not going to go through life with a false impression of Kant and that’s going to ruin their lives. It seems like that is a major difference between college level teaching and high school. With university teaching, especially if I’m not on a tenure-track, but even if I am a tenure-track professor, there’s a sense of, what students do outside of class isn’t a part of my job. The university has a system for that. They can go to career center, if they need career advice. They can go to a mental health center if they need that. There are a lot of disadvantages to this because students don’t know what they need, or that they need some help. Ultimately, it seems like they’re adults and they’re not my responsibility. It seems like a big difference with high school where they are kind of your responsibility outside class and there is definitely a lot more ways to mess them up if you’re not careful.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:34:03] I mean, there are real questions. If a kid walks out of my class, I’m legally responsible for that kid. So I immediately have to text a dean or text a principal like so-and-so just ran because that is something about teaching high school as well. Like we get runners. Just like, on Arrested Development, which was very popular when I was in my master’s program. It would get hop-ons on the stair truck. And when we teach, we just have kids, all of a sudden they’ll take off running just in a random direction. And this is high school kids and it’s like, okay, I am technically responsible for this kid, so I have to contact a principal [and say] “Oh, my God. Stephen just ran away. Like we were on a field trip and he just took off running.” So we need to get whoever’s involved that needs to be involved to do this.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:34:03] There’s other stuff we have to do too. So like this past year, one of my students who’s very smart, but her home life is very challenging. She has some responsibilities around the house in terms of like cleaning and cooking and stuff because she has an ill parent, but she’s blind. Like, she’s not blind. She needs glasses like I need glasses. I say without my glasses, I’m blind. But I had to intervene multiple times throughout the year to get this kid new glasses when her glasses would break, because it was affecting her ability to do my classwork. And I’m saying like, I’m calling the principal or calling our grade level dean saying Student X can’t see. And I need you to understand, if she can’t see, she can’t pass the standardized test because she can’t read it. And they’re like, Oh, okay, well, we’ll get her glasses. And it’s like stuff like that is all of a sudden a very real issue we have to take care of.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:35:42] And I think that’s why it can be so emotionally exhausting at times, right? Like. One of my kids got into Dartmouth two years ago. That student came from a similar background of mine. Very poor. She’s Southern, just like I was Southern. And so I called her mom and I called her, I said, Hey, why don’t y’all come over for coffee and I’m going to tell y’all what y’all need to know about how to interact with people at an elite institution. As a Southerner, this is stuff no one’s ever told you, but that I’ve had people throughout my academic career tell me. And I told them, I said, look, if you go up north, I know it’s very normal to talk about religious convictions in the South, but in my experience, there are lots of people up north, if they hear you talking about Jesus, they’re going to assume you’re poor and dumb. There are lots of things that we as kids who grew up in poverty do that are going to make you stand out. And I’m just going to tell you what they are so that you can minimize that and sort of make this jump that you need to get into this space that’s so unfamiliar to you. And I don’t want to say I would never, but it would not occur to me to do that for a college student, the way that I see a high school student with my own like, similar demographics to me, and it’s like, all right, we’ve got to prep you. We’ve got to arm you. Your mom’s got to know about this. Your dad’s got to know about this. Because we’re a team. And when you get there, that’s what has to happen so you can fit in. But yeah, we have to care so much and it’s just exhausting carrying that much. I’m probably scaring people off from teaching by talking about this. It’s also really rewarding.
Rewarding Aspect of Teaching
Kino: [00:37:14] I was about to ask you to tell us some of the rewarding, the good things, especially the parts that you don’t get as a college level teacher.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:37:23] As an English teacher, I have assigned kids books that are the first books they’ve ever liked to read. And when they come back to me and they’re like, Dr. Hebert, I read that thing you gave me and it was awesome! Because this year I passed out manga. I love horror. Like, at my last public school, I would teach a horror movies class where the kids’ parents would have to sign waivers to let their kids see R-rated movies. And I taught it like a philosophy class at LSU. All the kids in there were very academically gifted, but like I had all these ninth graders and I had a bunch of kids that were reading below grade level, but everyone could understand pictures. So I taught them how to read manga and I’d give them like Junji Ito’s Uzumaki or Gyo or something like that, with like these horrible fish with spider legs. I was like, okay, go read this. And they’d come back [saying] “Dr. Hebert, that was awesome! What else do you have?” So like, that’s really cool when you can share the love you have for something with them.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:38:19] Also, when they’re light bulb moments go off, that’s really awesome. Like when a kid realized like, Oh, wait, this method of formula writing you’ve been doing that produces the body paragraph of pretty much every essay we could ever be asked to write. I was like, Yeah, like. [Kino: That’s why I’m teaching you this.] Right? Like, the skills you’re learning here do have like wide ranging things. Also, you’re going to meet kids and you’re just going to like, fall in love with them, right? You’re going to. You’re going to want them to be your kid. Like you’re going to wish you could adopt them. You’re going to connect with them because they’re similar to you. I’ve had several kids legitimately ask me to adopt them, which is very sweet. The way I deal with it is I tell them, I say, Well, you know, Dr. Hebert, I love kids. I obviously love you. You’re one of my students. Just be aware that I believe that 14 is too young to have a cell phone and a boyfriend. And that tends to.. Everything goes away when I say that, like, “Oh, well, maybe this won’t work, Dr. Hebert.” Like, [laugh] come on.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:39:23] So yeah. You get a real rush when a lesson’s going well and the kids are invested and like you see the connections being made. That’s so fun and it’s so rewarding. So it’s also, it can also be kind of hard to get to that point just because of the curricular demands that are placed on teachers. Right? Like I love drama lit, but the only play I got to teach this year was Romeo and Juliet until we finished taking our standardized testing. And then the school is like, Oh yeah, you can teach anything you want now. And they’re having a lot more fun now that I’m getting to pick the stuff they read instead of a curriculum board at the state level. So that’s one thing I really like about it is just the actual joy of teaching.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:40:05] Another thing you’ll get is you do get better at teaching by teaching kids, because you have to. I have kids that I will, we will stop class until we figure out a way to communicate effectively about an issue. I might be explaining it in a way that the kid finds impenetrable. So then, as a class, we’ll workshop it where I’ll get kids that reliably understand me to sit me down and we’ll all try to figure out how to translate this so everyone’s on board.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:40:35] You also can’t give up on kids at the secondary education level. Like in college, if someone just blows off your class all semester and then only shows up for the final and gets like a 3% on it. No one judges you for failing that person. But at the secondary level, if a student fails, it is in many ways considered your failure.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:40:56] So yeah, I love it. I also hate it. It’s not what I thought I’d be doing when I think about the most effective college classes I’ve taught. Those classes are much more in line with what I see from myself as an educator, because there’s… You have students that are much more advanced, right? You have adults or people on the path to becoming adults that you can do anything you want with them in the classroom. Whereas with students at the secondary level, there are so many pressures on you that govern what you teach, how you teach, etc. that it can be less fun.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:41:32] I find it very rewarding. You know, every year I leave with like I’ll have a student say things like, Dr. Hebert, you are the best teacher I’ve ever had in my whole life. I like got really emotional. So stuff like that, that’s the kind of stuff you’re like, Oh God, that’s, that’s why I do this. That’s why I put up with the days when three kids jump another kid on site at 7:35 a.m. when I’m barely awake, I’m still sipping my double shot of espresso. I’m still doing this, that and the other. It’s like I do it for the moments when a student like Ariana, is like, “You changed my life in this way.” Or when a student like my student at Dartmouth calls me from Dartmouth and it’s like you. Your advice just saved me. She’s like, I did what you said, and I was able to fit in at this mixer and blah, blah, blah. I’m like, good. You know? So that’s really rewarding.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:42:23] The other thing I think I mentioned this already, it leveled up my teaching during my PhD. I was operating under the mistaken belief that faculty cared that my courses were good. They didn’t that was that was lagniappe, to use a Louisiana term. Right. That was a little bit that was a little bit extra for the gumbo pot. I kind of got a talking to by my faculty. They’re like, You’re trying way too hard in your classes. He’s like, your job isn’t to be a great teacher. Your job is to get your PhD and produce research. [Kino: I’ve heard the same too.] Yeah, it’s like. But I take a lot of pride in what I do. I want to be the kind of teacher that the grad students that taught me were to me that got me involved in this. So it was it was always a struggle figuring out how to navigate that.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:43:10] But like, nothing makes you get better at teaching faster than having to figure out how to engage a group of people that don’t want to be there and were, in fact, bussed there against their will at the time. The the other really challenging thing is just, y’all are going to see this. Y’all might be seeing it now. Y’all will for sure see it in four years or so: the different attitudes about technology that kids have. Like I used to be criticized for how focused on my phone I was. Right, like, as a student, I loved keeping my phone near me because I had ill parents. I had very severely disabled parents. So I kept my phone on me in case there was an emergency. That’s why I never left to get another degree, right. Because on a grad students assistantship, I could not fly home for a funeral for my mom, to put it like that. It’s kind of shocking to say it like that. But that was the major thing I knew I had to consider. Knowing my dad, I knew that I would have to be the one who made the funeral arrangements. I’m sorry for anyone listening. That’s like a little bit bummed out, but, like, this is, this can be the kind of like heuristic you use when you’re choosing a program to go into.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:44:23] But yeah, so like people listening, I hope I didn’t scare you off from teaching, but I also hope you… I didn’t want you to walk in completely unprepared for an alt-ac like I was, because I had such different expectations than would be the reality. It’s a very different skill set. If you’re interested in becoming better at teaching, I highly recommend it for people like me. Like I would have done it sooner if I’d have known how to go about doing it.
Advice on Getting Started
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:44:53] So a couple of things you can do to get an alt-ac teaching that you probably don’t know about. You can call a principal of a school and introduce yourself. You can email the principal of a school and say, Hey, my name is so-and-so. I just received my PhD in this field or my master’s in this field. You know, I just wanted to see if y’all had any need for, what you say is, dual-enrollment instructors, because dual-enrollment is someone who teaches college level classes on a high school campus. In most districts, there is funding available for those kinds of positions. And I know several grad students at my university would get paid a percentage of a full time salary just to teach like two sections of intro to Spanish or Spanish one and Spanish two at the college level. And they would get something like, I don’t know, if the full time faculty position would be 50k, they would get probably about 25K just to teach those two classes. That’s crazy, right? Like teaching as an adjunct, we’re lucky if we’ll be able to get six grand in the South. But, you know, high schools, they have different funding levels. So if you can do that, I recommend that.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:46:08] And for charter schools and private schools especially, you can actually write in and inquire about positions because most of those schools that don’t require certified teachers, they do look for people with advanced degrees to fill in needs. Another thing to be aware of, because we’re coming out of a pandemic, there are massive numbers of openings in public schools, charter schools and private schools as people are burning out, just like people are burning out in higher ed. The burnout level among secondary education and elementary education teachers is staggering. My school district currently has 600 openings for teaching faculty, and the only way you’ll find out about those is to reach out to people who are currently employed in the school system because it’s not very obvious how to get these jobs.
[00:46:59] Since everyone that goes through a teacher certification program is being educated on how to get and apply for those jobs, it’s incumbent on someone seeking an alt-ac to reach out to people, then just kind of sell yourself. All the things that make someone an excellent PhD student can, aside from the love of research because you won’t be doing that, but all the other stuff, if you like all the other stuff, you can sell yourself very easily as someone who can add a lot of value to schools. I know I was shocked that, in my second year when I got my PhD, the amount of pride the institution took in me and the other PhD holders. Like they were like, we brag about that, that we have 11 teachers on staff who all have PhDs. That’s something that schools really value. So if this is something that you are thinking about doing, it’s absolutely worth reaching out to a local principal. And I think with charter schools and private schools especially, there’s no bureaucracy to go through. With the current staffing shortages, I think this could be a real difference maker for a lot of people.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:48:06] We as scholars can bring in a real diversity of viewpoints and approaches and even pedagogy that high schools desperately need and that middle schools desperately need. You don’t want everyone on your staff to believe and have the same sorts of assumptions. Bringing in the outside expertise of someone who’s been able to successfully navigate a graduate program, that can be huge, right? You can make a huge organizational difference when you join a high school or a middle school or even a primary school. And there’s lots you can do to make kids’ lives better in tangible ways. I think that if you really like kids or teenagers, and you could see yourself having fun doing that, then high schools need you. What they don’t need are a bunch of people who have kind of, who are like so jaded, they’re just waiting to hit that 30th year to get that great retirement.
Dr. Neal Hebert: [00:49:01] Oh, also, retirement for public schools is incredible. Usually because it’s been negotiated by a union, it far exceeds what you could get at a university in a red state in the United States. And it rivals the best retirement packages you can get in states with strong legacies of union holding and union membership. So thankfully, because it’s a heavily unionized profession, there are lots of intangibles and like there are lots of things that they grant you that you might not be aware you needed, that the union will take care of for you.
Kino: [00:49:41] Thank you so much for all the information you’ve shared.
Kino: [00:49:48] Thank you for listening to the third episode with Dr. Neil Abbott. I have been your host Kino. You can find me on Twitter at OffCampusPhds or email me at email@example.com. I’m always looking for suggestions of guests to invite questions to ask and topics to explore. I’ll see you next time.