Five Questions To Ask Before You Take A Job At A Classical School

It’s hiring season, which means that over the next four weeks, scores of teachers are going to fill out applications, travel to new schools, teach sample lessons, and answer questions about who they are and what they believe. Teaching candidates at classical Christian schools have a tendency to play it safe, which means offering sample lessons that would pass at any Christian school, classical or otherwise. In a humanities classroom, teaching candidates tend to veer sharply toward the grammatical-historical end of things, which means inoffensive lectures that roughly sketch a certain time period (“Frankenstein is a work of Romantic literature. Have you talked about the Romantic period?”), or which gloss the author’s biography and make a few tepid “connections with the text.” In an interview, many teaching candidates (especially young ones) try to prove they are team players by not asking administrators tough questions and so they keep the conversation centered around “my journey.”

If a young teacher is newly married, simply needs any job, and does not care whether a potential school is mediocre or not, then the milquetoast interview route may be advisable. However, if a young teacher wants to find a good school at which he can forge a career, then the sample lesson needs some teeth, and the interview portion must be more than a diplomatic meet-and-greet.

When teaching candidates arrive on campus, they ought to remember a few things about good administrators. First, good administrators know that talented humanities teachers are generally a bit eccentric. They know that good humanities teachers don’t treat class as a scrimmage or a practice, but as an actual game, which means they act more like basketball coaches than librarians. Second, good administrators have sorted through OED-thick stacks of applications and sat through scores of sample lessons, which means they’re unimpressed by mere niceness. Neither are good administrators impressed by sample lessons wherein the candidate is more intent on proving he’s educated than proving he understands teenagers. In fact, if you’re applying for a job teaching at a good classical Christian school, you ought to assume you’re up against at least one PhD, which means you’ve got to do way more than “look educated.” My advice: pace around the room, raise your voice to make significant points, and don’t be afraid to tell students, “Eh, no, you’re pretty far off base,” when that’s the case. It’s a school, not a popularity contest. When watching a sample lesson, a good administrator is constantly thinking, “Are the students going to walk all over this guy?” If you keep saying, “Good question,” every time someone asks a question, you’re a doormat.

Everything a candidate ought to know about a school cannot be determined from a conversation with the headmaster. You will need to talk to a few teachers, as well. I suggest asking the following questions.

Question One: “Is this the sort of school where the children of board members get away with murder?”

Best to ask this question of a group of teachers, perhaps over lunch. If it takes more than four seconds for anyone to speak, the answer is probably, “Yes,” but everyone is trying to figure out a won’t-come-back-to-bite-me way of putting it. Badly behaved board members’ kids aren’t a deal breaker, but if it’s coupled with regular claims elsewhere about how, “We’ve got a very special community here,” admit to yourself that working at the school is probably going to make you pretty cynical. When you ask a group of teachers if the board’s kids get away with murder, what you want to hear is an unambiguous, “No, not at all.”

Question Two: “Can I get a list of the senior thesis topics from the last two years?”

Note how many theses are about sports, how many are about trauma and therapy (i.e. hymns to the zeitgeist), how many are boilerplate Republican positions ripped from the headlines, and how many are bland restatements of the school’s promotional materials (“I will argue that a Christian worldview is necessary to live a good life”). What you want to know is whether students at the school have academic freedom and, if so, whether they use it well. If fewer than twenty percent of the theses are interesting/classical/unfashionable opinions, I wouldn’t assume the school was all that classical.

Question Three: “Can I see last year’s yearbook?”

You can learn a lot of about a school’s culture from the year book, especially the senior spread. What are their ambitions and plans? What are their fondest memories? How many senior quotes come from Shakespeare and how many come from Post Malone? Emerson once said, “I pay the schoolmaster, but tis the school boys who educate my son,” so it behooves you to know a bit about the competition. Also— and I’m not entirely sure how you would finagle this— but if you can somehow manage to teach your sample lesson on a day when students aren’t required to wear their uniforms, you’ll get an interesting angle on how classical their homes are.

Question Four: “Does the headmaster read old books?”

For this question, you really want a solid, “Yes.” If the headmaster doesn’t read old books, you’re going to get charged with crypto-papistry just for teaching the City of God properly, even if you’re Presbyterian to the back teeth. It’s not the end of the world, but it’ll mean a few sleepless nights every year. However, if the headmaster and the principal read old books, it’s a sign that humanities teachers are treated with real respect.

Question Five: “What’s your faculty development program like?”

If the faculty development program involves the expenditure of real time and real money, then it’s a genuine priority. “Where your money is, there your heart is also.” The fact a school doesn’t have much of a faculty development program isn’t necessarily problematic, though. What’s problematic is when the administration says, “We have a great faculty development program,” and the faculty says, “We don’t have much of a faculty development program.” When you’re considering taking a job at a school, make sure the faculty and the administration describe the place in a similar way. It might also be worth asking, “Are there students at this school who should have been kicked out years ago?” to the admin and the teachers so you can compare their answers.

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