In the 1993 film “Indecent Proposal,” Woody Harrelson’s character is applying for a college job teaching architecture. The dean of the school tells him, “You are overqualified.” Harrelson replies, “So, exploit me.” He’s quickly hired to share his undying passion for great architecture with wide-eyed undergraduates.
A good scene, but in many ways an unrealistic one.
Last August, entering my 31st year of teaching and my 20th at my current school, I made the decision to move from a boarding environment to a day school. I have loved the boarding school experience, developing close ties that have lasted decades with students and their families. But it was simply time for me to be able to go home at night and have my weekends free.
Because I would be interviewing for the first time in two decades, I was naturally apprehensive. Never once, though, did I consider that I would not be able to find a job that was a good match for me. My interests and passions are clear, and I have a wide network of connections who respect the work I have done in my career. And, realistically, I knew I had a job if I didn’t find the right match.
I followed the usual avenues in beginning a job search: registering with search agencies, calling friends to put the word out, and keeping my ears perked at every conference and social gathering I attended. One good opportunity appeared in the early fall, but I ultimately concluded that the location wasn’t a good fit, and the salary unattractive. As time passed, I found myself being picky, not pursuing opportunities that were good prospects because there was just something that would make my life more difficult, sometimes location, sometimes educational philosophy, and sometimes a sense that I didn’t click with that person on the other end of the phone. There was also my love for Baltimore, where I have lived and worked for years, that kept pulling at my heartstrings; this city had become home. I began to doubt that the stars were going to align for me.
Then, in December, more jobs were posted that were exciting prospects. By this time, I had found a groove in interviewing, so anxiety was not part of my school visits. What became disconcerting, though, was the dubious, raised-eyebrow look I got when I indicated interest in a job that was either a lateral move or one perceived to be a “step down.” I began to be asked why I wasn’t applying to be a head of school, the logical next step after my current job of academic dean. Why would I want to go back to college guidance (never mind the fact I am still actively involved in the National Association for College Admission Counseling)? One interviewer even asked me if I might feel as though I were “slumming” if I went back to teaching English. Two interviewers indicated that even though they were interested in me, the colleague with whom I would work felt I was overqualified and was intimidated by my extensive knowledge.
As I moved forward to the National Association of Independent Schools convention in February, I hoped the chance to network would pull me along further in my search. But just before the conference, my head of school left, and I was asked to be acting head through the end of the school year. My deep love for the school made my answer to this call-to-duty a given, despite the fact that I had never aspired to a headship. So when I arrived at the NAIS convention, I was pulled between communicating the changes at my own school while interviewing for positions at others. The new title of acting head, of course, only raised eyebrows even more.
One afternoon, as I stood waiting to interview in the grand ballroom of the Sheraton in New York City, I struck up a conversation with a distinguished professorial type next to me. He was an engaging, intellectual conversationalist with graying hair, a corduroy blazer, and a knapsack at his feet. I asked what he was looking for, and he said a job teaching writing. He was currently teaching online courses for a university, he said, and just wanted a stable teaching job with benefits, and the chance to teach students in person. As we shared tidbits about our writing, we both watched the tables where we were next to interview. He let out a sigh and said, “Great … another perky young coed energetically interviewing for the position I want.”
And then it hit me: I am old in the eyes of education. It isn’t just about being overqualified, it is about age, too. I began to see the questions in the eyes of those interviewers: “Does she have the energy to coach? Teach a few classes? Handle a club? Handle the kids?” And then I could hear the thoughts in their minds: “That new graduate will be a lot cheaper and will probably be willing to do more.” I began to understand why some older faculty members feel marginalized, despite their extensive knowledge and passion for what they do (and do well). Are we so wedded to the model of the boarding school “triple threat” (teacher, coach, dorm parent) that we undervalue the impact a seasoned educator can have on students in the classroom, or as a mentor to young teachers?
So what has been my outcome? Blessedly, I have been “exploited,” and my new school will certainly reap the benefits. I have learned more than I could ever have imagined in my four months as an acting head of school, while also giving back two decades of knowledge about our school’s history, mission, and culture. And yes, I am exhausted from juggling the responsibilities of both academic dean and acting head, but it is a well-earned exhaustion.
I have also been fortunate in finding two heads of school who saw the value in my experience, and I have accepted an upper-school-director position at a school that fits my style and educational philosophy to a tee.
I fear, however, that I am one of the lucky ones. In the end, the stars did align for me. Yet I think back to that writing teacher at the NAIS conference and wonder if he, too, broke the barrier. How I hope some school leader realized that his passion and wealth of experience were just what budding student writers need.
Education should respect those gray hairs and elbow patches, as they have come from years of practicing the art of teaching and extending a love for learning to young minds. And isn’t that what education is all about? We veterans are worth the investment.
A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Old and in the Way?