professional journey

Mister Doctor Coach

I’ve never felt like “Plocher” is a particularly challenging surname to wrap one’s mouth around. As I tell my students, “it rhymes with joker.” (I don’t give the students a hard time about the other pieces of my name or my ridiculously long work e-mail address. Some day, I’ll write about changing my name when I got married, and all the misadventures that come with having two middle names.) Some of my students never quite get it—I hear lots of “Plucker” and “Plotcher” and “Ploh-tcher” deep into the semester.

One student, though, after inadvertently addressing me as “Miss” and mangling my name several times, just called me “Mister Doctor Coach.” It started as fumbling for the right title, but it caught on with him. That’s all he ever called me afterward. He still calls me that when he sees me in the hallway.

I have written a lot about the emotional challenges of leaving the academy, about expectations, about failure. You can find those on my #postac page, or a longer, more reflective single piece in the “works” page. Most of the conversations I’ve had lately with other PhD holders and graduate students, though, have been about the “professional journey.” That’s not something I’ve written about all that much, and certainly not from my current perspective, four years out from my leave-taking.

“Mister Doctor Coach” isn’t a bad summary of where my journey has taken me. These days, I am definitely #withaphd rather than #postac. I am not, technically speaking, “in my field;” my doctorate is musicology (with a minor in comparative studies) rather than English (in which I hold an undergraduate degree). I do what I do because I figured out (after sorting through the narrative wreckage) that my field was teaching all along.

My professional journey has been shaped by the needs of my family. I was lucky enough to get through graduate school without accumulating significant debt because my spouse had a good job with excellent insurance and we still basically lived like grad students. I juggled my work as a gradjunct with being a stay-at-home dad, including taking my son to the numerous therapy appointments that followed his autism diagnosis. (I mentioned that we had really good health insurance, right?) With two kids, one of whom needs more supports than many, the idea of either a) sticking around in the Twin Cities and ramping up my adjunct workload or b) chasing VAPs that would require frequent relocation became…implausible. I decided, when the first round of musicology openings closed, that I wasn’t going to keep, as I put it, “paying Interfolio for lottery tickets.”

Shortly thereafter, my family moved from Minnesota to Texas. My spouse’s family lives mostly in the Austin area, so we had some nuts-and-bolts support. We were also, though, broke. It took my spouse longer than expected to find a job. I interviewed for a few entry-level positions outside academia, and applied for many, many more.

None of those panned out. The interviews I had seemed to be decided in the first few minutes when I failed to convince potential employers that my doctorate didn’t make me a flight risk. Several straight out asked if I would be going back to the higher ed world, and seemed skeptical when I demurred. These were entry-level positions, mind, mostly in writing-related fields.

Sending out applications doesn’t pay the rent, and rent in the Austin area is…high. I needed something that I could do, even part-time, that would generate some income while I looked for my imagined perfect job. Requirements for substitute teaching? Some college education? I had lots of college education. I spent a half-day at orientation, had my fingerprints taken and background checked, then started finding my way around Austin ISD one school at a time.

For months, I’d sub three to five days a week and spend the other days filling out applications. I wasn’t happy, but I’d also helped get the household to a point where we didn’t have to take on credit card debt to meet basic living expenses. By the spring, I was getting long-term substitute jobs that paid better (marginally, but it mattered) and gave me the opportunity to do actual teaching. (Short sub jobs were pretty much always some combination of babysitting and riot control.) I remembered that teaching was a big part of why I had gone to graduate school in the first place.

Texas, for better or worse, has a robust alternative certification path into the teaching profession. I took it. The classes were the expected mix of useful and redundant. My year spent as a substitute gave me more than enough classroom time to get my probationary certification. Which brought me back to…interviews.

This time around, I was interviewing for jobs with a certification in hand, a full year of subbing (including those precious long term assignments) and years of teaching in college. The first question was still “you have a doctorate, why on Earth do you want to teach middle schoolers?” Because of the certification timelines, I was interviewing during the late summer rush. (Teachers have until mid-summer to opt out of their contracts without penalty. This means that when administrators come back from July vacations, they have only a few weeks to fill newly-vacant positions.) Some of the interviews were really rushed. In the worst, the principal announced that we had 10 minutes for the interview, mispronounced my name, didn’t even try to apologize, and seemed most interested in how much of a disciplinarian I could be. The interview only made it about six of the allotted 10 minutes, and my “thanks for the interview” note included a polite refusal to be further considered.

I eventually landed a job at a charter school in East Austin three weeks after the school year started. Most of my meetings with the principal included admonitions that teaching middle school was not like teaching college. It isn’t, and I knew that, and my lessons were planned for the eighth graders I was teaching. I was a first year teacher, and neither the lesson plans nor my putting them into practice were perfect, but I left most meetings with my principal furious at the repeated idea that I couldn’t tell the difference between a thirteen-year-old and a 20-year-old. I did have great co-workers and assistant principals from whom I learned enormous amounts. They weren’t quite enough to keep me there.

I felt bad about leaving that job because it felt like I was abandoning kids who’d already been abandoned or neglected by too many people. The commute was costing me, though—two hours a day spent sitting in Austin traffic, barely moving. The hours and the stress made it harder for me to do my job and harder to do the right things at home. It was not sustainable. I let the school know that I wouldn’t be returning and went through another summer of applications and interviews.

With more distance from graduate school and proof that I could last at least a year in a secondary school gig, most of the interviews went better. I still had to deal with some degree skepticism, but it mostly had to do with why I was teaching English when my graduate work was in music. (I got pretty good at explaining that, as much as I’d been a band nerd and sung in choirs, I’d never had any interest in being a band or choir director.) Importantly, I was also better able to explain how the variety of teaching I’d done, including teaching at the college level, contributed to the success of my students.

By the end of the summer, I had landed a job at my current school, where I’ve taken over the AP literature class in addition to teaching various on-level and intervention courses. I coach the ultimate frisbee team. Most of the AP students call me “Dr. Plocher.” In the on-level and intervention classes, I get a lot more “mister” (with or without the Plocher). Some of my ultimate players call me “coach” in class. I’m usually not picky about it. (Teachers, like everybody else who works with other people, choose their battles.)   

My higher education experience improves my teaching in a few obvious ways: especially with high school seniors (and most especially with the AP students), I can set realistic expectations for college. I try to teach my students that professors care in direct proportion to the amount that their students care. Many of my students will be first-generation college students. I do my damnedest to help them advocate for themselves, to get them used to the idea of asking for help when they need it.

From a practical standpoint, the skills I picked up in graduate school are invaluable for nuts-and-bolts teaching. I’ve always been a fast reader; graduate school forced me to refine my analytical chops to keep pace. I can do background research quickly. After having to teach syllabi that were handed to me three days before I started an adjunct job, I do okay with shifting administrative priorities and requirements. (I confess I still complain loudly about them, though.)

There are moments—not many—that I look around and wonder “what am I doing here with my musicology PhD”? The money’s not great, but it is much more than I made as an adjunct. I also know where I’m working from semester to semester, which is something you can really only appreciate if you’ve been in situations where you don’t. I get to collaborate (and hang out with!) some great colleagues without having to compete with them for funding.

I’m doing work that is necessary and important. Sometimes it’s thankless, but not always. The gratification is mostly deferred—another thing graduate school taught me to deal with. Teaching is a different job every day; frequently it’s a different job from period to period, even with the same lesson plan. It will wear you out and lift you up and you will feel your students’ departure at the end of the day…the end of the year…graduation just as keenly as they do, although for different reasons.

This, all of this, is why I secretly like the ridiculousness of “Mister Doctor Coach.” All of those titles are part of how I got to where I am. It’s almost August, and my dreams (as they seem to do at this time of year) are filled with the classroom again. The school year is just around the corner, and I’m looking forward to it…which isn’t something I could say four years ago.