Public, private, charter, parochial, magnet, prep—determining which type of school matched my teaching style is one of the reasons I'm a teacher today. These different school types vary greatly, and doing your homework before you choose your own ensures that you're making the best decision.
I attended a private, suburban parochial school from grammar school through high school. I also attended a private parochial college for both my bachelor's and master's degrees. But when I was choosing the school where I wanted to build my career and have the greatest impact on my students, I knew I wanted to teach in an urban, low-income, multicultural public high school. If you're unsure which type of school is best for you, here are a few things I've learned.
Public: Diversity and The Walking Dead
One reason I chose my school was diversity. I knew if I had students from all over the world that I would learn as much from them as they would from me. I spent the first part of my life in a homogeneous bubble where people looked the same and shared similar experiences and perspectives, so my ability to relate to the rest of the world was limited. After so many years in the same closed community, I felt stagnant.
After student-teaching in an underprivileged school, I felt excitedly unsettled and at home. Even though we didn't have much of a shared history or culture, I related to my students on a human level. Even kids with a more exclusively urban upbringing "got me." They enjoyed my jokes, especially my legendary April Fool's prank where I recruited a student to smash her (fake) phone when I "caught" her texting.
I wasn't looking to be some sort of "white savior." I just wanted to help my students grow, learn, and achieve. Because I came from a world where I was often told "You can do anything," I was good at inspiring my students to imagine their potential. For instance, my student, Jordan, was obsessed with the AMC program The Walking Dead. He often said to me, "The show has all that stuff we talk about in English class, like symbolism, imagery, and characterization. Why can't we have a class on The Walking Dead?"
Why couldn't we? I went to my director with Jordan's idea. She said if I was willing to develop a challenging and rigorous curriculum on the show over the summer, I could teach an elective about it. This year, Jordan and 67 other students are taking that class. After helping create the only high school class on The Walking Dead in the country, Jordan now feels like he can do anything. I wasn't surprised when he scored in the 93rd growth improvement percentile on our state exam.
I thrive when creating unique opportunities for my students, so teaching in a low-income school was the right fit. Additionally, like many of my colleagues who teach at low-income schools, I became adept at fund-raising and grant-writing. It's almost always necessary for teachers in low-income schools to help close funding gaps for their students, and I enjoyed working to help level the playing field. My teaching style fit perfectly with my high school, which is one of the reasons I've been teaching in the same place for 22 years.
Private: Intimate and Resourceful
My friend, Nali, on the other hand, teaches at one of the world's most prestigious prep schools. Her school's campus is full of tailored gardens, commissioned artwork, and ornate architecture. Most of the students in her classes are extremely wealthy—the children of presidents, Fortune 500 CEOs, and foreign diplomats. The students and teachers live on campus, and their lives are extremely enmeshed. Teachers have students over for dinner and tea, volunteer at their athletic events, and contribute to school plays.
This atmosphere leaves little to no privacy, often making the work/life balance very fluid. But Nali enjoys the solidarity and closeness of the campus. She doesn't have to worry about running out of copier paper or not being able to afford books because the school provides state-of-the-art equipment and an abundance of materials. Nali's teaching style was most effective when she taught math in small, tight-knit classrooms. She doesn't have to worry about the behavioral burdens that come with larger student bodies, and most of her classes have about 10 students, making personalized instruction and fostering community easier.
Charter: Small but Limited
My best friend's daughter, Cassie, teaches at a charter school in Philadelphia. She began her teaching career in a small parochial school, but the salary and growth potential left her wanting more. She tried to get into a public school, but no jobs were available. Cassie found an opportunity to teach at a charter school, where she likes the small structure and loves her school's principal.
However, employee turnover is high, and Cassie worries her principal may leave. Her school day is much longer than the average public school day, and her students are often exhausted by last period. In addition, she doesn't make as much money as a public school teacher. Most charter schools offer lower salaries than traditional public schools in exchange for a more intimate career. She often worries about her job security because, unlike in public schools, she isn't protected by a union. But she's learning every day and hopes to take the skills she's developing to a public school in the future.
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You don't need to immediately know which of the different school types fit your teaching style. You may need to get your hands dirty by working in several different schools before you find the one that feels right. And there will always be trade-offs you'll need to acknowledge and accept. No system is perfect, but one thing's for sure: when you find the perfect match, you'll know it, and both you and your students will thrive.