When I graduated from college, I didn't even think of teaching at a private school as an option. Public schools offered many more job openings than private schools did, and I had no experience with private schools, not even as a student. So I started as a public school teacher and there I happily remained for the next 10 years.
Then an unexpected opportunity arose. A long-established, prestigious private school in the area advertised for a half-time English teacher, half-time curriculum coordinator. It was a chance to try something different. I decided to apply, and that fall I began a new career developing the curriculum and teaching at a private school.
The Transition to a Private School
From the first day, the difference between public school and private school culture was obvious. In my new school, all the students wore uniforms. The boys wore shirts and ties (clip-ons through eighth grade) and the girls wore white blouses and khaki pants. The faculty dressed in professional attire. The students and faculty shared family-style lunches together at large, round cloth-covered tables and students were expected to pass dishes and follow the four Bs (Break Bread Before Buttering).
There were no bells to signal the beginning or end of classes. When students changed classes, they moved through the halls in an orderly fashion—no pushing, shouting, or inappropriate language. This doesn't mean that the students didn't have fun with one another or enjoy being there, but the subdued atmosphere did contribute to the school's serious academic focus.
Class Size, Curriculum, and Culture
My classes were smaller than they were at the public school and generally much more homogeneous in terms of race, ability, and family income (tuition was about 25 percent of my salary). Students were usually well-behaved, and there was a clear understanding that appropriate behavior was required in order to attend the school. I quickly adapted to having classes of 15 students instead of 28. Class discussions were thoughtful, everyone participated, and students were able to share and critique one another's written work. As a group, my students had average or above-average abilities, and they were respectful and fun to teach.
I was surprised to find that the private school followed the same curriculum as the public schools and that students took the same state exams at the end of the year. I learned that a major reason for aligning the curriculum was so it would be a smoother transition if public school students chose to transfer to a private school during the school year. Private school teachers didn't have easy access to the state education department's conferences and workshops like public school teachers did, so curriculum guidance came mainly from the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) and other conferences.
The faculty's professional and academic backgrounds were a little different from what I expected. A number of teachers at the private school, myself included, were certified and had public school experience, but a certification wasn't a requirement when it came to hiring new teachers. Those who were not certified usually taught in the upper (high) school, where small classes lent themselves well to discussion and debate.
Financial Responsibilities and Concerns
As a public school teacher, I had little interest and even less understanding of the budget process, leaving it to be the responsibility of those who worked in the central office. At the private school, however, the budget was everyone's concern. Private schools don't receive the state and federal aid that public schools do, so tuition and advancement (fundraising) are cornerstones of the private school budget process.
Like all faculty members, I participated in pledge campaigns as well as auctions, sales, dinners, and other fundraisers. I also participated in enrollment management drives to encourage parents to re-enroll their children for the next year. Part of the school's philosophy was that making the school successful was everyone's responsibility, from the custodians and secretaries to the teachers, administration, and board of trustees. To this day, I believe this attitude would benefit every school, whether it's private or public.
Like many private schools, there was no teachers' association or union at my school. Instead of a salary schedule that awarded teachers the same salary regardless of individual competence, each teacher negotiated his or her contract individually with the headmaster. My first year at the private school, I earned close to my public school salary, but with each subsequent year, the gap widened. The health insurance plan cost more while providing less, and the retirement plan was a great deal less than what the state offered.
Returning to My Roots
After a few years of working as a private school teacher, I decided to return to public school. For me, the diverse population and challenges of public education were a better fit, and frankly, the more generous salary and benefits were important to me and my family. Still, I returned to the public school with higher expectations for my students and a strengthened belief that everyone is responsible for student success, not just administration.
I've come to believe that neither public school nor private school is for every teacher. If smaller classes, a focus on academics, and fewer disciplinary interruptions are important to you, private school may work for you. The sense of prestige that many experience as a faculty member at a respected private school may outweigh any financial considerations. But it's important that private school teachers believe in the school's philosophy and mission so that extra activities are seen as an integral part of the life of the school, not just more responsibility.
Teaching is rewarding in itself, but finding the right school match in terms of philosophy and culture can turn a good job into a real vocation.