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Why Work at an Independent School?

With a plethora of lucrative career choices and opportunities facing highly educated and competent people, one might rightly ask, "Why would anyone choose to teach in an independent school?" The answer in a word is rewards: personal, professional, and believe it or not, even financial.

Satisfaction: Recent research on independent school teachers indicates that 84% were very satisfied with their teaching jobs and 90% planned to continue teaching, a much higher satisfaction rate that in the general job market population, and significantly higher than the satisfaction levels at other kinds of schools. On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = not comfortable and 5 = very comfortable), independent school teachers in the study indicated extraordinarily high comfort levels with the subjects they teach (4.74) and the students they teach (4.73). They indicated equally high scores on various litmus-test satisfaction questions: Looking forward to work each day (4.36); teaching career as having more advantages than disadvantages (4.49); becoming a teacher again if they had the chance to start all over (3.95); having a high level of influence on designing curricula (89%).1 Whereas teacher attrition in other types of schools tends to be high, especially in the first three years, it is quite low in independent schools.

Compensation: Although historically in America, teacher salaries universally have been low in comparison to salaries for other fields with comparable skill sets and entry requirements for education and degrees, all of that is changing dramatically in the face of the coming crisis in teacher recruitment (due to dire shortages emerging in the labor force). Public school starting salaries are rising dramatically on a national basis (but varying by locality, of course, throughout the country), and independent schools are beginning to catch up, with many boards of trustees setting the bar at 90% to 100%+ of the local public school benchmarks. Although historically, teachers have been willing to work in independent schools for less cash compensation than they would receive in the local public schools because of the "climate advantage" in the former, boards are beginning to recognize that the climate advantage must be supplemented by competitiveness in cash salary compensation, and many independent school boards are moving purposefully in that direction.

Independent schools tend to be very competitive with other types of schools (and with other industries) in terms of benefits. Typically, benefits in independent schools include top-line health and life insurance commitments, generous leave and vacation policies, and family-friendly policies (including preferential treatment in admissions and financial aid for one's own children to attend one's school). Although in the teaching profession there is an assumption that public school pensions are incomparably generous, in fact, independent school pensions are better because the former are "defined benefit" plans (e.g., 1.5% of the final year's salary times the number of years served) whereas the latter are "defined contribution" plans: (e.g., the employer and employee match contributions to an annuity plan-typically TIAA/CREF- whose value grows through investments to exceed that of defined benefit plans, often exceeding the public school plans by twice as much or more.) (See attached tables as illustration.2).

Although in independent schools we often refer to the work as a "calling" rather than a "job," we are working hard to show that one needs not be consigned to a "vow of poverty" to work in an independent school but rather can afford to live a "life of middle-class dignity" while working in a field that is highly gratifying.

Climate: Independent schools are seen within the industry of schooling as having a significant "climate advantage" over other types of schools and other types of work. In polling of independent school teachers on the question of why they chose to teach in independent schools (and why they stay), in response after response the teachers cite the quality of the students and the professionalism of the climate as key factors3: simply put, independent schools are both fortunate in controlling the student culture and norms of behavior (the keystones for building a school climate that works for kids and for teachers) and also committed to the proposition that teachers are professionals entitled to the freedom of designing their own curriculum.

Independent schools seek as teachers individuals who are idealistic, passionate about teaching in general and about one or more fields of study in particular, and who are caring in their relationships with students and colleagues. One of the advantages of independent schools is that we are "independent" in governance and finance, and therefore we are afforded freedoms unique to our model, including the freedom to hire teachers who qualify by our standards (i.e., state certification is not an issue for most of our schools) and to give teachers the independence and freedom to teach what they believe is "true" (i.e., freedom to design one's own curriculum). Absent the bureaucracy of "the central office" and the labor rules of "the union," independent school teachers are liberated to teach what and how they believe best serves their students.

Independent school teachers are what James M. Banner, Jr. and Harold C. Cannon call "custodians of culture"4: There is a palpable sense in independent schools that the work we do is important, in fact critical, for us to pass on the lessons of the culture and to perpetuate the civilization. Accordingly, we value and validate teachers in a way that is not evident, sadly, in the wider culture.

Diversity: Independent school teachers are committed to diversity and to creating an inclusive and multicultural environment. Although the public perception is that independent schools lack diversity, the research shows that independent schools tend to be more diverse than public schools5, since the former actively seek diversity and draw from many communities whereas the latter are dependent on neighborhood living patterns where populations tend to concentrate in ethnic enclaves. On average 25% of the student body of a typical independent school receives financial aid and between around 20% of the student body is comprised of students of color.

Leverage: In an ideal world, all children in America would have the opportunity to attend schools that have the advantages of independent schools (and perhaps one day we will see that happen): Schools where the culture of the school is strongly academic; schools where the ethos of caring and responsible citizenship (what we call "the second curriculum" or "the character curriculum" of independent schools) is evidenced daily. Until that day arrives, teaching in independent schools allows teachers to leverage their impact, since graduates of independent schools attend and graduate from college (and therefore end up in leadership roles in the economy and in the community) in representation hugely disproportionate to their numbers. Whereas only about 50% of America's teenagers actually get to college and only 50% of them actually graduate within six years of starting, almost 100% of independent school students not only attend college but also persist to achieve a four-year degree.

If one's idealism brings one into teaching, and one seeks "to change the world," then teaching in an independent school would enhance the likelihood of having a multiplier effect, since we teach many who will be in leadership roles and will serve as "opinion leaders" in future generations. As Margaret Mead reminds us, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." If it is true that "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world," then the influence of teachers rivals that of other primary care-givers: We do no less than imprint the hearts and minds of those who will succeed us in the communities of the future.

See also: "The Unique Benefits of Teaching in an Independent School " OAIS White Paper, Fall '99.

"Why Teach in a Private School" CAPE monograph (Council for the Advancement of Private Educatation, Spring 2000

End Notes:
1. Witt, Diane S. & Robert M. The Teachers as Professionals Project. Funded by the Hawaii Community Foundation, vii, 10-11, 25.
2. See the attached outline of benefit projections and comparisons, prepared by TIAA-CREF.
3. See the attached summary of a poll of ISACS teachers on the subject of "Why Do You Teach in an Independent School?"
4. Banner, James M. & Cannon, Harold C. The Elements of Teaching. New Haven: Yale University Press, 23.
5. Jay P. Greene, Nicole Mellow. "Integration Where it Counts: A Study of Racial Integration in Public and Private School Lunchrooms." Research presented at the 1998 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association.


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