Leaving the College Campus for the Elite Private Schools

The article below was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Gwendolyn Bradley. For those of you who have an interest in leaving College level teaching for an appointment at a private (or independent) school, this piece offers some good advice. And, as promised to my college colleague, a blog piece to help you make a decision. As noted by Bradley, the more elite the school is the better the teaching setting is. Moreover, for those of you who are academics and have a desire to research and write, you will find a home teaching at an independent school; however, note that many secondary teachers are not interested in research. Thus, you might find administrators less interested, which means funding and traveling problems. Keep in mind that many private schools are looking for people with content knowledge and the ability to communicate. Teachers are usually not required to hold a teaching license, which I am not a big fan of. Coaching helps here, too.  So, my final advice to my friend teaching at Bad College in the South (BCIS), when you decide to leave for a private school, keep in mind that not all private schools are the same.

Peter Wozniak left a tenured professorship at Auburn University at Montgomery to teach history at the Montgomery Academy, a private high school in Alabama. Not long after, two of Mr. Wozniak’s colleagues followed in his footsteps.

“Had I been an associate professor at a major research university, I probably would not have changed,” Mr. Wozniak says. “But when one teaches at a small, regional, community-college type institution, one can be far better off at a high school. The students are capable of a very high level of work.” Mr. Wozniak initially contacted the Montgomery Academy looking for part-time work to supplement his university salary. When the school later offered him a full-time position, he accepted. After 10 years at Auburn, he was fed up with what he saw as a declining quality of students and low pay. “Unbelievably, the high school is paying me more than the university was going to pay me for being chairman of the department,” Mr. Wozniak says.

Secondary-school teaching has long been an obvious alternative for humanities Ph.D.’s and A.B.D.’s who don’t land the college teaching jobs they want. But increasingly, people with doctorates are viewing elite private-school teaching as a rewarding career in its own right, rather than a watered-down version of college teaching or an undesirable backup plan. J.D. Bowers, who teaches history at Punahou School in Honolulu, says he became tired of professors complaining that college students didn’t know how to write and that it wasn’t their responsibility to teach them. An A.B.D. in American history from Indiana University, Mr. Bowers realized that he could make a difference at the secondary level. “When I was a T.A. and visiting professor, I probably made lasting impacts on about four students,” he says. “Here I know I’ve changed the lives of so many more students.”

Robert Lauder, head of the upper school at Sidwell Friends School, a Quaker day school in Washington, D.C., says that people with doctorates should realize that “there’s a lot out there besides college teaching.”

“A lot of our teachers do continue to publish and be involved in their academic disciplines but without the intense pressure you find with college teaching,” he says. Sidwell currently employs nine Ph.D.’s out of 58 faculty members in its upper division and is currently seeking an instructor to teach courses in African history and African-American history. Many Ph.D.’s choose private schools because, unlike public schools, they generally do not require teaching certification. Like Mr. Wozniak, they tend to find jobs in the elite private schools that are academically strong, well financed, and that employ teachers of a variety of faiths.

Independent schools need teachers who can play a variety of roles. Besides classroom teaching, they typically emphasize teacher-run extracurricular activities ranging from sports to theater to environmental activism. Coaching ability is particularly sought after. On the other hand, not everyone has to be a varsity coach.

“The person who’s going to get hired is someone who has a good personality — lively, fun, compassionate,” says Jonathan Ball of the teacher recruiting firm Carney Sandoe. “Athletics and fine arts are a plus, but it’s more that you need interest and some ability than extensive experience.” The opportunity to interact with students in many arenas (the classroom, the track, the stage, the student newspaper, the class trip to France) and a sense of really making a difference to students’ lives are cited over and over again by secondary teachers as reasons why they enjoy the profession.

Barbara Holler Smith left a post at Hebron Academy to complete her Ph.D., but despite a grueling schedule, she enjoyed the job and is considering returning. “I loved the community of adults,” she says. “The trust and friendship of the students made up for the long hours and lack of privacy. I remember accompanying the soccer team I coached to a game in October. The Maine leaves were turning their vibrant colors on the hills surrounding the field, and looking up I felt so grateful that this was my job, that I wasn’t sitting in an office trying to come up with a clever idea to build an article around.”

In some ways, secondary-school teaching differs from college teaching. Ms. Holler Smith cites the need to discipline high-school students as a major difference. And although it is often possible for a teacher to incorporate a specialty into middle- and high-school classes, independent schools are basically hiring generalists. This can be a problem for academics, who tend to be trained exhaustively in specific areas, but the problem is more one of desire than ability.

“Keep in mind that these are 15-year-old kids,” advises Will Layman, a seasoned English teacher, jazz-band leader, and head of upper school at the Field School in Washington, D.C. “You don’t need an incredibly deep knowledge of an area to teach it effectively. Rather, you have to be prepared to teach well.”

It is a mistake to believe that secondary-school curriculum is simply a dumbed-down college curriculum, or that secondary-school students are less capable than college students. Because private schools draw from an elite, well-educated population, most students are already excellent readers, writers, and debaters when they enter middle school. “The teaching is a lot more illuminating and intellectually interesting than people think,” says Mr. Layman. “We’ve got motivated families, open and creative kids, and the freedom to design classes, order books, and implement innovative ideas.”

Research is a different question. Mr. Wozniak says he has published two book reviews and delivered two conference papers in the last year, and the Montgomery Academy does offer research support — it even paid for Mr. Wozniak to attend a conference in Poland. But this level of continued scholarship is unusual. Many schools offer some research support, but it is more in the interest of faculty members’ keeping engaged with their teaching disciplines than making names for themselves as scholars. This comes as a relief to some, though the lower status associated with being an educator rather than an intellectual can be a problem, particularly after one has devoted years to obtaining a higher degree that is unnecessary for the job.

The starting pay range for someone with an advanced degree and some college-teaching experience is generally in the mid-thirties at a day school, according to estimates from recruiters and teachers, though teachers and administrators emphasize that pay is usually negotiated individually with candidates rather than being dictated by a firm scale.

Boarding-school pay is often lower, but that is more than offset by the fact that life at a boarding school involves very few expenses. Besides receiving health insurance, a generous retirement plan, a paid trimester of sabbatical every seven years, and subsidized university tuition, Ed Denault, a Spanish teacher at the Woodberry Forest School in Virginia, sums up his benefits this way: “Housing is furnished, free, no utilities, no commute, maid service, all meals free, computer free, plus library privileges at a major university.”

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6 thoughts on “Leaving the College Campus for the Elite Private Schools

  1. Interesting. I cannot do the religious school thing. I have heard that they tell you who to date, how to date, where to date, etc. Just kidding. Can you really teach at such a school? Seems limiting in how you challenge students. What if a school disagrees with you on a very bascic thing? Seeing that I would be a very bad teacher and don’t know much, I will avoid the two places I wanted to leave, college and high school.

  2. Eddie,

    Thanks for writing this piece just for me. I do have a lot to consider but I thout this Chron. article was great. How does this Montgomery Academy School compare to your school? I thought you went to MA in high school? This is a pretty elite school.

    Here is some good news: I met with my dept chair about my teaching load and lack there of time to write. It was a very productive meeting. Will share more in my e-mail.

  3. Religious schools vary a lot in how much intervention there is in the curriculum. Some are very hands-on but others really give the teachers as much freedom as they receive in a college classroom. Just be sure you ask the right questions going in to it.

    I have two friends who’ve left university teaching for private high schools (one was escaping adjunct hell and the other left a city university where many of his students didn’t speak English particularly well). Both have been happy with the decision.

    The only caveat is that while it’s easy to get a good prep school job as a college teacher – good luck getting them to lower the drawbridge if you want to go from secondary school back to the college level!

  4. sassy

    I agree with you; it is all about the questions you ask. I would much rather teach at a very good private school rather than serve as an adjunct. It that situation, your own dept. does not show enough respect. I do not know of one who left college for private school life only to return; however, I know of a few who left for college. I saw that you linked a school home page…is that your place of employment?

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