What Makes an Independent School Different? By Guest Blogger (ESA)

I have asked students, independent school faculty members, and administrators to participate in a blogging forum addressing matters of independent school life. Below is a piece written by a guest blogger who will be refered to here as Elite School Administrator (ESA). ESA works at a top tier independent school in North Carolina. Creatively, he has taken a set of myth questions and comments and added his thoughts. Much of my research and writing interest centers around historical markers and sociological factors as meters vis-a-vis race and independent schools. Because of such interest, I make it a point to network and explore the nature of independent schools.

Myth: Private school teachers make less than their colleagues in public schools.

As with most things, that’s not necessarily true. A lot depends on the kind of the school we are talking about. For example, a third grade teacher in a parochial school will make about 10-15% less than her counterpart in a public school. Why? Parochial school budgets are traditionally the slimmest in the business because their tuitions are among the lowest in the business. Now, put that same third grade teacher in a Montessori school and the salary gap closes significantly. Why? Montessori schools typically charge what the market will bear. Highly qualified teachers with terminal degrees working at the top prep schools will make very close to what their colleagues in public education make. Ditto for administrators. Now, put that same third grade teacher in a Montessori school and the salary gap closes significantly. Why? Montessori schools typically charge what the market will bear. Highly qualified teachers with terminal degrees working at the top prep schools will make very close to what their colleagues in public education make. Ditto for administrators.

ESA: The nice thing about many if not most independent schools is that they are willing to negotiate salary. My campus does not have a set salary chart. Now, when I was part of the teaching faculty full time I worried about this my first few years. I was not sure what I would be making down the road. In the end, the best schools always pay the best teachers what they should earn.


Myth: Private school students are spoiled rich kids or n’er-do-wells who have been packed off to private school for remediation.
Yes, there are day schools in many parts of the country where you will see more luxury cars per square foot in the school parking lot than you can possibly imagine. Yes, it is impressive seeing Josh’s dad land on the soccer field in his company helicopter*. The reality, however, is that most schools are remarkably diverse, inclusive communities. Ignore the popular stereotypes which Hollywood loves to perpetuate.

ESA: This tends to be true at schools on the lower end. Such schools are young and have not developed a reputation for academic quality. They usually have an administrator who does other things as well as reviewing the files of potential students. A school such as this often enough does not administer an admissions test or interview the family and the student. They are driven by money so they can keep the lights on.

Same Sex Partners

Myth: Same sex partners are not welcome in private schools.

That probably still is the case in most conservative religious schools. On the other hand some of the top prep schools including Andover welcome same sex couples on their faculty and staff. They enjoy all the rights and privileges which heterosexual couples enjoy.

ESA: My campus has taken a very active position on diversity. We have a few but not many openly gay faculty members. As of a few years ago, we adjusted our health care policy so that a gay faculty’s partner would be eligible under the family policy for health care. I do know of some schools that have gay/lesbian associations made up of students and faculty. We do not have that. I suspect our gay students are still dealing with their decision to come out. I write about this topic because it is one that is addressed at many Independent School Conferences.


Myth: You don’t have to be certified to teach in a private school.

That most definitely was the case a couple of decades ago. While some private schools will hire a teacher who is not certified by a state licensing authority, they usually do so because of mitigating circumstances such as a critical need for a teacher in a particular discipline. Typically the new hire is expected to earn her certification within one or two years. The same is true of teachers who have had other careers and decide to become teachers later in life. The school will hire them in order to get teachers who are passionate about their subject. Certification will be required within a year or so after employment. It is a practical approach to hiring which is usually successful.

ESA: I do not agree with this comment. Our school’s policy is one of subject matter and content. We conduct national searches for each position in every department. The value of hiring the ideal person is too important to let certification get in the way. It is true that many schools operate this way, but we have found that it makes it difficult to recruit candidates from across the country. We see our body as a group of academics, diverse in their intellectual rights.


Myth: Private schools require their faculty to live on campus

Some do and some don’t. Boarding schools typically want their junior faculty to be dorm masters. In other words you are required to live in an apartment in the dorm and be responsible for supervising the students who board. Senior faculty and staff generally live in school-provided housing located on campus. Day schools don’t require their faculty to live on campus as a rule.

ESA: Because I teach at a day school, this is not a matter for us. I do know that many of the best boarding schools require this. Boarding schools are clearly not for all. I lost a teacher to one last year. She was looking to be surrounded in school life. Before addressing this point, I asked her if she enjoyed the 24/7 mentality of boarding life. I was not surprised to hear her say yes. I do know that you give up a great deal of privacy. Many faculty members live in the residential halls where students reside. What many people do not know is at some boarding schools, they provide on campus faculty housing.

Dress Code

Myth: Private school teachers have to wear academic gowns.

American and Canadian private school teachers ‘dress up’ in their full academic regalia for state occasions such as prize day and graduation only at schools which have a tradition of such formality. Personally, I think that an academic procession with faculty wearing their gowns and hoods is inspiring. Some English schools such as Eton have a very formal dress code. Gown and mortarboard are de rigeur in the class room. (Considering how cold and draughty English classrooms can be, that’s probably not a bad idea.) What is the dress code in most schools? Generally it follows the lead of the student dress code. If a blazer, shirt and tie are required for young men, male faculty will dress similarly. The same applies to women faculty. They will wear clothes appropriate to the young ladies’ dress code.

ESA: This is true for some but not all independent schools. Each member of our faculty wears a gown and a hood that reflects their highest degree earned and university color. Our faculty is made up of teachers, scholars, coaches, and leaders who are a part of a very important process. It is this, in my opinion, that seperates the top independent schools from others. We wear our gown and hood twice a year. In the fall during convocation and in the spring at commencement. Our students only recently started waering a cap and gown. They used to wear very nice formal wear at commencement.

We do have a uniform policy. Our motive was driven to eliminate the socioeconomic issues related to clothing. We give a number of substantial schlorships and aid to outstanding students who might not be able to afford us.

Reference Note:



7 thoughts on “What Makes an Independent School Different? By Guest Blogger (ESA)

  1. We have students who are dealing with the same issues (sexuality). We do have an organization that meets. Oh, I sponsor it. As for the low end private schools, there are way too many of them. I am amazed at how students are willing to attend a low end private school with low SATs than attend my very diverse public school. Ithink it is a matter of sheltering them.

  2. I sense that private schools operate very differently from public schools. I wonder if they feel that they create this false sense of being elite just to be different? I like the function and operation of private schools. Plus, it must be a very easy job teaching the best and brightest.

  3. I think the key thing missing from this discussion is the range of freedom and the emphasis on size and community. At my school, trust (thanks to a well respected honor code) and value (many talk about but…) make us who we are. Our students are golden. Faculty and students co exist to advance learning. Part of it is that we only have studdents who want to be here. If a students clearly does not want to work or causs problems, we as them to leave.

  4. I always think of Dead Poets Society when reading or hearing about private schools. I think most have drawn a decision that private (non religious) schools are very conservatuive and traditional, much like the movie. I have always thought of them as being progressive. I know about your interest in race and schools, but I suspect many have shifted past white flight, at least the goods have done this.

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