Teaching History at Top Independent Schools and Academic Work Part 2 by Darcy Fryer

I met Fryer a few years back at an American Historical Association meeting; I think you will find this article to be most insightful as it addresses the nature of academic work in an independent school. Because I have only wanted to teach in an independent school history department, I have found those who have more experience than I to be the most insightful, especially faculty members at tier one national independent schools. I have asked a few people from various schools to contribute to a discussion on teaching, research, and doing academic work.

Some academics view high school teaching as the epitome of failure-a fall-back plan for those who can’t make it in the world of higher education. After four years of teaching in a well-regarded New York City independent school, I’ve concluded that my present institution is more rigorous, and offers a more intellectually satisfying teaching environment, than many colleges and universities. Many independent schools, in fact, more nearly resemble miniature liberal arts colleges than the high schools that we may remember from our youth.
The top independent schools have a standard teaching load of four courses (typically three preparations), each of which meets for 160-200 minutes per week. Other independent schools often have a teaching load of five courses (also three preparations). Job candidates should note that this teaching load is similar to the prevailing load at community colleges and smaller state universities. Classes are small: often fewer than 15 students and certainly fewer than 20. A common pattern is for each instructor to teach two survey courses plus an elective for more advanced students. Many electives focus on particular regions-Atlantic World, Islamic World, Africa, East Asia-while others introduce students to disciplines such as art history, intellectual history, and political science. Some independent schools offer “topics” courses, in which advanced students study highly focused topics (the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the history of New York City) for a single quarter or trimester

Independent school classes are usually run in a discussion format around a Harkness table, which is used on my campus, enhanced by lectures, films, and activities. Survey courses usually rely on a college-level textbook, supplemented by dozens of primary sources. Courses for juniors and seniors, like college seminars, may eschew textbooks in favor of other genres of historical writing. In my Atlantic World course, I assign two challenging surveys (Alan Taylor’s American Colonies and Mark Burkholder and Lyman Johnson’s Colonial Latin America), several monographs (Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power, Alfred Crosby’s Columbian Exchange, John Thornton’s Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, and Elizabeth Fenn’s Pox Americana), and a documentary reader on the Haitian Revolution. These seven books are supplemented by primary sources, a few scholarly articles, and films such as Black Robe and the documentary, A Midwife’s Tale. Most students are undaunted by this heavy reading load. Thornton’s monograph, perhaps the most challenging book on the syllabus, was the surprise hit of the course.

Both historiography and primary sources are often central to independent school history courses. Primary sources are usually introduced in the early middle school years; by high school, students are expected to quote and analyze primary sources in every essay they write. The school at which I teach formally introduces historiography in the 10th grade; students read excerpts from Ulrich Phillips, Kenneth Stampp, and Eugene Genovese, write a paper in which they analyze an excerpt from the Autobiography of Frederick Douglass from each of these three perspectives, and then learn about more recent trends in the historiography of slavery. In 11th and 12th grade courses, students read books and articles that exemplify various approaches to historical analysis, such as new social history, narrative history, and environmental history. In class and on tests, they may be asked to compare and contrast theories they have studied or apply them to particular primary sources.

Independent schools expect students to do a great deal of writing. A year-long survey course typically requires about four essays of at least 3-4 pages each; advanced courses often require a substantial research paper in addition to two to four short papers. The quality of the papers varies greatly, just as it would in most college classrooms. The best papers make very ambitious arguments. Many independent schools now subscribe to databases such as American National Biography and JSTOR, and teaching students to use these resources is an integral part of the research curriculum.

The Independent School Culture

In some respects, independent schools require a greater commitment from faculty than colleges do. For example, independent school teachers usually write separate reports (75-100 words) on each student three times per year. As at many small colleges, faculty members are expected to be on campus every day and be readily available for informal meetings with students. It’s not unusual to be asked to cover an absent colleague’s class or to speak at an assembly on, say, the electoral college. As academic departments are small, one may find oneself serving as a point person for regions and eras in which one has little or no training; though trained as an early Americanist, I am now my department’s primary contact for the entire Western Hemisphere. (Of course, when the time comes to order new library books, this is a pleasure.)

Independent schools also expect faculty members to perform significant service outside the classroom. Typical assignments include academic advising, mentoring a club, helping coach an athletic team, chaperoning field trips, and serving on faculty committees. Good independent schools grant faculty members considerable discretion in choosing their own service activities; these extracurricular assignments sometimes present unexpected opportunities to revive and develop old interests. As a teenager, I studied German for nine years; as an American historian, I scarcely ever use the language. But I now teach an introductory “Taste of German” course to seniors each spring.

An increasing number of independent school faculty seek to publish scholarly books and articles. One is also likely to have colleagues who work as poets, performing artists, and literary translators in their spare time. Independent schools seldom oppose such scholarly and artistic activities, but neither do they offer the support that research universities provide. Summer vacations usually last two months, not three. School libraries, though often magnificent for their size, are not adequate


12 thoughts on “Teaching History at Top Independent Schools and Academic Work Part 2 by Darcy Fryer

  1. This is a great post; I have found this to be my experience at an independent school before taking a university post. We did not teach so many courses, though. I rule was a general course than a course of our picking. I often had classes of only 4 students, which was very nice. I had it easy then. My students were far stronger when I taught high school than they are now. They were more elite and far more motivated. They really bought into the culture.

    How does a Christian independent school such as your compare to Dracy’s model? I am very curious seeing that I have never taught in a Christian school, though I have taught at schools with a religious origin.

  2. Wow! This is a great article. Hmmm, I am interested now. I still would like to swing by your campus to watch the master at work. Plus, I want to see how your private school students stack up against my very bright publics.

  3. I must second Phephery here. Once students get to college and leave really good private (and public) schools, there is almost the act that we must focus on the task of making money. Learning for some not all is secondary. Some are ready to leave once they arrive when they realize they must work.

    But, I can tell those who came from good schools, had good professors at their school, and who took the right classes.

  4. Beautiful post! I am a university professor. Retired, teach part time at university, part time sub at high school. The HS experience is wonderful. I am able to relate to the students and help them understand how to think. I have collected these thoughts in a book. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.

  5. Phephery:
    Darcy’s post is fantastic, I agree. I have taught in both the public and private system, and while the independent school maintains an overall higher expectation and more rigorous complete curriculum, I have not found a great difference in the higher end student. The culture of the student in the AP realm, for instance, generally seems the same – more driven to succeed, more focused on college, and sometimes, more in it for the sake of knowledge. However, in both systems I have seen an increased attitude or focus on making money (as Prof Mark Lewis mentioned) with a secondary focus on learning. I strive to combat that philosophy by continually challenging and improving myself. My hope is that students will see that being passionate about what one does is so much more important than the salary (of course that is yet another conversation).
    As far as the comparison between Darcy’s school and a Christian school (where I teach now), yes, there is a difference. There are fewer “elite” Christian schools than top tier independent schools. There are a variety of reasons for this. Some Christian schools refuse to recognize diverse interpretaions, and rather than open the doors for debate and intellectual discourse, they pretend other views do not exist. This perpetuates the image of the ignorant Christian. Fortunately, the school where I teach does not run from scholastic debates, rather it recognizes that, even in the Christain world view, there are diverse interpetations (ie true creationists & evolutionary creationists). I would imagine there are some Christian Schools that parallel Darcy’s, (i have heard that Stoneybrook on Long Island does), but there are not many that I know of.

  6. Let me second Metty’s comment; I am currently doing research on race and independent schools. And though I have not spent much time visiting religious private schools, I will agree that we are more academic than most. We believe that we are in a position with our faculty and the type of students we are attracting to compete with man of the best. We do not require faculty and staff to be of one religious position, but we are expected as we do to model Christian teachings.

  7. Interesting post.

    Carson and Metty – I do agree that our school is probably more academic than many other independent Christian schools. However, I do not believe that our student body as a whole is comparable to the student body of a “top tier independent school.” Unfortunately, we have many students who have no desire to put extensive effort into their school work. They may not fail, but they are perfectly happy with making 70s in their core courses. At the same time, we have students that make straight A’s because they are good test takers; they are in it to make good grades, not heighten their intellect.

    My assumption is that students at top tier independent schools truly value their education and put a great deal of effort into it. While they realize that they are very intelligent, they are constantly hungry to learn more. Am I correct?

  8. Dillon:

    First — It was great seeing you today. Swing by when I am not in class and chat with me. Second — You are right in that we do not in a collective sense have the type of students tier one national independent schools have. In part our mission is not to be elite like a St. John’s or a Kinkaid. Still, I think we can offer many of the same benefits as they do. I will admit that we do need more students willing to take on more advanced courses. I ould also like to see us kill Pre-AP and have either academic which should be ttaught at the Pre-AP level or AP. Many national elite schools do not offer AP because they feel that all of their courses are advanced.

    I have heard you are one of those type of students. One who likes ideas and learning. We put way too much on grades. I have taught a number of straight A lazy students. They drive me crazy.

  9. Carson – I will definitely drop by sometime so we can chat.

    You make an interesting suggestion about killing the Pre-AP program and teaching regular courses at the Pre-AP level. I do think that the difficulty level of regular level classes has a lot to do with the teacher; some teachers just expect more out of their students than others. Thoughts?

    I do enjoy learning, and like yourself, straight A lazy students drive me crazy. In my Freshman Biology class, there was a particular student who I will never forget. Her classroom participation was minimal, and when the teacher would occasionally ask her questions, she just stared at him with a puzzled expression. Yet, she would make at least a 95 on every test. Of course, certain students are better than others at particular subjects, but you get my point. This aspect of our educational system has always frustrated me; when did grades become an effective or measuring students?

  10. I will see if such exists. Visit under the category Academic blogs on my side bars Teachers Education. mrs chili, who teaches English at the college level, writes a lot about this field and her experiences. Also, under Education click on Independent Teacher: It is an online journal that might address topics you are seeking.

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