An Alternative Path to Teaching

With college instructor jobs harder to come by, Kevin Brown lays out the advantages (and drawbacks) of working at independent secondary schools.


July 10, 2009

The recent job market reminds me of when I finished my doctorate in the mid-1990s. Though the market was not as saturated then, it definitely was not conducive to finding a job. I applied to more than 100 colleges and universities, garnering only a phone interview at one college, where I happened to know two people on the search committee. I made it to a final cut of 10, but no further.

However, I knew that I wanted to teach, so I adjusted my plans and applied for positions at independent high schools (also known as “private schools,” but they do not care for that designation). For those struggling in this job market, I would suggest that this path has numerous benefits and few drawbacks, especially for someone beginning a career.

First, independent schools have talented, often highly motivated students. At the first school I worked at, I taught sophomores and juniors, not in Advanced Placement classes or even Honors classes. The sophomores read The Scarlet Letter, among other works, and the curriculum for the juniors included Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales, Hamlet, Macbeth, Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Heart of Darkness, and the British Romantic poets. Teachers assigned works such as Moby-Dick to their classes, and none of us were disappointed in the students’ responses to the level of difficulty. In fact, we had to move through Heart of Darkness quickly, as the end of the semester was approaching, and neither of my junior classes complained about the pace or load for what is a difficult read for the college sophomores I now teach in a non-majors course at a four-year, liberal arts university.

At another school, where I worked as a librarian, students in the AP Senior English course had to select an additional book from a reading list that went beyond the normal curriculum. One student was reading Ulysses on her own and could discuss it intelligently. When I would ask such students why they would choose to read such works at this point, they would often respond that they simply wanted a challenge. These were not students who needed to be pushed; they needed guidance to help them find the right challenges for them.

The second benefit of teaching at such schools will seem contradictory to what one would expect: more time for research. Granted, if one compares teaching at an independent school to working at a research university, there is no real comparison here; however, if one looks at colleges that emphasize teaching and compares that experience with teaching at an independent school, the independent school will win every time. There are three reasons the advantage falls to the high school teaching:

Smaller class sizes. At my first school, I taught four classes with two sections of each course, with no class having more than 18 students. My total student count was 62. At my second school, I taught five classes with only one preparation, and my total student count was around 75. When I was a librarian, I saw class sizes, again, that did not exceed 20. Compare that to my current typical teaching load of three preparations with class sizes that can reach 30, and I end up with a student load of between 100 and 120. If one compares that with teaching at a community college, the gap grows even larger, as my colleagues there talk about teaching 150 students in a semester.

Minimal to no committee work and meetings. I remember complaining about the number of faculty meetings at my first independent school. I would never do so now. We had one a month, possibly, and one department meeting a semester. People who taught a particular grade level might have one meeting a semester, but certainly no more. Beyond that, I served on no committees, nor was I required to attend any other meetings. In my current job, I can easily list seven or eight committees every semester, along with monthly faculty and department meetings (sometimes twice a month or more), not to mention ad hoc committees or meetings that come up during the semester. I log as many hours of meetings in two months now as I did in the entire school year then.

Lower preparation time. Because I was teaching high school students, I did not have to dig as deeply into the criticism for each of the works I was teaching, and the reading load was much lower because of the slower pace. I did reading to help me prepare for class, of course, but nowhere near the amount I currently do, especially when preparing for a new class or one I have not taught in a while. The reading load was often only a chapter or two of a novel per class, which I could easily finish in under an hour, sometimes in my planning periods. That left plenty of time, especially on the weekends, for research or writing I wanted to do.

There are, however, some drawbacks to teaching at an independent school, depending on your interests and life situation.

First, the pace of class is much slower than one would find in a college class. I remember spending five weeks on Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and I was more than ready to be finished with it when we came to the end of it. While this slower approach enables one to dig deeper into a work, those of us who are used to spending a week or two, at most, on one novel can easily be annoyed at spending an entire month on one work.

Second, the salaries can be quite a bit lower, especially compared to public universities. When I started in the mid- to late-1990s, I was paid $28,000 a year for those four courses I taught (plus other responsibilities I’ll talk about below). I would have received a raise to $30,000 had I stayed the following year, but I chose to pursue an additional graduate degree instead. However, there are often hidden savings that people who have never worked in an independent school are not aware of. At that school, I could have eaten all of my meals for free, as it was a boarding school with a fairly impressive cafeteria, and they allowed all faculty to eat free of charge. I also lived in a house, just off campus, owned by the school, and I paid about $250 a month for a spacious two-bedroom house. Thus, my monthly expenses could have been below $500, much lower than if I worked at a college or university and had to pay much higher rent or mortgage and feed myself. If one works at a boarding school and lives in a dorm, the expenses are even less.

Of course, not everyone wants to live in a dorm or that close to campus, where students can simply wander over to say hello (they never showed up at my house, but they did at other faculty homes). Also, not everyone has a family that would appreciate living in such close quarters to students. However, for those who do, it is a great way to save money at the beginning of a career and pay off some student debt, if necessary.

Last, it does put one further back on the tenure path, which is especially important to long-term earnings and can complicate family plans. Even though I finished my doctorate when I was 27, I did not get a job on the tenure-track until I was 31 and did not receive tenure and my first promotion until I was 38. That schedule worked fine for me, but it may not for other people. However, with the decrease in tenure-track positions, many people are working for much lower wages as adjuncts, not contributing to retirement plans, and not receiving health benefits -- and still not receiving tenure until they are close to or beyond 40.

There is one other consideration when thinking about teaching at an independent school, but whether it is a benefit or drawback depends on your personality and interests. All independent schools require a great deal of extracurricular involvement from their teachers and staff. Those assignments can be the traditional ones of coaching athletics or sponsoring clubs, but they can also be overseeing study halls, monitoring dorms, or taking students to a nearby mall (if one teaches at a rural boarding school).

I was an assistant coach for girls’ basketball, boys’ and girls’ tennis, and even middle school boys’ and girls’ cross-country during my stints at independent schools. I chaperoned dances and on-campus movies; I spent evenings in dorms, though never spent a night there; and I sat in the library and made sure that students were there to study, not socialize. Because of who I am, I loved this work. It gave me a chance to get to know students I would never have in class and to know others in very different ways. When I played one-on-one with students who were disruptive in my classes, I earned their respect, especially when I beat them, but even when I did not. It gave us each insights into the other that we would never find in the classroom.

The life of an independent school teacher, though, is not for everyone. Though there is time for research and writing, there are still demands that one be around campus for a variety of events, and one simply cannot work there without loving to spend time with students. If one does not care for them in a true, personal way, life at an independent school is torture. However, if one really wants to teach intellectually curious students and begin a career outside of the adjunct approach to working into a tenure-track position, independent schools are a wonderful place to start.

Next: How to Interview for Jobs at Independent Schools


Kevin Brown is an associate professor of English at Lee University.


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