How About a Career at an Independent K-12 School?

Beth Jones describes the benefits for master’s and Ph.D. graduates.

September 21, 2017
 
 
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You have just graduated with your master’s degree or Ph.D., and you are searching for a permanent faculty position in academe. You have been warned by your professors and peers that such positions are few and far between, even at the community college level.

More than likely, you will need to spend at least a few years as an adjunct instructor before any college or university will consider inviting you to interview for a full-time assistant professorship. Although you may have accomplished the admirable feat of finishing your dissertation, you have only a 50 percent chance of ever landing a tenure-track position in your field. In the meantime, you have student loans to pay off. You might be contemplating taking out your first mortgage, or you might have a child or two at home or on the way.

If you have a marketable degree, you may be tempted to abandon your passion for education to look for a job that will pay the bills and provide comfortably for your and your family’s future. But what if you could pursue a career that would allow you to focus simultaneously on honing your skills as an educator, developing further as an expert in your field and becoming financially stable? What if, in addition, this career would allow you to collaborate with colleagues who also possess advanced degrees and share your passion for preparing the next generation of critical thinkers and skilled practitioners? In short, what if you decided to pursue a teaching career with independent schools?

Unless you attended an independent high school yourself or know someone who has, you may have some misconceptions about students at such schools. I know I did. While some independent school students from wealthy families are focused on luxury goods and accommodations at home and abroad, many more are keenly aware of the advantages they have been given and desire to use those advantages to make a positive contribution.

At the independent school where I teach, service trips to Native American reservations to build houses, Nicaraguan orphanages to play with children, and Japanese schools to teach English are the norm, not the exception. During the school year, individual students regularly and enthusiastically volunteer their time with nonprofit organizations: tutoring kids at a center for families coping with domestic violence, answering calls at a teen suicide hotline or providing companionship for kids with developmental delays. Almost without exception, the independent school students I have taught for the last 10 years are among the most thoughtful and intentional people I’ve ever met.

This intentionality extends to their studies as well. When I first transitioned to teaching English at an independent high school after working as an adjunct instructor at a private liberal arts college, I was immediately struck by the number of my high school students who easily outpaced my former college students in self-discipline and academic engagement. Unlike the college freshmen I had taught -- who largely viewed the study of literature and composition as a minor hurdle to overcome in their four-year trek to earning a bachelor’s degree -- my AP English literature students were eager to pore over and discuss texts such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man or Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. They viewed my class as an opportunity for intellectual growth, not merely as one more task to complete in the college admissions process.

And I welcomed the chance to teach a seminar-size, discussion-based course: 15 students per class is the norm for most independent schools. Over the course of the school year, my AP literature cohort held impromptu debates on the motivations of Ellison’s nameless narrator and the orphaned children of James’s novella. In our study of poetry, they argued for the merits of Emily Dickinson’s succinct, bounded poetic style versus the expansive range of Walt Whitman’s free verse. Until I met these high school seniors, I hadn’t realized that teaching literature could be as thought-provoking as studying it with my peers in college.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the collegiality of the independent school setting. In my former life as a part-time adjunct focused on the early stages of my dissertation, I had experienced a certain amount of professional and academic isolation. My colleagues at the college were friendly and approachable, and we occasionally discussed best practices for teaching literature and composition. But I was only on campus three days a week and held office hours just twice a week, so my contact with colleagues was mostly hit-or-miss.

By contrast, I found a diverse yet close-knit community of scholars when I joined the independent school faculty. Nearly a third of my current colleagues have earned doctorates, and almost all have at least a master’s degree. Independent schools draw faculty from a wide range of backgrounds and locations: one of my colleagues taught extensively at universities in Germany and the American Midwest before starting his career as an independent-school teacher in Chicago. Another, a British transplant, earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Oxford and his master’s in medieval literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. A third graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, before spending many years as an independent high school teacher in Japan and Thailand.

Other current and former colleagues hail from New Hampshire, Hawaii, Ecuador, mainland China, Spain and Texas. Since we often teach sections of the same course and do our lesson planning in the same offices, we frequently share resources with one another and have been known to wax eloquent on a teaching approach that succeeded wildly or failed abysmally. Likewise, we regularly discuss the latest developments in our particular discipline, pondering how we might incorporate those innovations into our pedagogy.

In fact, most independent school administrators view professional development as a high priority, setting aside a significant part of their faculty budgets for instructors to attend workshops and conferences in order to stay current in their fields. Last spring, a small group of colleagues and I rented a house in Palm Springs and spent three days at an educational technology conference, attending workshops specific to our disciplines. We spent our evenings back at the house, discussing what we had learned and how we could integrate this newfound knowledge into our classes. When we returned to work, we devoted an entire faculty meeting to sharing those pedagogical tools with our colleagues.

While I have been cheered by the dedication of my colleagues to their professional growth, I have been even more impressed by the commitment of parents to their students’ academic development. If we communicate regularly with them about their child’s progress, we can have no stronger collaborators in fostering an engaged and committed student community. Parents regularly thank us for sending out email updates on an essay well written or a test passed with honors, and they are equally grateful for information on missed assignments or the need for outside assistance, such as a weekly tutoring session, to meet the rigors of a particularly demanding course.

A final word about salary and benefits: although compensation for independent-school teaching can never equal the monetary perks of a career in engineering or marketing, school administrators are nonetheless committed to rewarding their faculty members for advanced degrees and years of service. And the economic comparison between cobbling together a few adjunct assignments with teaching full-time in an independent school? Frankly, there is none. In my first year of independent-school teaching, for roughly the same number of contact hours as my adjunct position the previous year, my salary shot up over 50 percent. In addition, nearly all independent schools offer full benefits: medical, dental, vision, life insurance and retirement savings.

What are the downsides to teaching at an independent school? As in any academic setting, you will probably come across a handful of students who want the grade without doing the necessary work to achieve it. You may encounter the office politics that accompany any workplace where a diverse group of people work closely together. And, of course, you won’t be able to escape that occasional last-minute flurry of late-night grading because you have procrastinated too long. Over all, though, independent schools provide a challenging and rewarding environment for your own professional development and the academic growth of your students.

Bio

Beth Jones teaches humanities at an independent high school in the Los Angeles area. She spends her free time writing her dissertation on George Eliot and the sublime.

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