The Private High School Option

Eliza Woolf considers the advantages of teaching outside the college setting -- and how to get such a position.
January 17, 2011

During spring semester 2010, Katherine Parker (a pseudonym) resigned from her position as a tenure-track history professor at a regional comprehensive university, on the border between the South and the Midwest, to work at an elite private high school. She left, she says, for a number of reasons including low pay, frozen salaries, and cost-of-living adjustments that never came; insufficient resources for travel, research, and instruction; blatant administrative condescension toward faculty; and a poor personal fit with the region and its culture. There was also, Parker explains, "the sense that I was becoming more and more disconnected from my work — phoning it in because it no longer offered anything exciting."

For three successive years, Parker attempted to find a better position within the ivory tower, and every year she was a finalist for "a great job." But, in the end, each of the search committees offered her dream academic job to another candidate. In the midst of the 2009-10 job season, Parker decided that the plummeting state of the academic market meant that it was time to explore other options. She'd had enough. "Private school teaching attracted me because it combined the work I already knew I enjoyed with an institution that could support that work better (more resources, fewer students, more support for those students). It also promised a higher caliber of student."

Like many other job seekers considering private school teaching, Parker contacted the nation’s largest recruitment firm in private school education — Carney, Sandoe & Associates (or CS&A) — and applied for representation. After carefully reviewing her online application and resume, CS&A accepted Parker as a candidate. Once accepted, she was required to submit a personal statement, 3-5 letters of reference and all her undergraduate and graduate transcripts. CS&A interviewed Parker on the phone, homed in on her preferences in terms of school type and geography, and then began sending her dossier to schools with appropriate faculty openings. With her extensive teaching experience and thoughtful application materials, Parker was a sought-after candidate among private secondary schools seeking history instructors.

For the first time in years she found herself flush with potential job options in desirable locations. "The school I eventually chose asked for two phone interviews and an on-campus interview (funded by the school)," Parker relates, "so it was similar to an academic process, but the tension level was much lower. Schools seemed to want to hear more about my teaching approach and never asked about research. They wanted to know more about me as a person, too. They were very curious about why I wanted to move from the academy to high school teaching, but they believed me when I explained why."

Now halfway into the first semester of her new private school teaching position, Parker feels that the transition process has been "pretty smooth." But every school has its own traditions and procedures, she cautions; thus the adjustment phase might take longer elsewhere. Her new daily routine entails "arriving around 8 a.m., teaching 5 short sections (42 minutes each) with about 15 students in each, then working at my desk until 3:45 p.m. and going home. I have lots of interaction with my students, and can participate in lots of school activities, but I am not obliged to do so. My total student load is about 65, and they do roughly the same kind of work and same amount of work as my college students did."

Parker reports that, thus far, she’s enjoying herself immensely, but offers a word of caution to other academics considering private school teaching. "You need to be committed to teaching as an essential element of your professional life. I sought graduate education because I wanted to teach. But I know many Ph.D.s who love history but don't love teaching. This would not be a fun life for them."

Emboldened by the example of other Ph.D.s who’ve successfully made the transition, Benjamin Harrison (a pseudonym), a tenure-track history professor at a non-flagship state university, is also considering segueing into private secondary school teaching. His motivations are similar to Parker's: a desire for improved compensation, a better geographic fit, and more prospects for advancement, as well as the potential to work with a higher quality of student and return to the sense of community he experienced teaching at, and attending, small colleges. Asked whether he thinks having a Ph.D. will help or hinder his search, Harrison says "It depends. Some schools will see a candidate with a Ph.D. and put him or her at the top of the list. What better way to prepare students for college than to have them taught by former college professors? It’s also something that parents of many private school students like to see, a visible sign of what they’re getting for their $25K per year. Other schools will look at someone with a Ph.D. and run the other way, assuming that anyone with a Ph.D. isn’t serious about teaching."

Curious if Ph.D.s are in fact competitive for teaching positions at private secondary schools, I spoke with Devereaux McClatchey, President of CS&A, about the recruitment process and asked him if doctoral degree holders make attractive candidates for private school jobs. "Yes," McClatchey confirms, "as long as they have a positive attitude and can demonstrate their commitment to high school teaching and working with adolescents. Demonstrated subject matter expertise is a bonus. Between an advanced degree in education and an advanced degree in the subject matter that the teacher actually plans to teach, private schools almost always prefer the latter. To that extent, a Ph.D. can be a huge asset. However, candidates with expertise in fields such as math, Chinese, Spanish, and science typically command more interest than candidates in other areas, simply as a matter of supply and demand."

Still, shifting from university instruction to private school teaching is not as simple as it may sound. When it comes to hiring candidates with doctoral degrees, particularly those inexperienced in the high school classroom, many prep schools are apprehensive. "They’re very concerned that Ph.D.s are applying simply as a fallback career," cautions McClatchey. "They don’t want to be viewed as second choice. Saying things like, 'I couldn’t find an academic job so I thought I would just work at a private school,' will turn potential schools off immediately."

How can a job candidate with a Ph.D. alleviate these legitimate concerns? For one thing, notes McClatchey, it's critical to recognize that high school teaching, even at elite private schools with talented students, "is its own craft, its own art form." Simply submitting the same application materials a candidate has used in the past for tenure-track academic job openings will not work. "It's critical that you re-engineer your pitch to meet the needs and interests of private schools. Point out in your cover letter, CV, and other materials that your passion is adolescent kids and then demonstrate this passion by highlighting the experience you have working with them, be it in a classroom, at a summer camp, on the field, or in an after-school tutoring session."

Don’t assume, in other words, that experience teaching college freshmen translates readily into hands-on experience interacting with 14-17 year olds, or that an Ivy League doctoral degree or fancy post-doctoral fellowship trumps teaching ability. Unless a candidate holds a Ph.D. in a high-demand subject area, CS&A — and hence the private schools the company represents — might pass over a seemingly well-qualified applicant who fails to demonstrate his or her experience working with students at the high school level or commitment to a school’s mission. McClatchey also advises prospective candidates to remember that niche research fields, publications, and specialized courses are not always as relevant in the context of private secondary school teaching as they might be at the university level. "It’s important to keep the core subjects in mind and change your lingo accordingly. Political scientists, for example, need to sell themselves as social studies teachers willing to teach the two to three major courses offered per year."

Equally important is a candidate's willingness to engage in service activities for the school — drama, coaching, yearbook, student council, etc. — and exuding a friendly personality. Above all, private secondary schools are looking for devoted long-term faculty members, talented men and women who are not only experts in their subject area but also excited about teaching adolescents and in possession of a positive attitude.

According to McClatchey, the salary range for private school teachers varies tremendously depending upon the region, the advertised subject area, the views of the board of trustees, how desperate the school is to fill the slot, and how large of an endowment the school has to work with at any given time. “Prep schools tend to pay on average 5-10 percent less than public schools. Salaries are not regulated like in the public school system and so are based, more or less, on the particular needs of the schools themselves. However, generally speaking, a Ph.D. will improve one’s level of compensation.” Katherine Parker reports that her salary actually went up 15 percent when she transferred from the tenure track to her current private school. With the addition of bonus funds for moving and curriculum development, “I calculate that the overall increase is close to 20 percent this year alone,” she concludes.

Benjamin Harrison, who is currently in the process of making the switch to private school teaching, offers the following words of wisdom to fellow Ph.D. job seekers: "Give it serious thought, and do your homework. Track down Ph.D.s in your field who teach at private secondary schools and ask for informational interviews. The more you know about prep school teaching, the better candidate you will be, and the better decisions you will make. Sign on and get accepted with CS&A and/or another search firm. They are well-known to many of the top schools — the gatekeepers, if you will. If your application is turned down, email and find out what you can do to improve it. Finally, get some experience working with high school age students. Volunteer at a summer camp; tutor for the SAT; place your name on substitute teaching call lists; anything. Having this sort of experience will really help you stand out from other Ph.D.s."


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