Betty Luther Hillman of Phillips Exeter Academy on teaching in independent schools.

Independent school teaching is increasingly becoming an attractive option for graduate students who are looking for alternatives to the traditional academic path. Teaching at the secondary level (grades 6-12) offers many benefits to teachers, and although there are some similarities to the teaching world of the ivory tower, overall it’s a very different type of career.  Some of the major areas of difference include:

1. Teaching. Of course, as an independent school teacher, your main job will be in the classroom, teaching students. In some ways, this might not be so different from teaching an undergraduate section or seminar at a college or university. The students will be younger, however, and the topics and materials of study will likely be somewhat different. While some independent schools offer opportunities to teach classes related to an area of academic specialty, such as African-American History or Gender in Literature, most of your teaching load will be “survey” courses like U.S. History or World History. You will probably be expected to teach subjects far outside of your area of specialty, in fact; while twentieth-century U.S. history was my focus in graduate school, I now teach classes on Ancient Greece and Rome, which I knew absolutely nothing about before I began preparing to teach them (but have grown to love, interestingly). Teaching will also take up more time than the lectures and seminars of a university schedule; most schools require teachers to teach 4-5 classes per term, usually divided among two or three “preps.” Most classes will meet 4-5 times per week, making your daily schedule busy.  Finally, the classroom dynamic is a bit different than that of a university. Depending on the pedagogy of your school, you might give some short lectures on occasion, but most classroom time will be dedicated to group discussions, activities, or projects. I’ve enjoyed teaching at the high school level because of the amount of interaction I get to have with my students, both inside and outside of the classroom; I don’t feel like a robot standing at the front of the room wondering if anyone is listening to my lecture. On the other hand, teaching at the secondary level is time-consuming and doesn’t leave much time for doing one’s own scholarship. I don’t mind the trade-off, but it’s something to consider.

2. Extracurricular involvement. At most independent schools, teachers are required to be involved in the school community outside of the classroom as well. This might mean serving as an advisor to a group of students, coaching a sport (my “sport” is coaching the debate team—probably better for everyone involved to keep me away from the sports fields!), advising a student club, serving on committees, etc.  Since I teach at a boarding school, I’m also required to live in the dorms and supervise students in the evenings. I’ve personally enjoyed these commitments, which allow me to interact with students outside of the classroom and strengthen my membership as part of an educational community. Certainly, serving on committees or advising student groups can be an expectation of faculty members at a university as well, and conversely, not every independent school has these same commitments. 

3. Age of students. While it might seem obvious that students at the secondary level will be younger than university students, these age differences require some changes in our roles as educators. Younger students are often still learning how to learn, and teachers play a large role in teaching their students the process of learning. Teachers at the secondary school level, for example, might spend time showing students how to organize a binder or day-planner, take notes, annotate a text, write a thesis statement, write an outline for an essay, or use Microsoft Word’s function for footnotes. While many university students might also benefit from this instruction, college professors (at least in my limited experience—surely there are exceptions to this!) tend to focus more on content and subject matter. Secondary school teachers might also expect more parental involvement in their children’s learning, and are generally in regular contact with students’ parents, especially if a student is having difficulties in a class.

It’s important to consider whether secondary school teaching is a good fit for your personality, interests, and goals before you embark on this path. Finally, one should consider public school teaching as well as private (independent) school teaching. Although teaching in public schools usually requires certification (which usually entails a one-year graduate program in education), public school teaching provides many of these same career benefits and tends to offer higher salaries to teachers. In sum, if teaching and making connections with students are aspects of graduate school that you really enjoyed, secondary school teaching could be the career path for you! 

Photo credit: “Phillips Exeter Academy” by Jeff L via Flickr Creative Commons, used under CC BY 2.0.