For the past 9 years, I’ve worked in private independent and international schools, and before that, I trained and worked in public schools. As I’ve written before, the challenges that teachers experience in each of these contexts are vastly different. A pedagogy consisting largely of unstructured tasks with ill-defined goals, coupled with a laissez-faire approach to behavior management, might work for a class of 12-16 ivy league-bound Hermione Grangers, but is unlikely to work in your typical inner-city public school.

Most teachers who have crossed back and forth between public and private schools will acknowledge this reality. It’s the teachers who have only worked in private schools who don’t seem to get it. Some private school teachers (and non-teachers) will even blame the poor behaviors in public schools on public school teachers’ reliance on “coercive” behavior management strategies; If every teacher just took the time to build strong relationships with students, there wouldn’t be a behavior problem! Oh, how easy it is to dismiss behavior management strategies as “authoritarian” and based on a “dim view of human nature” when all it takes to get private school students to treat each other sensibly is to occasionally remind them to.

As I plan the next steps in my career, I’m realizing that my time in private schools – which was mostly by accident – has not endeared me to the public school leaders who conduct interviews. They are worried that my experience in these schools – many of which cost over $40,000 per year – has made me ill-prepared to be successful in their contexts. On the one hand, they are right. For example, you don’t necessarily have to do any of the following things to be a good teacher at the private schools I’ve worked at:

  1. Control students’ entry into the classroom
    • They’ll come in sensibly enough
  2. Teach students to walk in a straight line in the hallways, in silence
    • They’ll walk from class to class sensibly enough
  3. Teach students how to pass papers
    • They’ll make sure the papers get to where they need to go
  4. Model and practice how to sit on the carpet or at their seats
    • They already know how to do this
  5. Model and practice how to track the speaker
    • Their eyes automatically gravitate to whoever is talking
  6. Model and practice Cold Calling and Choral Response
    • Most students will think about the questions and raise their hands
  7. Reward students individually with points, tickets, or tokens
    • Most students will do what you want simply because you said so
  8. Use group or whole school rewards, such as raffle drawings and pizza parties
    • Most students tend to behave whether or not you try to hold them accountable to their peers
  9. Use a 5:1 praise-to-reprimand ratio
    • Most students do not require or rely on your praise as motivation
  10. Create a detention system
    • Most students do not need to be deterred from making bad choices
  11. Implement a “one student at a time” bathroom policy
    • Students can manage to use the bathroom without destroying the facilities or disappearing for hours
  12. Implement a hall pass policy
    • Students tend to like being in class and don’t seem to know where else they would go
  13. Create and use individual behavior plans/charts/tracking sheets
    • Nobody’s behavior ever gets this bad
  14. Make back-up plans in case your lesson completely falls apart
    • You can get away with trudging through a poorly executed lesson, or just asking students to work on stuff from other classes
  15. Regularly practice evacuating the room in the event that one of your students has a freak out
    • These students are excluded from most private schools

On the other hand, working in private schools has allowed me to hone my delivery and craft in an environment that is highly predictable and ripe for experimentation. Having courteous and forgiving students who provide helpful and sophisticated feedback about my performance has allowed me to trial new teaching methods – and fail and attempt again – without any risk of compromising their futures. While I’m confident I can dust off the old classroom management playbook should I take a job again in public schools, to the principals I’ve interviewed with, my resume is more of a liability than an asset. I am hoping that providing lots of concrete examples and descriptions of structured approaches to teaching and behavior management during interviews will ease some of their concerns.

Update: Shortly after I wrote up this post, I was offered a job at a public middle school. I’ve accepted.

3 thoughts on “The Private School Penalty

  1. Public school parent here…could the differentiating factor be selective vs unselective as opposed to public vs private? I just moved my child to a more selective public school because of behavior problems in their previous public school. Both schools have classes with the same number of kids (26-30 depending on the class), but the behavior in the selective school is so much better.

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    1. Interesting. Over here we don’t have any such schools. Just neighborhood schools – that you are assigned to but can opt out of if there is the space – and private schools. A couple of charters. I’ve yet to experience a private school that was worse behaved than a public school, but maybe they’re out there

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