Suppose you want to become a teacher. I think that’s great! Making a difference in the lives of young people is deeply satisfying. It can be a steep learning curve at the beginning of your career, but it is a much more emotionally satisfying way to spend one’s life than almost anything the corporate world has to offer.
Of course, getting a teaching job, especially when you are starting out, can be challenging. Certainly an organization such as Teach For America gets some folks started in their teaching career. If you want a job, and especially if you are intentional about considering all the ways a job might shape your life, it’s very good to be aware of all the options.
Many folks studying to be teachers, getting teacher certifications, are focused primarily on one option: teaching in public schools. That’s probably the largest category of jobs, but it’s not the only one, and it’s good to be aware of the other options. Here’s a brief overview of the situation, including two frequently misunderstood alternatives: parochial schools and private independent schools.
Teaching in Public Schools
Of the three options, you probably know the most about this. This is by far the most “legislated” of the three options. Someone preparing to be a public school teacher has to go through a certification program and take tests such as the Praxis. Once you have a job as a public school teacher, often what needs to be covered in the classroom is mandated by “the Common Core” or other standards. The level of pedagogical choice that teachers have can vary from school to school. In some schools, teachers receive a scripted curriculum. In others, teacher get only a broad set of standards, and are left to figure out the details for themselves.
Quality of schools vary wildly, depending largely on property values in the neighborhood and school district. Schools in rich neighborhoods often have the best equipment and supplies. Schools in poor neighborhoods often are scrounging for the basics. Public school teachers are typically unionized, and so the union has guaranteed certain wages and benefits. Pay attention to current events in your state: in some states, these long established benefits are being rolled back.
Public school is free and open to all: that is simultaneously what is noble about it and what is challenging. It’s wonderful that the schools are free, and it is also a sad fact of human nature that people tend to take for granted anything that’s free. Accordingly, in some public schools, teachers and administrators feel they don’t get enough parental involvement. Public schools have to accept everyone. The students who tend to have the greatest needs—students who are from low-income families, are in the foster care system, are recently arrived immigrants, or have significant disabilities—tend to enroll in public schools. Providing these students with high quality education is a challenge—and one that is very much a point of pride for many public school teachers.
Teaching in Parochial/Religious Schools
The Roman Catholic Church runs the largest non-governmental school system in the world. While there are some other religious schools in the USA besides Catholic schools, Catholic schools account for the vast majority of these, almost 7000 schools nationwide, so I will about Catholic schools.
Misconception #1 is that you have to be Catholic to get a job at a Catholic school. That is not true (it would be religious discrimination if they only hired Catholics!). Having said that, you have to have a healthy respect for and tolerance of the Catholic Church. For example, if you teach at a Catholic school, you probably would have to attend a school-wide Catholic Mass a few times a year. If you are the kind of person who can’t help saying negative things about traditional religion, probably a Catholic school would not be a good fit for you.
Folks who teach at non-state-affiliated Catholic schools don’t need certification, but many teachers have certification, and some individual schools may require it. Many Catholic schools require student to wear uniforms; some folks are in favor of this, because it removes all the social pressures associated with clothing.
Who goes to a Catholic school? Sometimes, the student himself or herself is a pious believer. Sometimes, the parents are pious believers and they are trying to get the kid to believe. Sometimes, the parents aren’t particularly religious, but they feel that such a school would be a good moral influence on their child. Some parents are simply there because they are suspicious the quality of their local public schools.
There typically is some fee for student to attend a Catholic School, and this fee can be significant if the Catholic school is fancy, for example a college-prep Catholic high school. With an increase in fee, one sees an increase in parental expectations.
Teaching in Private Independent Schools
This is the option I know best because I spend twenty year of my life doing this. I never got certified. I never took any courses about teaching. I never took any state-sponsored tests, such as the C-BEST or Praxis. All this is also true of virtually all my colleagues.
Independent schools tend to attract students from wealthy families, to charge high tuitions, and to foster high expectations. Many independent schools, even primary schools, are viewed as part of a “college track” education. Whereas some public school teachers are sometimes desperate for more parental involvement, private school teachers often rely on administrators to run interference to moderate the constant pressures of parental attention and demands. Understandably, parents paying, say, $20K or $30K a year for their child’s education might have some very strong opinions about what they are getting for their money.
Most teachers at private schools do not have teaching certification, but most have advanced degrees in their subject matter. It’s hard to get a job in a good private school without a master’s degree in the sciences, and many English and History teachers have Ph.D.’s This option can be ideal for someone who thought they were going to be a professor but at some point decided they didn’t want life in academia.
Private school teachers often have tremendous freedom in what they teach and how they teach it. The attitude often is: well, you have an advanced degree in this field, so you decide what you think is most important for the students to know about this subject. Obviously, there are general restraints, such as covering what might be on the SAT or ACT, and certainly each year’s course has to prepare folks for the next year, but even with these requirements, there still can be an extraordinary amount of freedom, compared to all the standards that public school teachers need to follow.
It can be hard getting a job at an elite private independent school. Having an advanced academic degree will help. Having a teaching certificate may help. Often once one has a few years of teaching experience, many more doors open.
Out-of-the-box Educational Experiences
Some schools offer truly extraordinary opportunities to their students. Teaching at a school that has a special beyond-the-classroom experiences, in addition to traditional curriculum, can demand a great deal of energy, more than teaching already does, but the reward can be that much higher.
Friends Schools, run by the Quakers, have regular silent meetings, which transform character over time. Friends schools tend to have a strong social justice focus and often encourage community service. Most Friends Schools are private independent schools.
Some high schools have travel-abroad opportunities, some foster anthropological awareness through exposure to other cultures, and some have Outward-Bound-style wilderness experiences. In many ways, these school can transform the character of students in ways that could never happen simply in classroom experiences. Of course, many times, such trips & programs might require teacher chaperones, and it’s an opportunity for teachers themselves to have transformative experiences along with their students.
Getting a first teaching job is hard. It’s good to be aware of the full gamut of possibilities. If you have had experiences looking for jobs at any of these kinds of schools and would like to share your experiences, we would love to hear from you in the comments.