Unlike many of my colleagues who attended independent schools themselves, my entry into the independent school world was almost accidental. I attended public schools all my life, and although I had a vague awareness that there was something called a “private school,” I had no idea that it could be different from public school in any substantive way. I made no distinctions between independent schools, parochial schools, etc. In my teenage angst, I probably thought it was just a way for rich folks to separate themselves from the rest of us. In short, I was clueless.

Until I was maybe 17 or 18, my family was never in a position to even consider private education, so it just never came up. And in high school, when I first considered teaching as a career (mostly because I wanted to coach), the private school option never crossed my mind. I eventually talked myself out of that and went to college intent on pursuing a career in business instead (mostly because I wanted to get rich), but of course, as many of us did, I soon realized that I didn’t have the patience for cubicle life. (Funny that because I didn’t have the patience for a cubicle, I chose to work with kids who can’t always locate Illinois on a map.)

Again, even once I decided on becoming a teacher, I never considered private schools. In my mind, there was only one real kind of school, and that was a public school. So I enrolled in my alma mater’s school of education and embarked on a five-year program that would give me a B.A. in history and a Master’s degree in teaching.

Fortunately, one of the first classes I took was called something like “The Teaching Profession,” and we considered all sorts of issues relevant to would-be teachers: differing educational philosophies, school choice, and standardized education, among others. The professor insisted that we begin figuring out our own beliefs and opinions about all of these issues, not only because this would make us better teachers, but because we would be asked about them in job interviews. By this point, I was starting to recognize that increased standardization was the “way of the future” in public education, so during our discussion on that topic, I raised my hand and (naively) asked, “What if our opinion on standardization differs from the school’s?” And without missing a beat, the professor said, “Perhaps you should consider teaching in private schools.”

A new door had been opened. I had never once considered teaching in private schools, but this off-hand comment really stuck with me. I began to do research on my own. I read articles. I talked to friends and acquaintances about their experiences in private schools. I worked at a summer program run by educators with years of experience in independent schools, and I asked them about the differences. The more I learned, the more I realized that my professor had been right. Private schools–independent schools–seemed like the best fit for my personality as well as my burgeoning educational philosophy.

For me, history has never been about a steady stream of names and dates and facts. That’s how it was taught to me in high school, and I hated every minute of it. I was much more interested in math, which was about problem-solving, trial and error, and relationships between variables. In college, I had learned that history could be different. In some ways (as strange as this sounds), it was more like math. Rather than rote memorization, it was about asking questions, searching for evidence, and making arguments.

Slowly, I began to doubt that the program I was in was really right for me. Aside from the fact that I disagreed with the strong push toward standardization, I also felt severely limited in my own education. Since abandoning my Gordon Gekko dreams of getting rich in high finance, I had come to believe in the value of a liberal arts education, and somewhat surprisingly, I had come to believe that learning for learning’s sake could make me a better person. Because of the requirements for the education program, I had little choice in which history classes I could take and even less choice when it came to electives.

When I realized that I wouldn’t need a license to teach in independent schools, I spoke with my own former teachers and asked if all of the “methods” courses they had taken had served them well. Their answers varied, but the general consensus was that most of a teacher’s training is done on-the-job. Over time, I came to realize that the five-year master’s program held little value for me.

A couple of semesters after his thought-provoking comment, I went back to that same professor and spoke honestly with him about the doubts I was having. He asked me a few questions, mostly listening to what I had to say, and when I finished, he said simply, “This program is not for everyone. I think independent schools may be the way to go in your case.” In the end, I decided to withdraw from the education school, and although it would take six years instead of five, I made up my mind to pursue a Master’s degree in history rather than in teaching.

I’m not in my third year of full-time teaching, and I have to say that I have few doubts about my decision. The only time I second-guess myself is when I wonder if I could be doing more good in a high-risk public school, but that’s just my romantic inner idealist struggling to get out. As much as it appeals to me in the abstract, I know that I would burn out in six months in that kind of environment. In independent schools, I enjoy working with students who are (for the most part) interested and motivated, and I rarely worry about resources. As much as I may complain about my job–and I’ll probably complain here from time to time–I know that at the end of the day, I’ve got a pretty sweet gig.

Advertisements