How Teaching in a Private School Differs from Public

This is a question I get a lot from both teachers and non-teachers. It’s a little hard to compare my experience teaching in the Middle East to my experience teaching in America for several obvious reasons, but a big one is that I also went from a public American school (4 classroom years) to a private Middle Eastern school (3 classroom years, at the time of writing this). That being said, my experience may not be the same as someone who isn’t also shifting countries, but I still want to share with you as honestly as I can in hopes that this information reaches someone who needs it.

1. More direct access to the people who actually make decisions about my class sizes, salary, and curriculum.

I’m listing this first because I think it may be one of the most important ones. In American public schools, sometimes your only access to real change is through the election ballot. The people who make the decisions which affect you are influenced by a myriad of factors. Their bottom line may or may not be what’s best for students. Your administration may do all they can to soften the blows that come down the line for their teachers, but at the end of the day, they too are relatively powerless against bureaucracy.

This is completely different than what I’ve experienced in my private school. My chain of command is HOD (Head of Department) –> Principal –> Director –> Owner. And that’s where it ends. The owner ultimately makes all the financial decisions for the school, and let me be clear: his bottom line may or may not be what’s best for students either. Just like in the public education system. (However he is heavily influenced by his customers aka the parents. And their bottom line is definitely what’s best for their kids.) But one thing is for sure: I can be heard. In my private school I can make a stink even as one, little teacher and get things changed.

I’m not advocating bad behavior here, but there’s definitely something to be said for being in the same actual building as the people who sign your paycheck. If I think the decisions that are being made are bad for kids, I can appeal to someone within the same working day. (Just remember: going over heads will never get you far. Always follow the prescribed chain of command no matter what environment you’re working in.)

2. More freedom to teach what and how I want.

In my public school, I was a part of a district with 14 middle schools (and we competed against one another). I was also held accountable by end of the year state mandated testing. Bottom line, I didn’t have very much freedom with my curriculum. Sometimes there’s a current event that you’d like to work in. The pacing guide has no room for it and God forbid you spend more than 5 minutes on something that doesn’t directly contribute to test scores. So you forget about it. Coloring? Is that high quality instruction? I think not! Games? Let me remind you: bell to bell instruction! I felt a bit stifled to say the least.

In my private school, we of course have a curriculum (NGSS). However, the main stakeholder when it comes to what happens in my classroom is the parents of my students. I’m in close contact with my families, and when they have a question about what I’m doing with the curriculum, they ask me directly. From there we begin a dialogue about what’s actually best for the kids. If we don’t finish the entire curriculum, then oh well! I can speak directly with the teachers in the grades above and below and we can adjust our scope and sequences to make sure all the content is covered over the course of the three middle school years. There’s no high stakes testing deadline hovering over us causing anxiety. Neither is there any ambiguous government entity passing down random legislation.

Now, I take time in my classes to color. I think it’s good for the kids’ mental health and it gives us time to chat and build relationships. We play games. We talk about non-curricular topics like fairness, ethics, and science in the news. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to hear praise from my parents and believe it, as opposed to nervously waiting for a computer to crunch my students into a mysterious algorithm and assign a score to our year together. A single number 1-5 to define my “effectiveness” as a teacher that I’ll carry forever with either inflated pride or (in my case) confused shame.

Disclaimer: Curriculum alignment and teacher collaboration are always best for students. I am in no way advocating “going rogue” with your curriculum here.

3. My students come from families who put their money where their mouth is.

The families of my students in our private school all have one thing in common: they value education so much that they’re willing to pay for it. Honestly, this makes a world of difference when it comes to support. When I ask for materials, they come. When I contact parents, they (usually) respond and I see a (usually small, but still) difference in the child.

The negative flipside to this “involved parents” kind of school that you usually hear about is that they’re totally up your butt and emailing you 24/7 about the tiniest assignments. I’ve honestly had very few issues with that. That being said, though, I must admit that I do give out my personal cell phone number to parents and I do answer calls and texts at basically all hours of the day. I genuinely don’t mind it, and have never felt that the privilege was being abused. I consider it a part of my relationship with my families.

4. Class Size, Behavior, and Salary

I think it’s generally accepted that most of the time private schools have smaller class sizes than public schools as this can be one of their main selling points. In my school, though, we’ve been experiencing growing class sizes which has been considered by most a financial choice as opposed to being in the students’ best interest.

Again, this will most likely be extremely case by case. For me, behavior has not been much better in a private school as compared to public. Our school is relatively hesitant to kick students out due to government regulations as well as financial reasons. Perhaps in an extremely prestigious school with a wait list the pressure would be different and students would tighten up, but my experience has been that kids are kids wherever you go.

Finally, the question we all want answered is what about salary?? If you’re considering making a move, this information should be available online for your researching pleasure. In my case (bachelor’s degree, 4 years experience at the time), making the shift from public to private was an improvement.

With all of this said, I will admit that as a teacher I’m definitely happier in my new school. As a scientist, I’m also fully aware that there’s lots of variables at play here. I should add that I am fully pro public schools. I do believe that everyone deserves a free education! In the course of my career however, I’ve really had to grapple with this question: where do the rights of others end and my freedoms begin? How does my right to a healthy working environment mesh with the right of all children to receive a quality education. These questions are difficult to answer, but I do know there’s a lot of educators out there busting their butts for the kids with little governmental support or acknowledgement. I see you and I thank you.

Teaching is a weird job. I’d love to connect and discuss anything about the information you’ve read here. Find me on Instagram (@stemstrength). 

Published by laneylee

I'm an international teacher in Abu Dhabi. I am seeking new ways to support teachers. I currently run a Teachers Pay Teachers store focused primarily on Middle School Science, and I am working on writing my first book on classroom management.

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