Spring semester of 2021, I taught for a few months at St. Michael’s High School, a Catholic school in my area as well as a private one. The following summer, I got an offer to switch to Santa Fe Prep, another independent school in my area, this one secular.
At the time of my transition, I was also in a teacher education program, and my professor remarked, “Boy, you really like those private schools!” From my perspective, he said this with a hint of scorn.
Well, it’s true: I do like private schools! I prefer teaching in them, although I also understand their complex situation in our society and believe that ultimately, they shouldn’t exist.
Having tutored and taught in a variety of environments, from public, to private, to charter, to even schools out of the country, my general finding is that one of the most important factors to a teacher’s success is buy-in: that is, to what degree do students and parents view the school and teacher as granting an essential service, in response to which the parents become more helpful and the students more compliant? Without this dynamic in place, students are more likely defiant and parents more likely absent, which deprives the teacher of the helping hand that can guide students toward success.
From my perspective, buy-in seems significantly more likely to be present in a private school, since parents are electing to pay for their students’ education, and students may or may not have taken an entrance exam. Accordingly, students show up ready to learn and with their parents making sure that they have done so at home.
Parallels for this dynamic may be found in charter schools, for which parents and students have likely entered a lottery, and in which parents may be placing their children’s hopes of future wellbeing. From this dynamic, there can be a sort of pressure and expectation that might not arise in public schools, although in those settings there is pressure on behalf of the state.
Now, backgrounding all of this is the fact that public education in this country is viewed as a failure, which is why parents seek out either charter or private schools in the first place. Worsening this, the conservative movement mantles the American language of “freedom” to make public school allotment look like imprisonment, meaning that charters and even private schools become freedom’s guarantors. So long as they possess the cleverly titled “school choice,” parents and children remain free; this being the case, public education’s slow death due to underfunding is ignored.
I recognize that in an ideal society, private schools would not exist, as they do not in Finland. The populace would instead recognize the paramount importance of public education, and that system would be funded so that all schools guarantee a solid education.
However, at this time and in this place, I am a single teacher in a single body and living a singular life, not an abstract system waiting to be born. That is, I have an urge to teach now, to command my own classroom now, and I want to seek out an environment which enables me to bring forth those gifts to as many people as possible, changing their hearts and minds, now. For those reasons, I teach in a private school.
Some additional factors that tend to facilitate great education in these environments are smaller class sizes, cohesion and vision, and the absence of outside actors controlling the teacher’s curriculum. For these reasons, it is often the case that the most passionate, subject-expert teachers choose to teach in private schools, thus exacerbating the achievement levels of those in the public school system.
Additionally, it must be recognized that one reason there is lesser buy-in in public schools is that often, those schools house students of marginalized backgrounds, and those students do not feel included in schooling’s vision of success in the same way they do not feel included in the culture at large. Until every student can look at our culture’s ideals and see themselves represented, large shares of them will see no reason to participate, and that alone makes the practice of education an uphill battle for the educator. Ultimately, this project of inclusion means altering what school itself selects for in addition to just who is represented. In other words, it is a question not just of bodies but of values.
All this is why, in this life, in this body, in this country, at this moment, I choose to teach in a private school. I want small class sizes, I want community buy-in, I want mutual support and resources. Ideally, all teachers and all schools should retain these things, and as of now private and some charter schools act as oases thereof, visions of the possible in a backwards, fallen world. At the same time, I campaign for my own job’s non-existence, supporting policies that in the long-term would mean private schools’ dissolution. If we truly believe in a meritocracy, if we truly believe in education for all people, then neither the values nor the means should denote that in aggregate, class, racial, and other hierarchies are reproduced. Thus, my position is fundamentally one of doing one thing, saying another, holding deep in my chest and soul the vision of a time where these practices will align.