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I Am an Independent School Teacher--Why?

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I started teaching in 1974, defaulting to what I knew: the tiny boarding school founded by my grandfather and at that time headed by my uncle. After a year and a half a personal matter--love, if you have to ask--found me in yet another independent school, where for three years I honed my craft under great mentors.

A child of the Sixties, I graduated from high school--yes, an independent school--in 1968 and experienced college amid protests and draft worries, resenting the hidden powers behind the status quo. By 1976 I had cut my hair, but I still had dreams of a more egalitarian world, and so that year I began the coursework toward public school certification.

People often speak deploringly of ed courses, but mine (at Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island) were well taught and filled with engaged students. I discovered that teaching was something that people thought about and even researched. I think I became a better, or at least more intentional, teacher.

Alas, I finished as two things occurred. One, I became a parent and more risk-averse about changing jobs, and two, big cuts to public education had begun--think Prop Two-and-a-Half in Massachusetts and California Proposition 13. Instead of hiring, districts in New England were firing. It was the era of RIF: reduction in force.

Thirty-some years later, I am still in an independent school. My current place looks much like the real world of Boston and its suburbs: no uniforms or ties, not much paneling on the walls. Kids ride in on the train, in parents' work vans, and (yes) in brand-new SUVs. There's an application process, and tuition is high, but a quarter of our kids receive financial aid, much of it in large amounts. We have students who can attend because their parents work extra jobs; plenty of our parents struggle to find time for school functions.

It's not the same as public school, I know. My democratizing instincts were blunted, you could claim, and now I suppose I can be viewed as "the other." But I am confident that I am in a place whose kids aren't all that different from most of those at suburban high schools around the country. They do homework, play sports, hang out with friends, play video games--what kids do. Yes, they will all attend college, but an even higher percentage will receive need-based financial aid for this.

The good news, for me, is that our school turns out more than our fair share of teachers, entrepreneurs, artists, and social issue advocates. Our graduates hold onto the values we try to realize in our daily work: that people matter more than money, that being creative and being yourself matter more than living up to someone else's idea of what you are supposed to be. These values keep me around.

Plenty of other people in independent schools--leaders, teachers, coaches, even trustees--share similar values and daily experiences. We are not fleeing or countering public education but simply part of a choice someone has made for our students. Whether the opportunity to make this choice represents a flaw in our society I cannot say, but I don't happen to think so. Students enroll, and someone needs to teach them. I'm lucky to do this in an environment consonant with my ideals.

Independent schools aren't better than public schools, just different. And we teachers all got into this business because we believe in kids, and because we want to give kids a good shot at a happy, successful adulthood. Maybe it's easier to do this where I am, but it's never been that easy, for example, for the teachers of the dyslexic students whose struggles inspired my grandfather to start his school in 1926. They still work their heads off, just like their students. So, I hasten to add, do all the public school teachers I know.

I'm here in hopes of dispelling some of the myths and stereotypes around what I do and to better understand other sectors. I want to share ideas and stories and explore how we might have a dialogue and even work in partnership. I want to hear about what public schools can teach us.

Mostly, I just want to reinforce what I believe from the bottom of my heart: whether we work in public schools, religious schools, charter schools, or independent schools, we and our students and our society are all in this together.

Engage with me on Twitter: @pgow

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