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Where to Work: Public, Private, or Charter School?

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Guest post by Molly Donovan.

So you've figured out that you want to teach. But do you know what kind of school is most appealing to you? There are over 130,000 K-12 schools in the United States--and over 3.7 million teachers who teach in them. You've heard people talk about public schools, charter schools, and independent schools--which of these educational environments is best for you?

Of course, there is no universal "right" choice. All three types of schools offer their own advantages. In making your decision, the first step is to understand what, exactly, constitutes a public, an independent, and a charter school--and what the differences in those environments mean for teachers.

A public school is one that is funded by public tax dollars and that provides free education to students based, most frequently, on where they live. Public school districts provide guidelines regarding curriculum formation and require that their teachers be state-certified. Their students are required to pass state-wide exams, and curricula tend to align with these standardized tests. Often, union-driven public schools pay teachers slightly higher salaries. In the United States, roughly 80% of K-12 schools are public.

The definition of an independent school is somewhat more nuanced. Often considered synonymous with the term "private school," an independent school is, in fact, a bit different. All independent schools are private, but not all private schools are independent (for example, a Catholic school would be considered a private school but not an independent school). Most basically, private and independent schools are privately funded, not subject to state regulations or the influx of publicly-collected funds. Independent schools, however, are distinct in that they are self-governed by their own boards of trustees.

Independent schools almost never require certification from their teachers, favoring instead a mastery of a particular subject and demonstrated interest and experience in working with children. They typically feature smaller class sizes, slightly lower pay, and a holistic teaching experience that weaves a teacher thoroughly into the tapestry of the school. Independent school teachers will likely be encouraged or required to be involved both inside and outside of the classroom, as coaches, dorm parents, or club advisers in addition to classroom teachers. Since they are self-governed, they strongly value community and culture, and their teachers help to promote the mission and values of the school.

The charter school movement, still quite new in the U.S. (as of 2010, charter schools comprised only five percent of public schools in the country), features a blend of public and independent school traits. Charter schools are publicly funded and require no tuition payment from their students. However, the guidelines that govern charter schools are more flexible than those of their purely public counterparts. These schools create and follow their own "charter." Charter schools are often located in inner-city areas and are intended to help supplement or replace failing public schools.

So which school type should you choose?

If you are looking to immerse yourself in the culture of a school, to live (perhaps) on campus, and to work often long hours as a teacher and a coach or adviser, then an independent school might be the ideal environment for you. You will likely devote less time to classroom management, and you might have the opportunity to teach a variety of different elective classes.

If the idea of giving back to a community excites you, then you might consider pursuing a role in a public or charter school. If you work in a charter school, you might enjoy more flexibility in curriculum planning and your daily work than your counterparts at a public school. You will be part of an experimental movement to determine what types of teaching are truly effective, particularly in disadvantaged areas. You will help first-hand in narrowing the ever-growing achievement gap that is magnified by social and economic stratification throughout the country.

In a public school, you could potentially earn a higher salary. If you are a new teacher, you might appreciate the structure that accompanies a publicly-funded and governed institution. Moreover, you might find the environment more democratic. Because the majority of schools in the United States are public, you will open yourself to more possibilities (however, you will be limited to teaching in the state and the subject in which you've earned certification). The possibility of earning tenure--and the job security that accompanies it--is an appealing aspect of public education, as is the opportunity to join a teacher's union and enjoy its benefits.

Ultimately, you will find the type of school that gels with your educational philosophy and your own career goals. In choosing your career path, you should try to answer the question, "which type of school feels like the right fit for me?" And remember--there is no "right" answer to that important question.

Molly Donovan is the Director of Communications at Carney, Sandoe & Associates (CS&A). CS&A is an educational recruiting firm that has served more than 1,500 independent, private, and boarding schools in 46 states and 26 countries.

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