What the teachers really think

Why many prefer to teach in private schools

Recently it’s been revealed that many teachers — and even administrators — in the public school system are sending their own kids to private and independent schools.

What do they know about public schools that makes them opt out of them when the welfare of their own children is at stake?

To be honest, most of them likely support the public system strongly and recognize its benefits for society at large.

However, it’s long been known among teachers that private education offers them extraordinary opportunities to help students grow and develop individually in ways that are beyond what the crowded, bureaucratic, financially strapped publicly funded school system can offer.

“There’s no comparison,” says Esther Davidson, who has taught for nearly four decades, evenly split between the two systems.

The recently retired teacher recalls when she began at a medium-sized independent school in midtown Toronto. She was just out of teacher’s college and unable to land the kind of position she had her heart set on at a senior elementary school in the private system, so she took an opportunity that came her way to join a private establishment.

“I didn’t realize how unusually rewarding my experience was there, because I hadn’t been anywhere else. I just assumed that all teachers get to tailor their lessons to the needs of their individual students … that all teachers get to develop courses creatively to engage their students.”

Reality check

She found out otherwise, when after seven years she made the switch to teaching Grade 9 at a suburban high school.

“It was a very well-run school and I think the students — for the most part — got an acceptable education. But not an outstanding education.”

There was little room in the curriculum, as applied by the high school, for deviations to accommodate customized approaches for students with different abilities or needs. Worse, for Davidson, was the pressure on teachers to push through large numbers of students with diminishing resources.

“Everyone was rushed. Everyone was always trying to keep to the lesson schedule. Everyone was always rushing through marking stacks of assignments, trying to get grades in on time, and move on to the next segment.”

There were some gifted educators there who managed to produce some great success stories with their star pupils. But, as Davidson found herself, they had little time to use their talents to design creative approaches to engaging all their students.

Private school counsellor Jeannette Yue, who also had experience in a public secondary school, says, “Yes, that’s a problem, especially for students that don’t fit into the system neatly. As a result, counsellors and principals spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with problem students — who are problem students because their needs could not be addressed in class.”

Davidson says many of her colleagues at the high school would commiserate with her about the rushed, one-size-fits-all kind of education they were providing. But she eventually decided that with the time she had left as a teacher, she wanted to give more to her students.

In her late career she managed to find a position with a large girls-only school.

“Those last 12 years have been the most rewarding of my career. I formed bonds with my students that I’ll always treasure. I’ll never forget some of the amazing learning experiences we shared.”

School leaders

Yue says she’s heard similar stories from teachers she works alongside.

“Partly it’s because the students who come to our schools are more motivated to learn. And, if they’re not, we work with them until they are,” she says with a laugh.

Heather Hendricks believes that many of the differences between public and independent schools begin with each school’s leadership, which — unlike the public system — is organized differently from school to school, she says.

As vice-president of University of Toronto Schools, Henricks told us last year that about 30 percent of her school’s teachers and administration staff have public school experience. She herself spent 17 years working in the public system before arriving at UTS.

“Independent schools have the advantage of being able to select and focus on priorities that make the most sense in their particular school with their student body,” she says.

“Once a focus or priority is selected in an independent school, there is less red tape or bureaucracy to get through in order to implement changes or add programs.”

For Sanaz Ghoreshy, who taught science and chemistry in Kingston before arriving at Toronto’s all-boys Royal St. George’s College in 2004, the most striking difference between the public and private systems is class size.

“In the public board I taught a class of 36 grade nine students. I’ve never taught a class of more than 24 at Royal St. George’s,” she said in an interview for an earlier article. “You really get to know the students, and you really work closely with them.”

Another key difference, Ghoreshy said, are the resources available at a private school.

As a chemistry teacher, Ghoreshy’s lessons frequently require setting up and taking down elaborate laboratory equipment. Royal St. George’s employs a lab tech to do the work for her.

“In the public system, I would sometimes spend two hours a night prepping for a lab the next day,” she said. “Here I ask the lab tech to do it…. It means the students get lots of hands-on experience and I’m not in a time crunch.”

The lab tech position, she notes, also provides a job opportunity for recently graduated student teachers looking for hands-on experience, since her lab tech can assist in class and is available to other departments as a supply teacher if necessary.

“That isn’t something you would see in the public system because of bureaucracy,” Ghoreshy said. “And it’s really unfortunate because it’s a way for a first- or second-year teacher to get firsthand experience without ending up at Starbucks trying to make ends meet, or driving all over the city and without experiencing school life.”

The move to private

Sean Stokes is an English teacher who made the move to private education after having dispelled some myths about education. When he earned his Master’s degree in teaching in the early 1990s, job openings for teachers were still plentiful enough that he and his classmates could often choose between the private and public education systems — and most, fearing forced A’s and entitled students at private schools, chose the latter.

“Certainly I believe strongly in the idea of the strong public education system,” said Stokes, who spent 18 years teaching in the public Catholic systems of Toronto and Durham Region before arriving at St. Michael’s College eight years ago.

“I was wary of leaving schools where I felt like I was doing a lot of good in favour of… ‘Do I want to go teach a bunch of rich kids?’ ” he said.

But he discovered the students at St. Michael’s are far from entitled. Many aren’t from rich families, either; often their parents have made sacrifices and more than a third receive bursaries.

“The school is run by an order of priests who have a real social justice mission,” Stokes said, referring to St. Michael’s founders, the Basilian Fathers. “If there’s a boy from the Catholic community who wants to be there and has the marks for it, they’ll try to find a way to help, regardless of financial circumstances.”

Stokes feels the primary advantage of teaching at an independent school rather than a public school is the comparative lack of bureaucracy.

“There are a lot of amazing schools in the publicly funded system but, because they’re part of the larger system, sometimes the bureaucracy from the school board level, or from the provincial level, can diminish the flexibility and uniqueness of each individual school,” he says.

“At St. Mike’s, if I’m interested in doing something, I’ve been able to go and talk with my principal and at the end of the conversation know if I’m going to be able to do it,” he says. “In a school board I’d have to go through several others layer of bureaucracy that could diminish a teacher’s morale.”

Indeed, Stokes has been involved in developing courses on both sides: he helped shape the world religion curriculum for Ontario Catholic schools and even worked on the textbook — but at St. Michael’s he’s been able to introduce an English course, with minimal fuss, about the influence of Catholicism on English literature.

“It’s a weird idea for a course, and at most schools I would have never been able to get away with that,” he says with a laugh.

Last word to counsellor Yue, who finds it helps her job to have teachers whose contributions are appreciated:

“The students are engaged when they know their teachers are engaged with them — and this success pleases the parents. It’s the perfect win-win-win situation.”

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