When St. Michael’s College English teacher Sean Stokes 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, chose the latter.
“Certainly I believe strongly in the idea of the strong public education system,” admits Stokes, who spent 18 years teaching in the public Catholic systems of Toronto and Durham Region before arriving at St. Michael’s, the midtown boys-only private school, seven 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 says.
Having acknowledged the elephant in the room, Stokes notes that the students at St. Michael’s are far from entitled, and many aren’t from rich families, either — often their parents have made sacrifices and more than a third receive bursaries, he says.
“The school is run by an order of priests who have a real social justice mission,” Stokes says, 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 and 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.
University of Toronto Schools vice president Heather Henricks spent 17 years working in the public system before arriving at UTS three years ago, and estimates that around 30 percent of her school’s teachers and administration staff have public school experience.
She 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.
“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 with the Limestone District School Board in Kingston for six years 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 says. “You really get to know the students, and you really work closely with them.”
Another key difference, Ghoreshy says, 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 says. “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 because the lab equipment is booked by someone else.”
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 says.
“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.”