Is teaching in a private school better?

Q: I’m a public school teacher, and I’m contemplating a switch to private. I’m so torn. I’m really sick of the emphasis on testing and the huge amount of paperwork and bureaucracy in public. I like the idea of having more teaching freedom. I worry that I’ll mainly be teaching students of privilege, will give up my good commute and decent pension, and will most likely take a pay cut. I’m also tenured and protected by a union, and I’d lose those protections in exchange for a smaller class size and more creativity and flexibility. I know you can’t tell me what I should do, but what should I do?

A: No two public schools or private schools are exactly the same. I think you’re oversimplifying this decision. Many independent schools are committed to offering financial aid and will be more diverse than some wealthy suburban schools. While there generally is less testing and paperwork in private schools, some may have more than others. In addition, all schools have their own bureaucratic idiosyncrasies. Independent schools may be religious or secular, single sex or coed, academic pressure cookers or tailored to struggling students. In other words, this is a job-specific question. That said, here are some things you can take into consideration.

Job security. In private, you don’t have the same job security. You’re an at-will employee. This may cause anxiety for public school teachers who like the idea of guaranteed due process. On the other hand, when colleagues don’t pull their weight, it lowers everyone’s morale. It’s easier to remove incompetent teachers from the classroom in independent schools. If you have a long track record of good performance, you might consider this a low-risk proposition.

Money. Given the time of year, I assume you don’t have an offer in hand. As you contemplate this decision for the future, examine your budget. People tend to fixate on the lower salaries in private schools, but the pay gap may stem from health insurance costs. Even if salaries are equal, don’t forget to factor that in. Pension may or may not be a consideration, depending on how long you’ve taught in public schools. For newer teachers, the financial hit may be insignificant. In your case, it sounds like a potential deal breaker. Remember, though, that you may be able to negotiate your contract. Independent school salaries generally are not lock-step and can vary widely from institution to institution, and some do offer pensions.

Creativity. More often than not, you’ll have more teaching flexibility and resources in independent schools. You also may have more access to individualized professional development opportunities. Creative freedom can be incredibly satisfying, but it’s not for everyone. For some teachers, it actually may cause stress. Do you thrive on autonomy, or will you miss the structure and predictability of a mandated curriculum? That said, look into whether you’ll be asked to teach a specific curriculum in the private school. Again, these are questions to ask on a school-by-school basis.

Quality of life. You mention smaller class sizes. Make sure that would in fact be the case. Some private schools may have larger class sizes than others. It’s true that many independents prioritize keeping classes small, which will make it easier for you to get to know your students and their families. Consider the rest of your life as well. Exactly how much would the new job affect your commute? If you have children, would your academic calendars be compatible? Is that important to you? Would you want to send them to the school where you work, and would there be a tuition discount? Perhaps the private school has a shorter year. What’s the mission and vision of the independent school, and does it gel with your worldview? The school’s philosophy may not seem critical now, but it will permeate every aspect of the community, from athletics to staff cohesiveness.

Beyond these questions, consider your own temperament. Some people thrive on change, while others find it deeply unsettling. New jobs provide opportunities to learn, but you may still have plenty of room to grow in your current school. Keep in mind that no matter what you choose, you’ll still be teaching. Kids are kids, no matter where you go.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at

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