Advice to New Independent School Teachers (and all Teachers!)

Key resources from this talk:

Independent Schools—Reflecting on the difference

My own story, switching from a fine public school to an excellent independent school from 7th to 8th grade.

Qualities of the Independent School Environment:

  • Small Classes,
  • High Expectations,
  • Academic Rigor,
  • Relationships & Community,
  • Intellectual Curiosity and Engagement,
  • the Whole Child

Faculty members are absolutely at the heart of this—and your role is obviously and entirely essential to this.

To fulfill our mission, to be the heart of the community, we must place a very high value on relationship building.

When you speak to alumni, even decades letter, they talk about the relationships they had with teachers—the times they sat under a tree and talked philosophy, the times they “hung” out in your classroom after school, the coaching they got on the sports field or in the theater, the trips they took with you hiking, biking, to Mexico, or community service.

Your role in marketing. Maybe marketing is an ugly word, but this is the simple truth—every school in AZ, public, private, charter, is competing for students.   Fiercely competing.   This is partly mission-driven and idealistic: each sector and each school ought to believe fervently that it providing the best education available, and so marketing is evangelizing:  selling your school so they can have the best ed.   Now, you can view this as mercenary and financial—and it is: your salaries, and your school’s funding for everything you want to do, is only improved by your successful marketing of the school.

How can you help?   Friendly, welcoming—every day.  Smile. Greet students and parents, make them feel connected and included.   Showcase excellent student work:  presentations, special exhibits, online (!), newsletter, on bulletin boards.  Be a proactive communicator, build relationships, inform, inform, inform.  Boast.  Commend your students.  Tell your parents what you are able to do for student learning that you could not do in any other school.

With prospective parents—smile, engage, chat, talk about why you like teaching at this school, what draws you, what benefits it has.   Show student work, and explain its high quality.   Make your room welcoming.

A word more about money.  By and large, independent receive no funding from any government source, and really are rarely recipients of much corporate or foundation support.   Our parents are our funders—sometimes some alumni and some trustees, but mostly parents.   We need their tuition payments, and we need their voluntary support.  It is complicated—sometimes it is a pain in the neck—but it also protects and guarantees our autonomy from external forces, even as it places us in complex roles with parents.

A word about governance:   With only very few exceptions, independent schools are not-for-profit corporations, and are governed by a volunteer board of trustees.   Boards are usually composed of parents, past parents, alumni, and broader community members: board are supposed to have clearly defined roles and responsibilities: to hire and evaluate the head, only; to monitor the finances, approve the budget, and secure the financial health; to define the mission and plan for its fulfillment far into the future. Board members are never supposed to manage teachers, and if you feel this is happening, speak to your Head.   Don’t treat board children differently: do treat all children as if they are important parts of your community.   Treat board members as important constituents—but remember, treat all constituents as important constituents.  Look for opportunities to meet and perhaps work with trustees.

Accountability: where does it lie?   With our parents, who vote with their dollars and their feet: if we are not serving their children’s education, our parents will leave.  With our boards, which should monitor outcomes determined to be aligned with and informing of our mission and its goals.  And with our accrediting bodies, which review very thoroughly our school policies, procedures, and papers, and visit our sites, and decide whether our excellence is worthy of accreditation.

Independent school autonomy is prized. Our associations fight for it, and we pride ourselves on it.  We don’t teach to an AIMS test, or to any test; we don’t subscribe to standards as our definition of excellence in learning.  We as a rule tend to be far more responsive to the particular needs of the particular learners in front of us—they come first, not some external standards.  We do however need to be intentional about our intended outcomes: we do want to ensure our students are being prepared for what is next, we do want them to create excellence.  It is expected of you that you seek and find ways—internally with your colleagues and your own school’s scope and sequence, and externally by research – what are standards as defined by your subject area association?  What are other teachers doing in these subjects?

Which keys to me the following: I think that it is our job as teachers to be learners—I think that leaders in learning need to be leading learners.

Remarks on Dweck’s book Mindset, and the critical growth mindset.

Thoughts on how to be a learner:

  1. Read, read widely.
    • See my booklists for suggestions
  2. Connect with others: seek and form networks, and share, in person and using online tools
  3. Use Twitter, create a Twitter PLN
  4. Blog—reflectively as a learner, sharing resources, collaborating.
  5. Collaborate, Team Teach
      • Department meetings: look at student work
      • Design curriculum units and share
      • CFG experiences
  6. Experiment as a Teacher-Researcher
      • Divvie students into two groups and have two strategies
      • Use books on practice and test new approaches with a control group