‘Not Immune to Shortages’

By Blake Rodman — July 09, 2019 8 min read


A chemist from the Northeast, tired of her job in industry and seeking a new career as a teacher, traveled here this month to meet with potential employers at a conference of independent-school educators.

Three days later, as she sat in an airport bus smiling, she shook her head in amazement. “It’s incredible,” she said. With virtually no teaching experience, she had been interviewed by 14 school leaders during the meeting and received six on-the-spot job offers.

Her whirlwind recruitment underscored a topic of concern for many attending the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools here: the tightening competition for teachers.

With an advanced degree in her subject area, independent means of support, and a willingness to live on campus and be involved in extracurricular activities, the chemist had been typical of the individuals independent schools have long relied on to staff their classrooms.

But many at this year’s N.A.I.S. meeting said finding such individuals is becoming increasingly difficult.

“In independent schools, we are not immune to teacher shortages,” said John Esty, the N.A.I.S. president, warning members that “an even greater shortage lies ahead.”

Others expressed fears that, as states lower barriers and raise incentives to attract nontraditional teacher candidates to public classrooms, the impact of the shortage on private schools could be heightened.

Illustrating that concern, many school heads and personnel officers spent much of their time here interviewing prospective teachers, leading one dean of students to remark that the annual meeting had turned it into a “meatmarket.”

A Vanishing Breed

“Many schools are seeing the last of a traditional group of teachers whose view of the good life was a lifelong career of teaching in independent schools,” said Thomas Read, president of the Independent Schools Association of the Central States, a service organization for 180 private schools.

Other school officials noted that the number of talented college graduates choosing to teach in independent schools for several years before going on to graduate study has also declined. As competition in the job market intensifies, they said, students grow more eager to establish themselves in a career as soon as possible.

But though many schools are having trouble finding candidates for job openings, Mr. Read said, he knows of none so far unable to fill vacancies.

“We have not reached the point where you turn the tap and no water comes out,” Mr. Read said. But when positions open up, especially in mathematics and the sciences, he said, “it’s becoming very hard to fill them” with the high-quality teachers independent schools have traditionally hired.

States May Pose Problems

The trend among states to open alternative routes for teacher certification and mandate minimum starting salaries for teachers, usually much higher than those independent schools offer, may pose additional recruitment problems, according to a number of school leaders and N.A.I.S. officials.

New Jersey, for example, passed legislation last fall requiring a minimum starting salary for public-school teachers of $18,500. It also began experimenting with an alternative-certification route designed to attract to the public schools a staple of independent-school recruitment: talented liberal-arts graduates from prestigious universities and colleges.

With no certification requirement, private schools have been the only teaching alternative for such graduates in the past. Now, some independent-school leaders wonder whether this and other once-stable pools of prospective teachers may disappear if public schools continue to widen the competitive gap by intensifying their recruitment efforts, paying higher salaries, and waiving the traditional certification requirements.

Richard F. Barter, headmaster of the Collegiate School of New York City and chairman of the N.A.LS., said at the meeting that it was too early to tell if alternative routes would succeed. “I am not certain the graduates of Princeton University are automatically going to flood the public schools in the state of New Jersey,” he said.

Public Schools An Option

But a recent survey of 243 high-school teachers in public and independent schools in New Jersey suggests that independent schools in the state may well lose a significant number of teachers to the public schools, according to Pearl Kane, director of the Esther A. and Joseph Klingenstein Center for Independent School Education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Of the independent-school teachers surveyed, said Ms. Kane, who directed the study, 44 percent of those under the age of 35 and with less than 10 years’ experience said they were currently considering a job change. This compares with 33 percent of the public-school teachers polled.

Perhaps more startling, Ms. Kane said, was that when independent-school teachers were asked whether they would accept a position in a public school if they were looking for a job today, three out off our said yes. Only half of the public-school teachers said they would accept a job in a private school, she said.

“The data are there,” she said. “If independent-school teachers stay in teaching, it may not be in an independent school.”

If access to public-school teaching is made easier and salaries are increased, Ms. Kane contended, “people will start thinking of switching over.”

But most here expressed little fear about losing current faculty members to the public schools. They worried more, they said, about attracting new ones.

“Teachers who have been in independent schools for 10 years have gotten used to the style and have come to enjoy it and understand its advantages,” said Barbara F. Stock, director of academic services for the N.A.I.S. “But new teachers, with this job market? Come on. If someone offers you $12,000 and some one else offers you $18,000, what job are you going to take?”

That, she said, “worries me a lot.”

No Exodus Feared

Not only do independent-school starting salaries fall below those of public schools, however, but average salaries for older teachers lag behind as well.

This year, beginning teachers in the 850 N.A.I.S. member schools earned an average salary of $13,200, while their public-school counterparts earned an average of $16,500. The average salary for all independent-school teachers was $19,100, while the average salary paid public-school teachers was $25,275.

Although some here said they knew of teachers who had moved to the public sector for better pay, most said that the favorable working conditions and academic environment of independent schools would prevent a mass exodus.

Teachers are drawn to independent schools, N.A.I.S. members noted, because they offer small class sizes, few discipline problems, freedom to structure the curriculum, an opportunity to be involved in school pol icymaking, and the chance to teach advanced courses.

Douglas E. Foderman, a biology teacher at the Isidore Newman School in New Orleans, spent one year teaching in what he called “a bad public school” in Durham, N.C., before switching to the private sector. “Being treated like a professional and having the freedom to be creative and teach the curriculum I feel is appropriate more than compensates for the lower pay I might make,” he said.

‘Unrealistic Expectations’

But many here expressed fears that scarcity and competition could undermine selectivity.

Sandra D. Lipps, president of Mathfind, an agency that places science, mathematics, and computer-sciences teachers in independent schools, said that “unrealistic expectations” are making it very difficult for many schools to find candidates to fill vacancies in these subject areas.

“Their requirements are often too strict for what is available,” said Ms. Lipps, noting that schools often snub highly qualified graduates of state universities.

“They expect to find someone from Princeton with three to five years’ experience,” she said. “But those days are gone.”

Ms. Stock argued, however, that maintaining selectivity is essential for independent schools.

“Our lifeblood is good teachers,” she said. ''Truthfully, independent schools survive because year in and year out we have always been able to attract and retain excellent teachers. Now the pool is smaller and we are concerned that with the smaller pool the quality of the pool may be affected also.”

Rising Salaries and Support

School heads and N.A.I.S. officials here said independent schools are making a concerted effort to raise salaries and provide additional support services for teachers, especially new teachers.

John E. Bachman, the association’s vice president, said some school heads feel pessimistic about the rising salaries in public schools and wonder how they will keep pace. But many others, he said, see the higher public salaries as “ammo” to convince trustees to raise salaries in their own schools.

“As salaries go up in the public sector, salaries will go up in the independent schools as well,” said Mr. Barter of the Collegiate School. “We have a synergism working for us that everyone is going to benefit from.”

To finance such raises, some schools are attempting to build endowments or bolster existing ones. Others are raising tuitions—a tactic many here perceived as risky because of its potential impact on enrollment.

In a further effort to retain teachers, independent schools are paying more attention to how they induct and train new teachers.

“Independent schools are looking at teachers differently,” Mr. Barter said. “We are much more concerned in recruiting people that we provide support services and that we set up measures to help them make the transition.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 19, 1986 edition of Education Week


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