Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The joy of teaching in an independent school

I think I've mentioned before that every once in a while a colleague or acquaintance asks me why I want to teach and why I want to teach in an independent school. I have a pretty good sense of what education ought to look like; it's a vision that is shared by many in the independent school world. Here's an essay by Brian Horgan who is the past Dean of Curriculum at Western Reserve Academy, an independent school in Ohio.
Most of the colleagues with whom I work and share the joy of independent school teaching, celebrate the aspects of what the late British historian of ideas, Isaiah Berlin, famously refers to as negative liberty--the freedom to act without interference from others. Clearly this is a valuable aspect of independent school teaching. Most of us relish the opportunity to work free of burdensome dictates of state department of education mandates, strict and often misguided teacher certification and re-certification requirements, pat curricular designs and assessment procedures, and bureaucratic paper work including the submission of daily lesson plans. In my teaching career I have come to appreciate the benefits of this kind of liberty as well; however, I try to remain attentive to the opportunities, by way of responsibilities, this kind of freedom makes imperative.

It is precisely these opportunities that give me cause to celebrate the independent school experience. More specifically, the freedom I enjoy as an independent school teacher affords me the opportunity to turn my attention to things that matter most.
Because I am free from the democratic, though nobly intended, policies of public education, I can work within a smaller community where individuals can meet the individual needs of other individuals. Of course the demands of community become more pronounced in this small setting--the virtuous practice of sharing, listening, and compassion are paramount to the success of the independent school. A good public school system will, to be sure, have teachers who are committed to these virtues as well--my children have been in their classrooms. But it is also true that there are teachers who are not so committed in part, perhaps, because they work in school systems where, by necessity or accident, sociological statistics and objective data collection have become more important than people. Unfortunately independent schools employ people like this as well but my sense is that this is accidental rather than the inevitable by-product of a large educational system overburdened by bureaucratic demands. The small community of learners to be found in an independent school invites us to listen to the individual needs of our students and respond to those individual needs rather than having to resign ourselves to the limitations that long class rosters and incredibly hefty teaching loads would normally dictate. It invites us to share our insights, strategies, and classrooms with our colleagues rather than wasting time and energy protecting turf and reputation. It invites us to self direct our professional growth rather than having it governed for us by people whom we have never met.

When we enjoy these benefits of independence, however, we must recognize that the source of our joy is an independence hat differs from the negative liberty of "no interference". As independent school educators we must be constantly mindful that to be independent of outside demands is to be, at the same time, bound by professional and inter-personal obligations, and that monitoring these obligations has become, to a great extent, the responsibility of the individual rather than the state, or proficiency test results, or the superintendent, or even, in some cases, the department chair. Freedom should never mean that one is free to do whatever one pleases; rather it should mean that one has the opportunity to focus with greater clarity on the proper limits of independence. To be independent does not allow one to say "leave me alone and let me do my work"; instead it calls one to invite others to share that work in an environment that is grounded in trust. With freedom comes duty--a duty to move beyond the walls of individual classrooms and attend to the broad requisites of mission. Unfortunately, I fear this aspect of independence is sometimes overlooked. Fortunately, many independent school teachers are mindful of the full scope of possibilities their independence affords and consequently enjoy the most rewarding benefits of teaching at an independent school.
This essay was posted in About:Private Schools; I think it captures a sense of why some teachers choose to work in independent schools. I, certainly, can relate to Mr. Horgan's words. And, I look forward to the day I'm back in the classroom independent, but interdependent of an entire school community.

1 comment:

Anon. said...

Further interesting coloration can be shed on Brian Horgan's concepts of the particular ways in which freedom should and should not manifest itself in the private (specifically, boarding) school environment of which he speaks to note that he was dismissed from his position at Western Reserve Academy in 1998 for having an affair with a junior-year student at the school. I don't generally think that personal conduct should interfere with critique of academic/professional concepts, but in this instance, it's ironically jarring that he chooses to dismiss a laissez-faire social pedagogy in favor of the very system of interconnectivity that led him to a major amount of personal grief.