Spurred by the pandemic, in August 2020 I pulled my daughter out of public school and enrolled her in a private school. Our family was attracted to the opportunity for small class sizes, outdoor learning and the school’s deep commitment to student voice and choice in learning.
While we have been very satisfied with many aspects of the school, especially the staff’s ability to make quick decisions in the best interests of students and families — without having to deal with the paralyzing levels of red tape and bureaucracy in a large urban public district — the school still faces many challenges also shared by public schools. The most important of these are staffing, teacher hiring and professional development.
Although researchers debate the merits of reducing class size, anyone who has ever been in charge of managing a group of children knows that when more adults are available to young people, young people are more likely to stay focused on learning, avoid disruptive behavior and build stronger relationships with both adults and their peers.
While having more adults around in schools is a benefit. It usually costs money, whether that school is private or public. Public systems struggle to find the space and funds to reduce class sizes, to the point where many administrators openly reject the idea of creating class sizes of 15 students as impossible.
While private schools — including the one my daughter attends — can make class sizes that small happen, there are times when students need even more individual attention. Bringing in additional adult support can be difficult for private schools, too. Though my daughter’s school has traditionally supplemented adult teachers and aides with parent volunteers, the pandemic prevented that entirely for a year and a half. This leaves our school in a similar position as many public schools, jockeying adults around to cover lunch and recess duty and give teachers a break.
During the pandemic, our school also experienced some teacher turnover. We made a fall hire last year to fill a vacancy, hired a sub to handle a maternity leave, and were able to have him stay on supporting other teachers and also hired to fill a vacancy that came up last spring. Two of our new hires are teaching in settings somewhat unfamiliar to them — new grade levels or age ranges of students — so we are experiencing a learning curve. And, precisely because we are not a public school and have very little administrative staff, it’s hard to carve out time for peer-to-peer support or coaching for teachers who are new to our school.
Recently, a friend of mine asked me if our school would have it easier in solving a problem with staffing because the teachers don’t have tenure or union protections. I explained that while, yes, it would be easier to remove a teacher, that doesn’t mean we would necessarily be able to replace that teacher with a quality new hire. This is especially true when a teacher leaves during the course of the school year. Whether a school is public or private, peak hiring season runs from April to June or July, and if you want to hire outstanding teachers, that’s when you want to be recruiting and interviewing candidates. If you’re trying to hire outside that season, you may not get as strong a candidate pool.
Also, teacher preparation nationally is generally inadequate. While private schools have more leeway to hire teachers who come to the field without experiencing formal preparation, those teachers are just as likely — if not more likely — to experience common new teacher challenges: classroom management, creating high-quality lessons and tailoring instruction to each student. While it is possible that private schools can innovate around supporting teachers in ways public schools may not be able to, both types of schools can and do struggle to get teachers the support they need.
Right now, the numbers show that many families are keeping their youngest children out of public school due to the pandemic, perhaps in daycare or with relatives. Meanwhile, older children are experiencing a variety of alternatives to public school, whether they are established private schools, online schools, homeschooling or microschools. While conversations have begun about how these innovations will change traditional public schools, it seems likely many private schools may need to rethink how they serve their students, too.