The Secret Lives of Private School Teachers

Many teachers who educate our nation’s wealthiest are grossly underpaid.

For first-year private school teachers, average starting salaries were $28,300. Their public school counterparts took home $38,200. (Photo: mikecogh/Creative Commons via Flickr)

A 15-year-old Catholic school student named Wesley recently contacted TakePart with the following observation: “Private school teachers are paid significantly less than public school teachers and often have to work multiple jobs. With their teaching salary alone, most private school teachers would be considered working poor class. These teachers do not do the job simply for shorter hours and summers off. They genuinely love their work and the students that they teach.” 

It’s hard to imagine that professionals who provide prestigious educations to the most wealthy and privileged children struggle financially themselves. Are private school teachers really underpaid?

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007–08, the average annual base salary of full-time private school teachers was $36,300. That’s considerably lower than public school teachers, who earned an average of $49,600.

For first-year private school teachers, average starting salaries were $28,300. Their public school counterparts took home $38,200.

TakePart recently spoke with Katie Dunn, a former university-level educator with a graduate degree in French, who described her experiences applying for private school teaching positions.

When Dunn interviewed to be a full-time French teacher at one of the most distinguished private schools in the country, she was shocked by their compensation package. In exchange for pouring her heart and soul into instructing, monitoring, coaching, and inspiring students, the school offered her a salary of $21,000.

“The salary offer was pretty insulting, considering that at the time, $21,000 was less than each student paid for a year of schooling,” Dunn shared. “The head of the department made mention several times that the salary I was offered was much higher than average for a starting teacher. Apparently taking the graduate degree and university level teaching experience into account raised the salary—which of course makes you wonder what the heck they’re paying people who don’t have a graduate degree or teaching experience!”

Dunn hoped that the housing the school provided would compensate for her meager wages. But the room she was offered was a dark and tiny attic apartment attached to someone else’s house.

“I wouldn’t have been able to take any of my furniture,” she recalled. “It wouldn’t fit. The apartment was outfitted with dorm furniture, my husband wouldn’t have been able to live with me, and the only entrance was a three-story fire escape. I was 27 years old at the time and literally cried after I saw the place. I was completely insulted. That was the way they expected their ‘noticeably dedicated,’ as the school’s website put it, to live!”

Dunn declined the school’s job offer, and chose a higher-paying career in a different field instead. 

Why do private school teachers accept such low-paying positions when they could earn more money at public schools?

These teachers do not do the job simply for shorter hours and summers off. They genuinely love their work and the students that they teach

For starters, private schools waive the teaching degree and state certification requirements that public schools demand, making them a viable option for people like Dunn who, in her words, “want to sort of ‘try on’ teaching as a career.”

She also mentioned that several of her acquaintances chose the profession because they loved their own private school experiences, and wanted to offer the same to other children.

Some teachers were attracted by features that typically distinguish independent schools, like smaller class sizes, flexibility in curriculum design, stricter discipline, and freedom from state testing requirements.

But the factors that initially draw teachers to private schools don’t necessarily keep them there.  

According to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, as of 2007, 46 percent of all new teachers in the United States left the profession within five years. Teacher turnover was higher at private institutions than public ones, reported the National Center for Education Statistics. In 2008-09, 16 percent of private school teachers left the teaching profession compared to eight percent of public school teachers—a troubling, but understandable, statistic indeed.

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