Look Here, Graduate: Consider Teaching in a Private School

Kurt Caswell | February 2013

After his reading at the Bread Loaf School of English a couple years ago, the poet John Ashbery was asked if he made his living primarily through the sale of his books. An electrical storm had knocked out the power, and Ashbery read by flashlight in the dining room. God no, he answered, the flashlight illuminating his ghostly face. Very few writers can. But teaching, he said, is one thing a writer can do to make a living.

Yet, for the graduate student in creative writing who wants to teach, the current job market in higher education is a terrifying future. It’s a world flooded with PhDs and MFAs, many with published books and teaching experience, and there are very few jobs. But even more terrifying for these young writers, at least many that I have known, is the prospect of teaching anywhere other than a university or four-year college. This prevailing attitude seems to be a failure of not only the student writer’s imagination, but of writing programs that poo-poo all teaching outside The Academy.

For my part, I never planned to become a teacher; I planned to become a writer. To be a writer, I thought, I needed to learn more about the world, and to do that I decided to travel. I accepted a job teaching English in northern Japan. That work offered me many more journeys in many more countries, and it gave me classroom experience. When I returned to the U.S., I found that I was marketable as a teacher. I taught in several private schools, then at a community college, and now in the Honors College at Texas Tech University and in the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Teaching is not for every writer, but it turned out it was for me. Teaching, as I experienced it, centered my daily life on books and craft and writers’ lives. It gave me a structured day and a structured year suitable to doing my work. When I was teaching in private schools and at a community college, I did not have the feeling that I was in a fallback position. What I had was an income, a home, a retirement plan, health insurance, a community; I had a life.

The desire to find work as a writer is the desire to buy time to travel, write, and publish, things that teaching, unlike many occupations, well affords. Though I teach fewer days each week at my university than I did when in private schools, I don’t have more time for writing, and now keeping my job depends on my finding that time.

With these considerations, I’d like to make a case for graduate students in creative writing to look beyond The Academy and consider teaching in private schools, also known as independent schools. There are other teaching opportunities out there as well (public schools, charter schools, and community colleges, for example), but I’ll leave those topics for another day. With so many qualified writer/teachers competing for so few jobs, opening the door to other kinds of teaching will increases your chances of finding a position from which you can do your work and live your life.

When John Rowell’s first book, The Music of Your Life: Stories, came out with Simon and Schuster in 2004, it helped earn him a position as the Tickner Writing Fellow at the Gilman School, a private college preparatory school in Baltimore. He stayed on for a second year, and then Gilman offered him a full-time teaching position. “Who among us knows where they are headed,” said Rowell, who holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. “It’s not what I thought I’d be doing, but it has been wonderful. I surprised myself with how comfortable I am working with high school students. I don’t think I had talked with a teenager since, well, since I was one.”

“You get that chance to be the first person to show them the writers you really love,” he added. “Most high school students haven’t read many of the great writers who are my life-blood—John Cheever, Jill McCorkle, Alice Munro, Chekov—and I get to be the first person to show them. That can be pretty special.”

When asked if he would give up his work in a private school for a university job, Rowell said: “There is always a new adventure to be had. If something great came along, maybe. I don’t think I would take it just because it was a university position. I don’t think teaching in a university is superior to the work I’m doing now.”

Private schools may be classed in two categories: day schools and boarding schools. The rule of thumb is that day schools tend to be located in urban or suburban areas, while boarding schools tend to be in rural areas. Private schools may be concentrated in the northeast and California but can be found most anywhere in the country. And international private schools are established in almost every major city in the world. Teaching in private schools overseas can be a great option for those interested in travel.

Private schools offer many of the same amenities as university and college campuses: access to a library and its online resources, recreational facilities like a gym and pool, a post office, a dining hall (often meals are free for faculty and their families), open space on campus, and especially in the case of boarding schools, campus housing that is either inexpensive or free. There are also special programs outside the classroom that enhance the quality of life for students, faculty, and staff. Examples are: first rate outdoor programs, theater, music, dance, horsemanship, competitive athletics, 4-H, working kitchen gardens, and other green initiatives. Some schools own a few dozen to several hundred acres of land, and so the school community may have the opportunity to practice land management and stewardship, wildlife conservation, firewood cutting, and even rendering sap into maple sugar.

Private schools offer a great deal of flexibility and freedom when it comes to curriculum. Laurie Zimmerman, an accomplished poet who has taught at Proctor Academy in New Hampshire for twenty-three years, said she develops her own curriculum. “I’ve never done anything but design my own courses,” she said. “If I want to teach all women writers, I do that. My poetry course, I developed myself. I teach whatever I want. This is true in all disciplines at Proctor. A colleague here is teaching the literature of rivers, another is teaching the Bible as literature. We have a course in meditative memoir and one in Middle Eastern literature. So you have a great deal of flexibility. And the school embraces this. The school is not beholden to the state, and so it can be more open and flexible. The thinking is that if you hire a professional teacher, she knows how and what to teach.”

And this is the qualification for teaching in private schools: excellence in your discipline and in the classroom. You don’t need state certification. You can also expect teacher salaries to be competitive with most public schools, and with some colleges and universities, to a point. The figures I know are somewhere between $25,000 and $75,000 for a nine-month contract with benefits. Of course, salary depends on experience and years of investment, and schools offering lower salaries are likely providing other perks, like free housing. Though most private schools do not grant tenure, they may give a similar status known as “continuing contract.” Some schools offer an “at will” contract, which is renewed each year. Though this may sound unstable, it is not. I have worked under such a contract and felt no sense of job insecurity. Besides, real job security, with or without tenure, comes from doing good work.

Class sizes at private schools are generally small (15-20 students, sometimes smaller), while the caliber of student is very high. “You’ve got kids who are very much on a path,” said Rowell. “They are working hard to be placed in really good colleges and universities. They are focused. When I started I was afraid I’d be talking over their heads, but that was a wrong assumption on my part. I feel my students really get it. If you set the bar high, they want to reach it. And that’s a really fine opportunity for them and for me as a teacher.”

More good news for writers is that private schools want to support their teachers’ professional development. While writers are not usually required to publish in order keep their contract, private schools encourage and support a writer’s work. Many schools offer travel stipends for conference attendance or additional training, and some offer sabbatical leave for research and travel. “The support I’ve been given as a writer is ridiculous,” said Zimmerman. “Proctor supported me financially to get my MFA, and I’ve been greatly supported by my community. I write with my students, and I can’t tell you how many times those exercises have become published poems. I have also had opportunities to read my work for audiences here, and this kind of practice has really been a blessing for my writing, and for giving readings and talks elsewhere. It’s a very supportive community.”

When asked about how he balances his writing with his teaching, Rowell said, “the summers are gold. I write a lot in the summer.” During the school year, “it depends on how well you manage time. Anybody who is writing and teaching at any level makes sacrifices. Both are important. It’s a balancing act,” he said.

Many private schools offer free or reduced tuition to their faculty’s children. Zimmerman raised two children, and the community of the school helped her do it. “If you are a parent,” she said, “you can put your kids through the school where you teach. It’s a safe and supportive environment. Your children are really raised by the village. There are always other parents/teachers nearby for help with babysitting in exchange for your help, and many schools have daycare facilities. It has been one of the greatest benefits to me as a parent and a full-time teacher and poet.”

If you decide you might look into teaching in a private school, working with a faculty recruitment agency is an excellent choice. Carney Sandoe & Associates, an agency that helps teachers find schools and schools find teachers all over the world, is one of the best. Teachers working with Carney Sandoe do not pay a fee, but rather schools that hire teachers through the agency pay a fee. I’ve included a short list of such agencies at the end of this article.

There is one caution: do not think that an advanced degree and numerous publications will ensure you a teaching position in a private school. “Private schools can be extremely competitive on the hiring front,” said Devereaux McClatchey, president of Carney Sandoe. “Especially in English departments. An advanced degree can be an advantage, but what private schools are really looking for is a teacher who is passionate about adolescent education. It’s fair to say that private schools are wary of candidates who are focused on higher ed. and regard teaching in a high school as a fallback position. It’s a huge turn-off. Private schools are looking for teachers whose primary interest is teaching adolescents.”

Likewise, private schools are also wary of candidates who are more interested in nurturing their writing than they are in teaching. A writer looking to private schools must also believe in their work as a teacher and find a balance between the two.

And thus, if you are a graduate of a creative writing program and on the job market for a teaching position, you might do well to consider private schools. I don’t mean to paint too rosy a picture. As with all teaching positions, the hours are long, the investment is great, and the pay is relatively low. Yet, for a writer who wants to teach, choosing a private schools may not be just one thing you can do to make a living, as Ashbery said, but rather the one thing you can do that you love doing.


For help finding a school and sending out your application, check out these organizations:


Kurt Caswell is the author or two books of nonfiction: In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation, and An Inside Passage, for which he won the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize. He is the lead editor of an anthology of nature writing, To Everything on Earth. His essays and stories have appeared in Isotope, Matter, Ninth Letter, Orion, Pilgrimage, River Teeth, Potomac Review, and other publications. He teaches creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, and in the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. For more information, please go to: www.kurtcaswell.com.

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