Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A reader's question: Prep schools and job security

I just received the following question from one of our readers, and (with that reader's permission) have decided to post it:

Dear Dr. Harrison,

I found your blog extremely useful. I guess you have not left academia yet, so you may know the answer to my question. I was wondering what job security is like at boarding schools? I realize that they do not offer tenure, but what is to stop them from refusing to renew a contract for a variety of reasons, i.e. it is cheaper to replace a more experienced teacher with a less experienced one?

Any thoughts?


Curious in Cincinnati

Dear Cincy,

Good question! I know that the lack of tenure is one issue that gives some academics pause when they consider leaving (or giving up on) the academy. One of my colleagues here has opined that I'm crazy to give up a job for life. (She is a friend, so I took no offense.)

Honestly this is not a question I've thought much about, mostly because you're the first to ever raise the issue. I've interviewed a half-dozen PhDs who teach in secondary schools (about half of whom have been doing so for 10+ years) and nobody has mentioned job security as an issue, and certainly not in the way you describe it. (By contrast, I have heard rumors that Bennington College - who also don't have tenure - will occasionally clear the decks for cheaper, more junior PhDs.)

This isn't to say it's not an issue anywhere, but that I am unaware of it.

That said, your post raises a good question and speaks to the factors you should consider when searching for a school. First, pay attention to how long other faculty have been at the school. Some schools will actually boast that "On average, Prestigious Prep faculty have fifteen years' teaching experience and twelve years at Prestigious." That's a good sign. If there seems to be a high turnover among faculty, you should hesitate before accepting an offer. (That said, if you are looking for a "starter job" facutly turnover might not put you off - obviously people can leave!)

You can also look into a school's finances, both through annual reports, but also through the website: www.guidestar.org. (Registration is free.) It includes financial information on many non-profits, including endowment, operating budgets, and salary for senior administrators. If a schools got a lot of money sloshing around, they're unlikely to look for cost savings by firing senior faculty. (Warning: Guidestar can be a huge time-suck if you are at all snoopy.)

Finally, pay attention to a school's reputation. A place that has been around for a while, and has a regional or even national reputation for excellence is less likley to engage in these sorts of shennanigans than a newer school that might be on the verge of going under.

Good luck, and thanks for reading!




Anthea said...

Thanks for discussing this question. It's a good one especially given the current economic times we all live in.

Anonymous said...

(I've taught in prep schools for 10 years, but keep in mind that every school is different, so I can only speak from what I've observed.)

Private school teachers are given a one-year contract every February or March. The basic belief is that the job is yours as long as you want it, but that a one-year contract gives you the chance to make the conscious decision to teach there for the next year (and negotiate salary and other job responsibilities, although usually there is a small raise each year).

It's assumed you'll get a contract every year. No one thinks much about it. Of course,the school can "hold your contract" and write up a list of conditions for you to meet by year's end as a diciplinary measure. It's rare, but it happened to me because I was an uppity woman who taught in the Arts in a very conservative Southern school. The Headmaster HATED me, but I was much beloved by students, faculty, and parents, so he withheld my contract to shame me and then handed it to me in May. With a pay raise. On the day it was announced that the yearbook had been dedicated to me. Hilarious. But the point is, even if they don't like you as a person, they will keep you if you are good at your job.

If a school does decide to "counsel out" a teacher,(that's what they call it when you don't get handed a contract) it happens at the end of a long series of meetings and needs a paper trail ten miles long. I've been on faculties with a few really bad teachers over the years, but since there was not enough paper evidence, those teachers were always kept. In 10 years, I've seen only 2 teachers get counseled out. (Schools do it before the hiring cycle so you can have time to look for work at another private school, if you wish.)

I've never seen faculty lines get cut or pay reduced in a budget crunch. The worst I've seen is that annual raises are very small.

The schools I've worked in have been relatively small but financially stable, with pretty modest endowments. Hope this helps.

-Uta Hagen

Eliza Woolf said...

Thanks for sharing the great info., Anonymous. It's always fascinating hearing about what it's really like for prep school teachers "on the inside." So many of us are clueless when it comes to the everyday reality of working at a private school. The more personal stories the better.

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