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Drawing cards: why private schools attract great teachers

Smaller classes, professional freedom draw teachers to private schools

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More than 450 students pack the gym at St. Clement's School in Toronto on an October morning, shuffling into place on the floor for an assembly. Lining the rows of benches are curious parents considering St. Clement's for their daughters.


Teacher Martha Perry takes a deep breath. She's used to the hustle and bustle of the twice-weekly assemblies for students and staff, but this is her first look at a student-run gathering in front of the parents of prospective students. But as the event unfolds Perry relaxes, watching the girls on stage reflect her own positive energy and passion for the school.

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Perry, who is also St. Clement's admissions director, is devoted both to the school and to her professional life within the independent school system. She says teachers are drawn to private schools by the level of interaction both with students and with colleagues.

Small class sizes, Perry says, "allow teachers to forge very solid, close relationships with students. These relationships are reinforced by teachers' extensive involvement in co-curricular and athletic programs outside of school."

The dedication and energy of its educators is palpable at St. Clement's, a school for girls from Grades 1 to 12. You'll often find Perry at school by 7 a.m., getting a head start on the day. But you're just as likely to find her there in the evening, coaching a basketball or softball game. Like other private schools, St. Clement's is fuelled by a sense of belonging and a family atmosphere, creating an enriching day-to-day setting for students and teachers.

The urge to be part of such an environment led Shai Maharaj and three like-minded colleagues on a quest to create their own vision of private education. Sharing a desire to stimulate bright and motivated kids, and give them a well-rounded curriculum, sparked the creation of The Abelard School, a gifted school in Toronto, Ontario. An ensured smaller class size attracts new professionals, who might not feel strong enough yet to go in front of 30 or more inquiring young minds, says Maharaj, both principal and a teacher at Abelard.

At Abelard, classes are tailored to just five to 10 students, and Maharaj says this sort of focused attention works towards the school's goal of getting kids excited about their own education.

Getting kids interested is key, but keeping teachers pumped about their profession and interested in the daily routine is just as crucial to success.

An annual leadership institute, organized by the Canadian Association of Independent Schools (CAIS), is one of many opportunities for professional development within the independent system.

Teacher and CAIS institute participant Clayton Johnston, the dean of students at Brentwood College School in Mill Bay, British Columbia, sees this focus on advancement as unique to the private school network.

It's more than just a summer course or subject refresher, he says. And what he learns from topics such as communication, development and education law are not the only reason to participate.

A staff member in charge of professional development lets Perry and her co-workers know what options exist, and encourages them to submit proposals for opportunities they discover on their own. Perry says teachers' growth is supported and encouraged from all sides.

Armed with this constant support to do and be better, teachers in the private system are afforded an often-enticing amount of freedom to direct the classroom and shape curriculum.

New teachers especially, Maharaj says, like the idea of adding their own spin to the set course of studies. They appreciate the chance to adapt subjects to fit the needs of their particular students. "Young teachers, just graduated, are very idealistic," he says. "They fit the private system because they are allowed to think that way."

Many teachers in the private system feel freer in how they're allowed to teach. Maharaj and his team of educators at Abelard still follow set curricular guidelines, but often rely less on straight textbook teaching and more on seminars and discussions.

Perry is quick to point out that this liberty does not mean independent school teachers create course material on a whim. Rather, there is freedom within the broader structure.

For instance, when teaching her career studies course this past year, Perry brought in school alumnae, including a writer, a pharmaceutical professional and an educator, to interview students following classroom work on learning styles, resumes and skill sets. This practical experience allowed the girls to experience what a real-life interview would be like.

Collegial environments, extensive professional development opportunities, and a freedom to shape course content are all part of what draws teachers to the independent school system and encourages them to stay.

"When the onus is placed on the girls, they rise to the occasion," Perry says about the times when students astound her with their capabilities. "You can give a lot to the kids, and they can seize it and go with it."

The same might be said about their teachers.

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