Miss A Columnist

Melissa Curtin covers charity and style related events and loves to cover LA's best in beauty, fashion, and culture. She is an educator who recently returned to the classroom to motivate and inspire third graders at a private school in Pacific Palisades. In 2012, she launched an educational T-shirt line called Wear2learn. When she is not working out, hiking a canyon, or at the beach, she is writing. Her latest dream come true has been travel writing for Johnny Jet.

After teaching in the Maryland public school system for almost a decade, she left the conservative East Coast environment in Washington, DC for West Coast living. Eager for adventure, inner growth, and a new environment, she packed her car and took to the open road on her own landing in her new home - Hollywood, California. As a Connecticut Yankee at heart, she has now lived in Los Angeles for six years surrounded by the stars.

Melissa graduated from Gettysburg College with a double major in psychology and art history. Soon after, she earned a Master's Degree in education. Melissa traveled around the world on Semester at Sea, and earned a Fulbright Scholarship which enabled her to teach in England. A lust for travel and learning has fueled her globe trotting ever since. Some of her favorite destinations are Costa Rica, Thailand, Fiji, Morocco, Vietnam, Belgium, Italy, Sicily, Prague, Egypt, Australia, Greece, and Paris.

Los Angeles has won over her heart. She is constantly taking advantage of what LA LA Land has to offer - new boutiques and restaurants, finding great deals, discovering new hikes and beaches, music, and West Coast fashion.

Public School Education Vs. Private School Education: Seven Biggest Misconceptions

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1.  Private school teachers are more qualified.

When I worked in a public school in Maryland 99% of the teachers had a Master’s Degree and were continuing professional development regularly because not only did the county we work for encourage it, often through paying for our courses, trainings, workshops, and so on, but our salary would increase after a certain amount of credits were earned.  As part of our yearly evaluation it was expected and encouraged from the beginning of the year to enhance our skills.  Many years ago I remember the principal allowing me to take an online reading course, then gladly reimbursing me for it.

Not to say that better teachers have more degrees, but I worked at a private school in Los Angeles for four years and not many teachers had a master’s degree.  Also, in some private schools, you can be hired right out of a college with little training or a credential.  This does not mean you will not be a wonderful teacher.  Each private school is different, but often the private school’s idea of professional development is to read a book on your own or find extra time in your day to meet with colleagues and share your knowledge.  There was never a scheduled teacher “walk-thru” in the private school I worked at so we could learn from each other’s classrooms and it was only recently the school encouraged teacher observations (where teachers observed other teachers to learn) and YOU as a teacher were expected to find time to squeeze this into your day and find the proper coverage to make this happen, whereas in the public school it was planned and coordinated for you.

Also, there were less formal evaluations and observations of teachers done yearly in the esteemed private school I was a proud teacher at for four year, if any formal evaluations at all.  I wondered if the principal even knew how to do one or maybe he stopped after realizing the Administration (family run) at the private school made the decisions anyway, so it was pointless to evaluate teachers.  Maybe he just didn’t have enough time.

Also, some of the most valuable lessons I learned to become a better instructor I learned from my colleagues during staff meetings at a public school when teachers were given a chance to present and share their new strategies and techniques.  I did not find the principal standing in front of us for an hour while he read off a Power Point all the dates and logistics we needed to know a good use of my time.  I think principals are so overwhelmed that they often forget that most of their job should be centered around facilitating great instruction.  One way would be to support teachers in a positive manner.

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2.  Private school teachers make more money.

This is definitely not the case in my experience.  In the public school system I worked in for for almost ten years, each teacher would get a regular annual raise or sometimes two increases a year.  I know people don’t think this should be the case, especially if they think the teacher is not performing up to standard and many people think unions are horrible. In my situation, I respected and admired every teacher I came across, except for maybe one or two.  We all worked like dogs in the public schools I worked at, so I felt we all were deserving of each little increase.

In a private school you have little negotiating power with your salary unless you have higher education degrees or many years of experience.  Since the private school runs like a business they want to get the most bang for their buck, and often you will receive minimal salary increases each year.  For example, if I stayed in the public school I was at in Maryland I would have been making fourteen grand more in four years.  That was the loss I suffered in four years at a private school that had little incentives and little raises.  It didn’t matter how hard you worked, you were made to feel disposable and replaceable because someone else could do your job and fill your shoes.  I guess education is just like corporate America.

Also, I worked at a public school that raised a lot of money thanks to the PTA.  Each teacher was therefore given anywhere up to $300 to start the year to cover costs that most of us would spend out of our own wallets, such as new books, borders for the bulletin boards, class rewards, etc.  This money was given before the year started or in September, so it put less stress on teacher’s financial woes.  At the private school I worked at we were given $100 for the year and often the money wouldn’t be given until November.  This was from a school charging over $23,000 a year.  Many teachers were struggling, had husbands out of work, and had families to support and being reimbursed three months later WAS a very big deal.

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3. Teaching at a private school is less stressful because the kids are all well behaved and they don’t have learning issues.

Well, I’d like to say this is true.  Yes, the kids are often hand picked from the likes of celebrity offspring, genius creative parents, and parents with money that is oozing down their bloodlines, but in reality you face so many stresses in a private school, just often different stresses.  The kid’s “issues” can be somewhat different than what you would deal with at a public school, but there is still continual need for preaching kindness and respect as well as helping children solve daily problems whether it be academical or social/emotional.

In one of the public schools I taught at I remember having to teach two children how to speak English in third grade and half my class was ESOL (English not being their first language), as well as being responsible for challenging the rest.  It is always an interesting feat when your third graders are expected to know geometry and they are still learning the English language.

The kids learning abilities can be way more expansive at a public school and you may get way less parent involvement, but it really depends on the school.  Teachers at private schools are expected to communicate with parents regularly, and much more frequently than a weekly email.  You really get to know the parents/families in a private school because often you see them on campus, at fundraisers, frequent after school performances and soccer games on campus, and cocktail parties that are being thrown for teachers, and so on.  Since they are paying big bucks to send their children to the private school, meetings, phone call returns, and extra tutoring after school are expected demands outside of your school day.

Also, the day is longer in most private schools. I was in my classroom at 7:30 a.m. and on a good day left at 4:00 p. m. often taking home incredible amounts of works, such as planning, assessing, parent teacher conference and report card preparation,and emailing parents back.  In most public schools a teacher arrives at 8:30 a.m. or earlier and leaves at 3:45 p.m. or earlier.  If you don’t have incredible stamina and energy, this job is not for you.

4.  The curriculum is always in place at a private school and/or a public school.

In the public school I worked for the curriculum was rolled out from Kindergarten through twelve grade so that there was a flow of learning taking place, so concepts were being built on over the years if your child stayed in the system.  It wasn’t always like that when I first started teaching in Montgomery County Public Schools because although the curriculum was somewhat set, the objectives were not laid out or clear cut for each subject, just the major themes or concepts, like Mexico or geometry.

The shocking thing to me was the freedom I had to invent and create my own curriculum in a private school because there was no guide or curriculum that was laid out by grade level.  I don’t think this is the experience with all private schools and over the four years I worked at a private school there seemed to be an administrative desire to change that, but if I didn’t have a solid foundation in teaching reading comprehension strategies or writer’s workshop, I don’t know how a teacher without training or guide books or resources would be successful or effective in a private school without a solid stated curriculum.  It would only make sense to me that this is something that should be mapped out and reevaluated each year to make sure there was a yearlong plan in place for each subject at each grade level with a building of new concepts.  The wonderful thing about not having a list of a 100 objectives is that learning could be taught in a much more open ended meaningful creative way, rather than following the list of lessons provided in a quarterly guide.

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5. Teachers will have plenty of materials provided in a private school.

In the public school I last worked in on the east coast we had a room dedicated to chapter books for each grade level and books were constantly being purchased.  There were also math supplies available to be shared when needed.  This was not the case when I worked at a private school.

In my private school experience, there was little money used for the order of materials needed by teachers, such as new chapter books for literature circles.  Often they could be requested and promised, and they were never ordered.  It was easier for me to spend my own money to buy the chapter books and hope I could get reimbursed.  I felt bad for the two colleagues I worked with who started out with not many books in their classroom libraries because the school didn’t provide it.  I had collected thousands of books over the years to build a rich classroom library categorized by subjects and genres.  Where does the child turn to for extra reading materials or new books of interest when their own classroom library is lacking?  Often times, the school would say the teacher had to build their own library and they could only check out a few books from the school library and provide them with no support to help enrich their classroom.  What was provided in my private school experience was the ordering of numerous text books and workbooks, like for grammar, cursive handwriting, or math.  Often times in a public school copying had to be done in place of these readily available practice exercise books.

6.  Class sizes are smaller in a private school.

This is not necessarily true.  My last two years teaching at a public school I had 20 childen in class and I had 22 or 23 in a private school in a much smaller room.  Believe me, an extra two children really makes a difference and having a couple less is ideal for optimum impact on students.  Twenty is the ideal size.  Both the private and public schools had support teachers so that students could be regrouped into smaller learning groups for math and reading.  However, often the learning abilities were much more similar in a private school and the advanced math group I taught for four years was somewhat smaller than what I would have experienced in a public school, but not by much.  Often private schools claim they meet the child’s needs by providing smaller learning groups, but don’t always stick to their brochure facts.

7. Your children will get a better education in a private school setting.

Photo Credit: Melissa Curtin

I don’t think this is always the case.  They often will be surrounded by the best and brightest or wealthiest, but there are fantastic public schools with highly trained teachers who are making an incredible difference daily often due to an administration who is supportive and gets “it” – the demands.  The principal knows how to structure groupings so children are getting the attention and support they need.  The principal may hold monthly professional development meetings to inspire teachers to utilize new techniques and methods.  We had a principal in my public school who allotted time for our team of third grade teachers to meet each Monday for an hour to plan together while the children participated in a aerobics or dance class.

However, the private school I worked in was beautiful in LA, and a great deal of money was spent on making the grounds super kid-friendly and pleasing to the eye (i.e. new playground equipment, new astroturf, flowers in bloom everywhere, fountains, class gardens, gardens for teaching).  The school also had a performing arts center, science lab, Spanish twice a week, a special computer teacher, a drama teacher, and so on.  But the problem is that there are ineffective teachers that teach in private schools just like public schools and they don’t turn children on to learning or use outdated methods for management.

I think it boils down to the teacher.  What is a good fit for your child?  Who is a good role model?  Who can help them plan quality instruction in reading, writing, and math that is not only fun, but meets the objectives to be learned?  Who can relate school activities and lessons to real life problems?  Who has the qualifications that will help your child shine in their academics?

The scary fact for parents is they often don’t get to select the teacher for their child, therefore sometimes causing a detrimental year where they miss out on quality learning.  I have heard horror stories from parents and in the end I think parents have to hope that each teacher provides their child with a meaningful learning experience and has their child’s best interest in mind.  That is why parents have to continue to provide educational and enriching experiences at home too.



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