This one is always kind of a hard story to tell.
But it’s also a story that I know is worth telling. The reasons we leave–or the reasons we stay–at a school are oftentimes very personal decisions that we make for our own well-being.
There are pros and cons to working in public, private, and charter schools. In my mind, it’s not a black-and-white decision. What matters most, in my mind, is that no matter what space you’re in, you’re making sure to put equity at the center of your teaching. Issues with equity ultimately led me to my decision to leave the public school where I spent the first four years of my career. And my decision to go into the private sector was not part of my plan. It’s simply where I was offered my next job.
It all started in October of 2013.
At that point in time, I was hardly out at my public school. My teaching team and many of the staff knew I was gay, but I didn’t really talk about it a lot. While some of the parents might have guessed my sexuality, I only entrusted my identity to a few very close families.
Right around that time, marriage equality was legalized in Illinois. Come the following year, same-sex couples would be able to legally marry, and I wasn’t the only one who was excited about it.
“I think we should do a lesson about it,” my straight colleague, Markus, mentioned to me.
I wasn’t sure at first. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to handle the pushback, the scrutiny, and the confirmation that homophobia was alive and well in my school. But I thought about it, and eventually, Markus and I decided to move forward with the lesson. We put together a group of instructional materials, including a summary of both sides of the argument and informational texts on where our values come from. We planned to host a discussion to let them explore their own thoughts on this change in legislation.
There was one catch. We didn’t ask for permission.
While I said shortly after that I didn’t think the principal would mind, I knew all along that she would. I knew homophobia was a silent and internalized part of the the culture of our little town, and I knew that it would get shut down immediately if we asked to host this lesson. It ended up getting shut down anyway, shortly after we sent the e-mail.
The morning after we sent the e-mail–the same morning that we just so happened to be celebrating my teammate’s upcoming marriage in her classroom for all of her students to see–Markus and I were called into the principal’s office.
“I hope you’re proud of yourselves,” she said to us.
“I’ve never been prouder,” Markus replied. I smiled contentedly.
The story didn’t end well, as you have probably already guessed. This event was followed by a series of events that made for an uncomfortable remainder of the school year. The superintendent eventually met with me, my rating was lowered, and at one point, the principal even asked if she could meet with me to look through my classroom library–all to ensure that I didn’t have anything “inappropriate” in there.
The summation of these actions, coupled with unfair evaluation practices and discriminatory behavior, led to me believe that I could no longer work at the school. There was just too much pain and trauma.
So I started looking for other jobs.
I looked at other public schools in the area, despite the fact that my anxiety told me I might be blacklisted. I was sure all of the principals talked to one another. It turned out that they didn’t. I had a few interviews, but nothing materialized.
That is, nothing materialized until I got a call from a little start-up company in San Francisco dedicated to personalized learning. To me, San Francisco seemed like the perfect place for a person like me to live. What’s more, I asked them, specifically, how they felt about having openly gay teachers at their schools, to which they replied they had no objection.
This private school in San Francisco ended being just what I needed at the time. Their stance on diversity, equity, and inclusion made me feel safe and warmly welcomed. There were a number of queer teachers on staff, and with them, I felt a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose.
I eventually left San Francisco and moved back to Chicago. I can’t fully explain it, but there was something about going back to public school that terrified me. I know now it was my traumatic experiences talking to me, telling me that there were too many threats in public school. While I know there are many public schools out there that are incredibly accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, I know that many are not. Still, I applied. I applied to lots of different schools when planning my return to Chicago. It just so happened that the first interview I had was for a private school in Chicago with a long history.
In my final interview with the Director of the Lower School, I said point-blank, “As you know, I’m an openly gay teacher, and I plan to be in my next position. Will that be okay here?” To my question, she hardly batted an eye.
“Of course, what else do you want to know?”
To her, it was not even a question. And it was that moment that made me feel safe and welcome. And it was then that I decided I’d accept the job if it was offered to me.
It’s not a clear-cut decision.
That is, it’s not a clear-cut decision whether or not to join a public or private school. My psychological safety was number one on my list of priorities. I knew I wouldn’t be able to work for a school where I wasn’t able to bring my whole self into my classroom. My new school offered me that.
But it offered me so much more, too. It offered me pedagogical autonomy and the ability to create engaging project-based experiences for my students. It offered me chances for leadership positions that came with stipends. It offered me a competitive salary–one that helped me feel like I could actually have a future and perhaps even take care of a family. These things matter a lot. And these things are available at some public schools, too.
We are so conditioned to believe that teachers must be martyrs and that we must choose public education if we’re going to do good in the world. That’s not to say that all public school teachers are coming from a place of martyrdom, but that’s often the counterargument.
“Paul, you could be teaching kids who really need you,” some will say, implying that my expertise would be better for students who can’t afford private school.
But I’m not here to be a savior. I’m here to teach any kids that I feel like I can reach. And I know that the kids I’ve worked with over the past ten years–regardless of their identity, family income, or schooling situation–have been positively impacted by what I bring into the classroom. Why? Because equity work is at the center of what I do. I’m certain it looks different in my school, because conversations about privilege and race require a lot of my students to better understand their role in dismantling inequities in our world and using whatever privilege they have to do so.
Even in my private school, there are varying degrees of privilege. There is immense neurodiversity, racial/ethnic diversity, and even some family income diversity. Our conversations centered around equity matter in private school–because these kiddos will play a role in shaping a better and more equitable world.
I’m not saying I would never go back to public school.
I would, if the situation felt right. I would, if I felt safe. I would, if I felt like I could make an impact. I would, if I felt like I could take care of myself and my family in the same ways that I do now.
The truth is that I respect the hell out of public school teachers, and I hope that comes through in my content. I believe in public school, and I believe in the potential of a public school system that is equitably funded.
But it’s also okay to choose a situation and an environment that feels safe and comfortable for me. And it’s okay for you, too. If you’re considering a move, and if that move might be to a private school, know that it’s okay to make that step. Know that it’s okay to take care of yourself and your family. Know that it’s okay to make a decision that’s right for you.
Because you matter, too.
Comments? Questions? Disagreements? Additions?
I’d love to hear from you. This story and more is in my upcoming book, Reclaiming Personalized Learning, which is out on October 1st! Pre-order your copy here.