Teaching at Independent Schools: Language and Literature Experts Wanted!

Written by
Matthew D. Lillo

Sep 27, 2021

Sep 27, 2021 • by Matthew D. Lillo

Many independent schools have recently seen an increase in the number of applications to teach literature and languages—and it’s no surprise! These nonprofit institutions generally offer lucrative salaries, impressive benefit packages, and the opportunity to work with exceptional students.

Whether you have a bachelor’s or graduate degree, if you love the classroom, then independent schools may well offer you an ideal career path.

What is it like working for these institutions, and how might you succeed in your job search?

I came to this market shortly after finishing a PhD in English. While in the process of interviewing for several jobs in higher education, I heard about a position at a top New England prep school from a friendly colleague. I quickly learned that such jobs offer higher wages than many colleges and universities. In addition, they boast academic freedom in the classroom, the opportunity to work with highly intelligent young people, small class sizes, classrooms equipped with innovative technology, support for conference travel, funds for professional development, honorariums for external publications, sabbatical, and ongoing training in cutting-edge pedagogy.

I was impressed. Shortly thereafter, I found myself on this school’s faculty and have felt endlessly supported as an educator and scholar ever since.

Whether your degree is in English, languages, or other areas of the humanities, these schools are looking for outstanding educators who inspire curiosity and help students set themselves up for success. Make no mistake, these institutions understand the value of humanities classrooms. What you offer them is an expert ability to teach analysis, critical thinking, writing, and the necessary vocabulary for navigating global cultures and societies. These institutions place enormous value on these skills.

The great news is that you can make yourself stand out in this market! These schools are looking for outstanding teachers, and their hiring committees know how to spot talent. Here are a few tips to help you make the cut.

You Are Here to Teach!

Let’s face it (and I cannot repeat this mantra enough), you are here because you love teaching! The reasons why you thrive in the classroom—what you do in it and why you do what you do—should be clear from your application. From top to bottom, your cover letter should discuss who you are as an educator.

Your other experiences and skills are valuable too, and you should discuss them. But help the hiring committee understand how they have shaped your teaching. How might those three years’ working in marketing factor into your pedagogy? In what ways did finishing your thesis or dissertation shape how you engage with students and your subject? Have you ever built a program? What value might your publications, your athletics, or your years of singing alto in a symphony choir add to your work as an educator?

You are a humanities instructor. Make clear connections between your background and what you will bring to the school’s faculty.

Don’t Miss the Mission!

Speaking of teaching, you really should tailor your application to each school’s individual mission.

Pay careful attention to their website and know what they do. If the institution boasts a progressive approach to education, then you should figure out the specific ways in which they teach on the cutting edge. If the school is parochial, then you should signal how what you do in language and literature classrooms might benefit a faith-based education. If they separate students into Honors or AP sections, your application should attend to how you can teach a broad range of student abilities (because you will be required to do so!).

Know the Lingo: Jargon and Shibboleths

You may have strong teaching skills, but do you know your key pedagogical terms? (Do you really?) Too many otherwise promising educators miss the opportunity to connect their skills to the school’s approach.

When a school says it emphasizes Harkness discussions, do you know what that means? What is the difference between a Harkness and a Seminar discussion, and what are the benefits and pitfalls of each? Perhaps the school’s website mentions an affiliation with the International Baccalaureate system. Do you know what that means? What does it mean to be a progressive versus a traditional institution?

Some schools might emphasize student-directed learning or project-based learning on their websites. How might you use examples from your own teaching to demonstrate your interest in these methods? Whatever the school’s approach, you will want to emphasize how your skills make a good fit with the school’s mission.

Go easy on this one. Don’t overdo the jargon! That said, a few well-placed signals can make all the difference to a hiring committee.

DEI: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity

Top private schools are going through a very public cultural reckoning right now. Discourse about the United States’ history of slavery and racism has brought attention to some glaring institutional inequities. The recent college admissions scandals have highlighted how some parents have tried to leverage their access to these schools to gain top placements for their children.

Your application must address how you create a diverse, equitable, and inclusive classroom. This includes the texts and tactics you use. How might you help diversify the school’s reading lists? How might you address racism, sexism, or transphobia in units on, say, Shakespeare, Molière, or Cervantes? What texts or lessons do you use to address issues of diversity and equity? If you have participated in, advised, or led a group dedicated to creating a more inclusive world, then you should discuss your experiences in detail.

Edit your language carefully on this one. DEI training sessions are commonplace at these institutions, and making a space for every young person in your care will be central to your job. These schools want to be on the right side of history!

Your steadfast mission is to generate robust discussion and enable intelligent student inquiry about a globally diverse range of human experiences. Your vocabulary should showcase how you advocate passionately for diversity, equity, and inclusion with sensitivity and grace.

The Rewarding Independent School Market

Independent secondary schools are intellectually rich environments filled with students bound for top colleges and universities. These lucrative jobs offer competitive perks, summers and holidays off, opportunities for advancement, personal and professional fulfillment, and career mobility. The right institutional fit will bring as long and healthy a career as you like!

Knowing how to tune your application materials to these jobs will help you rise to the top and get that crucial interview.

The job market runs year-round, but the main hiring season occurs roughly between January and May each year. The National Association of Independent Schools offers resources and job postings at nais.organd keep an eye out for postings on the MLA Job List as well!