Research Insights: Are Independent School Teachers Happy?

Fall 2019

By David D’Ercole

ri.jpgWith national teacher turnover estimated between 13%–15% each school year, and independent school teachers almost twice as likely to leave the profession as public school teachers, it should come as no surprise that teacher job satisfaction is an ongoing issue—and one that schools need to take seriously. Turnover is extremely costly to educational institutions—financially and programmatically—and teachers cited dissatisfaction as the most common reason for moving to a different school or leaving the profession entirely. These statistics—from the American Educational Research Journal, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the Learning Policy Institute—coupled with the fact that up to 41% of all teachers leave the profession within the first five years, according to the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, should cause major concern for independent school communities.
Examinations of teacher job satisfaction have almost always overlooked major differences in school structures. One study exploring the job satisfaction of teachers at Catholic schools, a small subset of independent schools, offers useful insights, however. The research, which appeared in a 2014 issue of The Journal of Catholic Education, determined that although not all teachers working in Catholic schools are motivated by the same reasons, teachers were much more likely to report higher job satisfaction if their values aligned with those of the institution. The study concluded with an emphasis on the importance of designing hiring practices at Catholic schools that ensure teachers fully understand the school’s mission and are willing to carry it out. This research, contrary to many studies, also determined that teacher salaries should be looked at carefully in relation to teacher job satisfaction.
Inspired by this research, and because independent school teachers have been overlooked as a source of information about teacher job satisfaction, I conducted a study in 2018 designed to examine the factors that lead to teacher job satisfaction in independent schools specifically. I collected both quantitative and qualitative data to develop a broader understanding of the factors that influence satisfaction.
For quantitative data collection, I used the Teacher Job Satisfaction Questionnaire (TJSQ), which was developed by Paula E. Lester in 1987 to measure teacher job satisfaction across nine key areas: supervision, colleagues, working conditions, pay, responsibility, the work itself, advancement, security, and recognition. About 100 PK–12 independent school teachers nationwide responded to the emailed survey using a five-point Likert-type scale ranging from Strongly Agree (1) to Strongly Disagree (5). In the second phase, qualitative research, I conducted personal interviews with 10 teachers who were selected based on their willingness to participate and on diverse characteristics, such as age, gender, and years of teaching experience.

The Top-Line Findings 

Overall, the responses revealed that independent school teachers are more satisfied with their jobs than teachers in general. They scored higher than the general population of public and charter school teachers on all job satisfaction factors on the TJSQ. Responsibility and the work itself—factors that are associated with personal accountability, autonomy, and creativity—had the highest positive impact on independent school teacher job satisfaction. Based on the quantitative results, colleagues and supervision also had a positive impact on teacher job satisfaction in independent schools. Career advancement is another positive factor, something that has long been considered a challenge in public schools, where few leadership roles to aspire to exist.  
Conversely, although still viewed positively, the pay factor showed the least amount of difference between the independent school teacher score and the broader teacher population. The two statements in the TJSQ related to teacher pay that had the lowest mean score were: “My pay compares with similar jobs in other school districts” and “Teacher income is less than I deserve.” These results suggest that independent school teachers are more concerned about the fairness of their pay rather than the compensation itself.
The qualitative interviews in particular produced a clear picture of how independent school teachers experience their profession. The most prevalent and apparent sentiment is joyful appreciation; almost all of the interviewees expressed a love for their job and most described enjoying the students and colleagues with whom they work. Many also mentioned how much they enjoyed the relationship with their administrators and shared a sense of gratitude for the autonomy they experience as an independent school teacher.
Equally important, the interviewees most frequently mentioned excessive parental pressure, a general sense of being weighed down by daily work tasks, and frustration with compensation as negatively impacting their job satisfaction. Although these themes resonated in many of the interviews, it’s important to note that most teachers presented a positive picture of their overall job satisfaction, and they even discussed the trade-off associated with their decision to work in an independent school: They accept the lower pay and other perceived negative issues as a deal in exchange for all the other positives they feel.

The Meeting Points 

Based on the quantitative and qualitative findings, I identified five key areas of data convergence.
Students and responsibility. Many statements associated with responsibility on the TJSQ are correlated with student–teacher relationships. One prompt was “I get along well with my students,” and the average score for all independent school teachers on this question was 4.75.
Colleagues. Both the TJSQ results for independent school teachers and the qualitative results of the one-on-one interviews showed strong associations with colleagues as having a positive impact on independent school teacher job satisfaction. One teacher during the interview process said: “My coworkers are also enjoyable to be around, and we enjoy all aspects of teaching together.”
Supervision and administrative support. During the one-on-one interviews, many teachers cited support from their administrator as positively impacting job satisfaction. On the TJSQ, there were multiple statements associated with this theme in the area of supervision. “My immediate supervisor gives me assistance when I need help,” one stated. It earned the highest score out of all positive statements associated with this category.
Autonomy and the work itself. On average, independent school teachers demonstrated the second highest scores in this category compared to all other subcategories of teacher job satisfaction. During the interviews, teachers expressed this as being strongly associated with positive job satisfaction.
Pay. During the one-on-one interviews, teachers identified this factor as one that negatively affects their job satisfaction. The TJSQ results echoed this sentiment; the lowest-scoring statement on the TJSQ associated with pay was “I am well-paid in proportion to my ability.”

What This Means  

Findings shared in a 2018 issue of the International Journal of Public Administration reveal that independent schools are regarded as more attractive working environments for teachers—due to the positive classroom environments, motivated students, and overall autonomy—and that private schools are known to have better work cultures, despite paying lower salaries and providing less job security. As the profession grows more challenging and parental and societal expectations of teachers increase, independent schools are uniquely positioned to offer an excellent alternative to the public school track. 
Independent school leaders should use these findings to concentrate their efforts on what matters most to teachers in our schools. Supporting teacher autonomy and collegial relationships should be of highest priority, and when hiring new teachers, school leaders should focus on finding educators who thrive in these circumstances. Inflexible, process-driven teachers who require a lot of curricular and administrative structure likely won’t find much joy working in independent schools—something to keep in mind during the hiring process.
Given that teacher pay was identified as an area of concern, one other major implication of this study is that independent schools should examine teacher compensation. The findings suggested that fairness, as it relates to pay, is the biggest issue to teachers. The teachers were more concerned with comparing their pay with what they could make in a public school or having a general sense of feeling their work was “worth” more. Teacher pay satisfaction has been linked with student scholastic performance, teachers’ intent to leave, and student dropout rates. Addressing pay could improve student performance and make teachers less likely to leave. School leaders should be more transparent about the overall compensation structure in their schools, find ways to increase compensation whenever possible, and highlight the additional benefits of working in independent school environments in particular.

Readings & Resources

David D’Ercole

David D’Ercole is lower school principal at Pembroke Hill School in Kansas City, Missouri.