Professional networks are buzzing at this time of year. It is prime recruiting season, after all. Educators worldwide are reaching out to one another via social media, seeking information and insight into schools, open positions, and hiring strategies.
One question frequently being asked is about the “tier” of a certain school, or what the “tier one” schools are in a particular city, country, or region. These questions intrigue me, because the answers vary greatly. And it’s no wonder, given the extremely subjective nature of the questions themselves.
The international circuit is comprised of teachers from all over the globe, and we all bring our unique values and non-negotiables to our job searches. Professional experiences vary, and a school’s reputation according to a tiered level is not a one-size-fits-all indicator of its success. Ultimately, the perceived quality of a school comes down to personal preference. Not everyone is seeking a “tier one” school, and what might be considered a first choice for one teacher might be a no-go for another. As educator Ashleigh McElrath explains, “Every teacher has their own set of experiences and expectations. Different people have varying perspectives of ‘ideal’. I think it’s quite hard to accurately categorize schools into tiers.”
When I first began my international career in 2004, I had never heard the word “tier” used to describe schools as being a certain level. Perhaps it’s a term that has come into use since that time, or perhaps ignorance is bliss. I was a happy twenty-something in my little school, which I’m sure would have been considered “tier three” or below–if a rung that low even exists on the hypothetical school ladder.
So, who makes the decision about what tier a school is, and why? I’ve read several blog posts on the subject, and many of them go so far as to create a list of “top tier” schools in each geographic region of the world. But who verifies these lists, and what are the criteria by which they’re compiled?
I reached out to teachers in one of my own professional networks in order to gather insight, and the replies were fascinating. Many consider “top tier” schools to be those that are student-centered, have a diverse student body, and a mission and vision that are evident on a daily basis. Transparency in decision-making and hiring practices was mentioned repeatedly as a factor in a school earning a “top tier” ranking. Other qualifications for holding a “top tier” reputation include a not-for-profit structure with an elected board, significant professional development opportunities for teachers, and a strong salary and benefits package.
Also mentioned among my colleagues was the drive to reach higher standards. For teachers seeking a position at a school with a “top tier” reputation, competition is fierce, which leads to increased demands on faculty. Teaching at schools with strong reputations “often comes with more work and higher expectations, but there is innovation, and a constant drive to find the best ways to educate the population of the school,” says teacher Dee Norman. Sometimes referred to as the “pressure cooker effect”, these schools place heavy demands on their faculty because they are constantly growing and stretching and evolving.
While many schools considered to be among the “top tier” are large, well-known schools with decades of history, lesser-known and smaller schools have some incredible advantages. When a school is newer or smaller–lacking set traditions and a large number of stakeholders–progress and innovation have the potential to occur more rapidly. This gives smaller schools the opportunity to break molds and implement new initiatives at a much faster pace than their larger, more established counterparts. One teacher, Elizabeth Zans, says, “A top school puts the students and teachers first by supporting both and nurturing academic success. There are many little gems out there that are not on the ‘top’ of many teachers’ lists. Maybe the language should be changed to ‘schools that promote excellence in both students and teachers’.”
When new administrators enter the scene, an entire school culture can change drastically–almost overnight. McElrath says, “A school can be absolutely amazing one year and then the next year, one key person leaves and it has a ripple effect on everything, suddenly making that school very difficult to work in. The reverse holds true as well…For me, people make schools.”
As I pondered this insight, that one word kept jumping out at me. People. Over and over again, it was mentioned that the people are what make any school great. Diana Pacheco, who considers her school a “hidden gem”, agrees that arbitrary tiers don’t paint a true picture. She says, “What makes [a school] stand out from the rest are the people…from admin to faculty to staff.”
Knowing how quickly the population of a school can change, it is no wonder that the “tier” of a school could potentially change with it. Perhaps we should stop referring to schools by an opinion-based system that compares them with one another. Instead, we should strive to be the people that make our schools stand out for our colleagues and students. Because any school can be great, if the people within it aspire to greatness.