For the Skeptics on Faculty Compensation: Salary Systems Compared 

How to Provide Teachers with Fairness and Predictability of Compensation…and the Ability to Influence Their Own Future Earning Power
August 1, 2021
Head of School of the American International School Chennai (AISC)
October 17, 2021
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For the Skeptics on Faculty Compensation: Salary Systems Compared 

Years ago, school leaders began to explore the concept of a career ladder or a banding system as an alternative to individually negotiated salaries or lock step longevity-based scales.

There is no perfect salary system, but all schools should try to modify its current one or redesign it to make it truly mission based. Since schools have different missions, schools should have different salary systems. Do not completely borrow another school’s system of “spheres”, “ladders” or “bands” no matter how catchy it looks because it will not fit your school’s unique mission and culture well.

Here are three core principles to remember:

1. Teachers want absolute predictability of future earning power. Mostly they want to be paid fairly but do not wish to dwell on the compensation topic incessantly because they want to focus on student care.  Teachers for the most part ARE care givers and not generally risk takers. Given that they want some assurance of the future, many of them initially favor salary scales. All they need to do is stay another year to move up the scale and/or earn more credentials or a degree to move across it (whether the credentials improve the quality of their teaching or not). One prominent NYC school has a 50-step salary system.

2. Once teachers have absolute predictability of future earning power, they must then find a way to work around that salary system, so they have some way to earn more money. They do this by tutoring, taking on extracurricular assignments, stipended positions, quasi administrative roles etc. Often administrations engage in this practice with teachers to keep valued ones or attract scarce ones in the marketplace.  Over time, the scale is completely out of whack, and the definition of a full-time job is reduced or lost.

3. Teacher do not care much about the salary system if they feel they are competitively paid and cannot do much better in their area.  They are willing to tolerate some lesser pay if they value highly their freedom in the independent and international school classroom.  However, the more moderate or low the pay, the more important the teacher compensation system becomes as justice and equity all come into play and become a part of a faculty’s vernacular. Teachers begin breaking the traditional rule of not asking each other about their salaries, as they begin to suspect that others of similar experience and longevity at the school are earning more than they are.  And they are often right.

Faculty cultures have long tails. When we worked with a school in New England some years ago, we interviewed 15 teachers confidentially. In giving feedback to the Head, we conveyed that every one of the teachers mentioned that 15 years ago the Board had required a 10% pay cut from the faculty and that the pay cut had never been “returned.” The Head reminded me, as I already knew, that none of the teachers I had interviewed were even employed by the School 15 years ago. That is the BB rattling around in the barrel, the institutional memory of having been hurt by administrations or boards in the past.

All schools provide differential pay. However, it may not be overt, public or transparent. But school heads and other leaders do find creative ways to keep teachers or hire teachers who might go elsewhere for more money. Creating new titles, new positions, reduced workloads, new administrative roles, extracurricular pay, or points are all ways that school leaders can recognize and keep talent.

However, very few schools pay teacher for the quality of their teaching. Perhaps that is why so many good ones try to get into administration. They know that those positions pay better, and some feel as well that status is not associated with the act of teaching act but with leadership.

The best salary systems reward key qualities in teachers. It does not make much difference what the structure of the salary band, or ladder or sphere or circle looks like, or whether we call label the categories as “Professional”, “Beginning”, “Master Teacher”, “Faculty Leader”, “Distinguished”, “Transformative”, etc., if it can recruit and keep teachers who will:

  • Provide outstanding classroom teaching
  • Collaborate with and mentor fellow teachers and not compete with them for money
  • Provide strong pastoral care and advisory support
  • Indicate a willingness to learn, listen, grow and accept constructive criticism
  • Take on some extra roles and duties without expecting extra pay
  • Take a client centered attitude toward dealing with parents

There are others but these six are the ones we see most often.

We have read that some are skeptical of band or range systems because they worry that “an overly competitive individual” will try to climb from one band to another without engaging in the work necessary to merit it. We have never heard of this being the case. When designed properly, a band system has explicit criteria that must be met before a teacher can advance to the next level, and there are evaluation protocols in place to ensure that.

Lakeside School in Seattle deserves a lot of the credit for initiating the concept of a banding system under a beloved head, Dan Ayrault.  Lakeside was one of the schools cited in the book “Faculty Salary Systems in Independent Schools” written by John Littleford and Valerie Lee in 1983 and published by NAIS for almost 18 years. That book in turn influenced many schools to take a new look at faculty salary systems. When the book was published just before the 1983 NAIS conference in Anaheim, John Littleford was given a room with seating for 60 for those who wanted to hear about the new book. However, more than 600 conference attendees tried to attend this session and part of the presentation had to be piped into the hallways. Cleary, NAIS knew it was time to sponsor and publish a book on this topic, but even NAIS did not anticipate the demand from teachers, boards, and administrators to know so much more about HOW to design faculty salary and benefit systems.

Littleford & Associates continues to see a great deal of interest in faculty compensation and benefit design even in the era of the Pandemic. Why? What we have learned and continue to learn from the Pandemic is that our independent and international schoolteachers are dedicated, adaptable and creative. They have surprised some of us as they have risen to the challenges that the Pandemic has presented. School leadership wants to reward them. On the other hand, some of our talented teachers and prospective teachers are discouraged and are contemplating leaving or not joining the profession. We need to reward and retain them. This challenge is timely, crucial and in our opinion needs the time, resources, and vision now to address it.