Inflation, the pandemic and the heightened expectations and pressures from parents are the major factors that have driven more than 500,000 private school teachers in the US to leave teaching entirely.
The pandemic in some ways broke the unstated code within independent schools that a private school culture of supportive parents, motivated, well-behaved students, autonomy in the classroom and nice facilities could be tolerated even if offset by lower salaries and fewer or at least less generous benefits. No longer, at least not for now.
To recruit teachers most independent schools today find that their first offer is turned down most of the time. That is relatively new. In the past, there were always some prospects with top or sought after skills sets who could bargain for a higher offer. But today negotiation is becoming common place. How do heads respond and how should they respond?
Boards are concerned about rising tuition because either the endowment must grow dramatically to support increased financial aid, or enrollment must increase, or annual giving must rise, or profit centers must generate more money. But where teachers see capital campaigns for new buildings and increased financial aid and higher tuitions, they ask naturally, “What is in this for me?”
Most independent schools the world over are not unionized….yet. To avoid that outcome, school leaders and boards need to do more than raise salaries by some annual percentage (which always benefits the higher paid teachers). They need to engage in a real and collaborative dialogue with teachers, board members and administrators that leads to salary systems and benefits packages that are attractive, mission based, sustainable in the long run, and benefit teachers across all stages of personal and career changes.
There is a way to do this. It does entail some risks. But thousands of schools worldwide have attempted it and done so successfully. They have formed a grounded and guided partnership of teachers, board and administration that results in the parties walking in “each other’s shoes”. In nearly all cases, that ultimately leads to teachers gaining a better understanding of some of the limits of school funding and finances, and to boards realizing that while teachers have never been wealthy, they want and deserve a better quality of life.
With so many teachers now being sought by all kinds of schools, leaders must become more creative about how they manage the school’s resources and how they attempt to design mission-based salary, benefit and evaluation systems that reflect the new realities of limited resources and a limited pool of teachers.
This could all change, of course, if many more young people seek teaching as a career, or if more schools create more profit centers and larger endowments and even perhaps raise class sizes. But those are longer-term prospects that do not solve the immediate problem: how to recruit, retain, support, and develop mission-based teachers who will create, nurture, and pass on a culture of teaching and learning that would be the envy of other schools.
Littleford and Associates recommends a process that sets careful rules and boundaries and engages perhaps three committees of between 8 to 20 individuals on each committee. The committees focus on exploring best practices in salary system design that begins with the mission and a philosophy of compensation drawn from that mission and a salary system that flows naturally from that philosophy, and a flexible tax smart set of benefit practices that offer a range of choices. Most of our clients explore evaluation and professional development protocols that provide for both growth and accountability.
The committees are balanced equally in numbers, that is, half of each committee is made up of classroom teachers and the other half is made up of full-time administrators and an equal number of board members. For a large school, a committee of 20 would be 10 teachers, five administrators and five board members.
The committees work from 6 to 12 months (the average is 8) and through several mid steps, check progress and test theories with each other, following a clear set of rules. At the end of the process, recommendations coming from the committees have full faculty, board, and administrative endorsement. The systems developed can function effectively for 8 to 15 years with minor tweaks.
More flexible, fair, and mission-based systems usually result in much higher faculty morale, greater political capital for the head of school, and teachers and board members coming to like, trust, and appreciate each other more. A frequent corollary is more generous board giving.