Salary Mania: The Pace of Increases in Teachers’ Salaries is Moving Faster than the Philosophy Behind Them

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Salary Mania: The Pace of Increases in Teachers’ Salaries is Moving Faster than the Philosophy Behind Them

No one should argue that teachers do not need and deserve salary increases because of both inflation and the demands of parents and school leadership during and post pandemic. These are challenging times when schools are playing “catch up” with students who fell behind during the pandemic while at the same time, designing “future ready” curricula to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s careers.

However, this is still an opportune moment for boards and heads to review HOW those salary increases are paid out. The way salary systems work always influences teachers’ behavior. Whether salary systems are informal and unpublished, or very transparent and even rigid, teachers take advantage of the incentives and tools available to them to increase their compensation and benefits since they obviously cannot change their age or years of experience. 

The key questions are: Does school management have any idea of how this happens or does management just follow whatever systems have been inherited? Or, does management use this opportunity, perhaps once in a decade or more, to develop much more mission appropriate salary and benefits systems that support the school’s distinct mission? 

There are five themes that most influence the quality of instruction and student life in the teacher /school, teacher/student, and teacher/teacher relationships.  Schools and teachers almost never factor in these areas when considering and assessing compensation and benefit systems.

  1. Actual quality of teaching in the classroom. Great teachers often move into administration to earn more money because they recognize that there are little or no substantive protocols or practices to assess the quality of their teaching. The frequent claim is that teaching is an art and not a science, and teaching quality cannot be quantified.  If that were the case, most heads would be “fired” because if school heads cannot find and reward talent, boards will try to find someone else who will.
  2. Mentoring and collaborating with colleagues to help them improve. This may or may not happen in school cultures, but unless there is a process in place, a way to assess it, and the school encourages it, there is almost never enough available time for teachers to feel that this is a priority. However, this is a crucial part of healthy school and teaching cultures.
  3. Advising students, i.e., pastoral care.  This is usually a secondary role for teachers and yet it is as important as the academic one.
  4. Being open to innovation, change and constructive criticism. This may be difficult to measure but most leaders can ascertain quickly whether teachers are either stuck in their routines and opinions or openminded, and whether they can accept and act on professionally constructive criticism in order to improve and grow. 
  5. Going the extra mile without being paid for it or expecting extra pay. The robust definition of a full-time job has slipped in most schools, but we also know that teachers feel workloads always increase and nothing is ever taken away or reduced in that load. Schools will pay extraordinary amounts of money in stipends, and positions of responsibility and extra pay for department heads, curriculum leaders, heads of year, etc. Schools will often reduce course loads as well as pay extra for these roles, and they do not quantify how costly this can be. 

Now almost every assignment that was once a part of a full-time job such as lunch and recess duty, coaching, and advising clubs carries an expected stipend.  This Consultant has even heard about requests for extra pay to conduct parent/teacher conferences. When this Consultant asks teachers about their base pay, many teachers leave out the extras and just mention their base salary. However, base pay could be so much higher across the board if there were fewer extra pay systems. 

In other words, raise base pay considerably but do it in accordance with a mission-based salary system that incorporates a robust definition of a full-time job with very few examples of extracurricular pay. This Consultant does recognize that the farther a school has gone down the slippery slope of stipends, the more challenging this can be to do. Yet this Consultant has seen it done successfully.

A teacher’s morale is less often related to money than about not being paid enough money to make ends meet.  Morale is often related to the quality of their relationships with their colleagues and students, the freedom to create, a responsible degree of autonomy, opportunities for growth, and protection from irate and perhaps irrational parents. 

The benefit package is almost as important as the salary system and base salaries. The two go hand in hand, and a philosophy of compensation flowing from the mission should influence not only the design of a salary system, but the type of benefits offered. 

If a school provides full family medical coverage and full tuition remission no matter how many children a teacher may enroll, then clearly the message is that the school wants families with children. However, some schools are overburdened by the number of staff children on remission or aid. What kind of message does this send to singles, or young married people without children or a couple whose children are no longer of school age? What might these folks need and want in the way of benefits to offset in part at least the huge tax-free benefits offered in the situation described above? Designing the benefit system is important because it also sends powerful signals of whom the school wants to attract and retain (or not).

The message we wish to convey here is that none of this should be accidental. There should be a purposeful review of systems and an assessment of whether these systems either support or undercut the school’s mission.