Transparency, Collaboration and Engagement: Boards, Faculty and Administrators in Salary System and Benefits Design

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Transparency, Collaboration and Engagement: Boards, Faculty and Administrators in Salary System and Benefits Design


Littleford & Associates has worked with thousands of schools worldwide to help them design mission-based salary systems that are fair, equitable, market based and predictable.  These newly designed systems also allow the administration to educate teachers about how to influence their own future earning power without going so far down the road of “extra pay for extra work” that there is no going back.

Where to start? First, assess how or if the current salary system is mission-based, i.e., does it reflect the profile of the teacher that the school most wants to attract, recruit and retain?  

Lock step public school salary scales based on degrees, graduate credits and longevity have the advantage of predictability but they lack the ability for teachers to influence their own future earning power other than by leaving the profession or not going up a step a year on the salary scale. As a way for teachers to earn more money the usual options are tutoring, more graduate credits, moving into administration, extra assignment and coaching stipends, summer programs, etc., but the message to most teachers is the way forward financially is to spend less time in the classroom or leave it entirely. Thus, great teachers are lost.

Once a teacher’s entry level salary has been placed on a published or nonpublished salary scale, usually depending upon credentials and years of experience, or a teacher has negotiated his/her salary upon arrival,  many schools rely upon annual across the board percentage increase in salary.  Those systems are unfair over time as they favor the highly paid teacher. Similar, flat dollar amount salary increases favor the teachers who earn less.

Benefit systems are often unfair to specific groups of faculty and staff. Some medical plans as well as tuition remission favor families over singles. Some plans and benefits do the opposite. Schools tinker with salary and benefit systems a bit every year but without reviewing their mission relevance, long term costs versus benefits, and whether the school is  sending the “right” message to current and prospective teachers. 

Evaluation, salary structures and benefit packages are all inextricably related though we do not often think of them in that way. We advocate a 6 to 12 month process that engages a cross section of teachers, key board members and the administrative leadership in a process of assessing how these systems are working together in practice.

The Process and the Outcomes

One Client invited this Consultant for a two-week visit on site, and result was the engagement of three committees of approximately 16 people each: half teachers and the other half administrators and board members on each committee. The involvement of board members is crucial as the process is designed to help teachers and board members understand, and emphasize with each other’s point of view.

The committees are formed around three sets of recommendations which this Consultant makes at the conclusion of the assignment.  The recommendations come from individual and confidential conversations this Consultant has with key administrators, and at least six board members and a cross-section of teachers. (The number of teachers involved depends upon the size of the school.) In addition to asking the participants about their understanding and perceptions about how the salary, benefits and evaluation systems are working, this Consultant is interested in their knowledge of, and opinions about the school’s history, the health of the school culture and morale.  

The recommendations are specifically made to prompt discussions about best practice. For salary system design, this means the existence of a philosophy of compensation that flows from the School’s mission and a compensation scheme that reflects both.  For benefits, this means an overall package that everyone understands and can explain and that is fair, tax smart and also mission-based.  For teacher evaluation/professional development, best practice includes appropriate cycles, protocols, observations, student feedback, peer involvement, self-reflection, research, supervision and supervision. 

The entire process takes about 6 to 10 months. The overall goal is to move towards best practices as defined above and to do that in a way that gains buy in from the board, administration and faculty. They engage in a dialogue in a series of committee meetings that have clear rules and boundaries. This Consultant checks up on the Committees’ progress after their first four meetings to ensure that they are staying on track and are not encountering any roadblocks; meets with them midway in the process; and finally, guides them in their individual presentations to the faculty as a whole. The faculty who do not participate in the process do have an opportunity to have a voice before any final decisions are made. 

Here are some of the outcomes that always come from this process: a strengthening of faculty morale; a greater appreciation of the complexity of the head’s job; a greater appreciation by teachers of the service that board members give; and a greater appreciation of teachers by board members. While we always go into this process with the core assumption that it is not about MORE money but about HOW you deliver that money in a mission based manner, in fact almost all boards take a serious look at how to improve the lives of teachers. 

No two schools with which we have worked have ever come up with exactly the same conclusions or outcomes in terms of systems developed, redesigned or improved upon. One HR Manager for a School called me and said, “We heard about your great work with another School in Brussels, and we would like to retain you for similar work. The HR Manager went on to say, “Oh, we do not need you here. We just wish to buy your template. We just want what you did for the other School.”

Well, this person missed the entire point. No two schools have the same history, mission or culture and the politics of faculty cultures are delicate, and can be challenging when dealing with issues as sensitive as salary systems, benefits, evaluation and workload. And yet, the process that Littleford & Associates uses is designed exactly to provide a safe and trusting environment so those very issues can be discussed in positive ways.  Inevitably, there will be disagreements between business-oriented board members and teachers about salary, benefits and evaluation systems. Yet to say that they come to walk in each other’s shoes is not a catch phrase. It is true.

The process also sparks creative thinking.  Recently an international Head of School posted a survey on the AISH network about pay and benefits for local versus overseas hires.  This is a common challenge that international schools face. American School Foundation of Mexico City, for example, has developed a unique benefits approach for both local and foreign hired teachers that allows them to make choices in a “benefit bank” of sorts.  Every teacher has so many points out of a maximum of 100, and each benefit is worth a certain number of points. Each teacher can choose, based on family or individual needs, which among those myriad of benefits meets that teacher’s needs the best. 

The process is as important as the product as underscored by the letter below from Cliff Kling, President of the Gulliver Schools.