The numbers alone are alarming. For a variety of reasons — the stresses and complications arising from the COVID-19 pandemic certainly included — 55% of educators say they are more likely to leave or retire sooner than planned, almost double the number saying the same just two years ago. But this is not simply pandemic-related. In a 2022 NBOA Annual Meeting presentation, “Becoming the ‘School of Choice’ for Faculty,” we learned that nine out of ten teachers surveyed are worried about compensation and benefits.
With inflation at levels that we have not seen for decades, workers across the U.S. economy are expecting significant salary increases. A recent study showed that over 90% of workers hope for a pay increase of 6% or more this year. At the same time, the National Education Association estimates that while teacher salaries are increasing slightly on average, when adjusted for inflation, the average teacher pay has actually decreased by 3.9% over the last decade. Qualitative data support these figures. Many independent schools are reporting, for example, that they are receiving considerably fewer applications for open teaching positions than they have in the past.
With this set of factors likely to continue at least in the short term, independent schools are facing a challenging needle to thread. Inflation touches all facets of the budget, and maintaining fiscal integrity is now more difficult than ever. According to the most recent DASL/BIIS data, on average 63.9% of a school’s operating expenses are allocated to faculty and staff compensation, in order to attract and retain high quality teachers. Keys to navigating this challenge include innovative compensation models and a much more intentional, transparent and frequent articulation of the benefits of teaching at an independent school — or more accurately yours.
With support from The Edward E. Ford Foundation, NBOA has just launched a major analysis of compensation models at independent schools, which we are calling the NBOA MAX project (mission-anchored compensation). We are currently conducting a large-scale landscape analysis of wage and benefit systems from independent schools across the country. Our research team will then synthesize the information, highlight the distinct characteristics and components of various models, and summarize the outcomes these strategies achieve for the independent school. The final deliverable for this project is an implementation guide that will make the key findings readily applicable, and provide tools and resources to adopt its contents and create the desired change the school is seeking with regard to faculty and staff compensation. We will also create a resource repository to aid in successful adoption of innovative approaches to compensation. This combination of original research, expertise and resources will be a tremendous asset to school leadership teams and boards as they consider which model, or which elements of various models, will best support their efforts to attract and retain talented professionals.
For too long, we have taken for granted the many benefits of working and teaching at an independent school. These benefits are both real and important, but now is the time to not only consider more closely what those factors entail but also how best to share that information in motivating and influential ways.
While we are certainly excited about this project, and believe that it is both timely and essential, it is only part of the solution. As indicated above, it is imperative for administrators to pay more attention to their school’s value proposition and to articulate that value effectively to their employees. For too long, we have taken for granted the many benefits of working and teaching at an independent school. These benefits are both real and important, but now is the time to not only consider more closely what those factors entail but also how best to share that information in motivating and influential ways. In short, tell our story more effectively. Here are four things to keep in mind:
It's all about the mission. Most of us are attracted to our work because of the mission of our schools. The 2021 NAIS Teacher Satisfaction Survey makes this clear: A significant majority of teachers are extremely or very satisfied that their school’s mission aligns with their vision as an educator. But at the same time, a school cannot be all things to all people. Creating a teacher profile that outlines characteristics of successful teachers at your school can be an effective recruiting tool. Once on board, teachers must see — and hear from their supervisors — how their work meaningfully contributes to the advancement of that mission. Do your teachers feel like they are being asked to do “extra” tasks? Clearly articulating and discussing the connections between those assignments and the school’s mission can help to alleviate reluctance about those tasks. Framed in this way, even lunchroom or recess duty can be seen as an opportunity to practice values important to your school, like leadership development and community-building.
Independent schools are professional and personal communities. The teacher survey for the “School of Choice” presentation — conducted by select members of the 2022 NBOA Leadership Academy — overwhelmingly confirmed that school culture is highly important to faculty. This includes factors like creating a welcoming environment, making sure that everyone feels like they are part of the community, and establishing a fair and equitable environment for all employees. In that same survey, we learned that the vast majority of respondents also rate professional development opportunities as important or very important factors for staying at their schools. The NAIS Teacher Satisfaction Survey tells us that only about one-third of teachers are extremely satisfied with those opportunities at their school. A formal mentorship program, with mentors paid a stipend or otherwise honored for their time, can help to establish a welcoming, equitable environment in which teachers have the resources to do their best in their current role, as well as the support to pursue opportunities to advance their career. Simply put, well-mentored teachers tend to stay longer and feel a greater connection to their school’s culture.
Salary is important, but it’s not the only thing. Most independent schools will be hard-pressed to increase faculty salaries in a way that outpaces, or even keeps up with, inflation, making it more important than ever to remind employees that there is more to compensation than salary alone. If you do not do so already, it is worth considering preparing a total compensation statement for each employee, listing not only wages and insurance contributions, but also things like retirement plan matches, professional development funds, student loan assistance and tuition remission. And this is the time to be creative with new benefits. Our analysis of innovative compensation models will help future planning, but also consider looking closer to home. Is there a member of the school community who would be willing to offer a free workshop on first-time home buying or personal investing? Can you offer any school facilities during non-school hours to employees at no or reduced cost? Is onsite daycare a possibility?
Employers that act on employee feedback regularly are 11 times more likely to have high employee retention compared to employers that do not.
Listen, listen, listen. This is probably the best thing you can do: Listen to the concerns and suggestions of your teachers and do so on a regular, proactive basis. A recent article in HR Dive confirmed the importance of this. Employers that act on employee feedback regularly are 11 times more likely to have high employee retention compared to employers that do not. For years we have emphasized the importance of exit interviews to learn more about why employees are leaving, but more and more we are hearing about schools conducting “stay interviews,” designed to allow employees a regular opportunity to offer feedback and voice concerns, wholly apart from performance evaluations and compensation decisions. And listening to your teachers will reinforce each of the points discussed above. Want to understand better how to connect the mission to each teacher’s role and passions? Ask them. Which professional development opportunities resonate most with your staff? What other formal or informal benefits would have the most impact on teacher morale? Ask them, and listen carefully to their answers.
Once again we face another significant challenge. But keeping these four points in mind — and looking ahead to findings from the NBOA MAX project on innovative compensation models – we can face that challenge with new solutions that strengthen our schools in ways we haven’t previously imagined, while safeguarding and supporting any independent school’s most important asset — it’s faculty and staff.
Follow NBOA President and CEO Jeff Shields @shieldsNBOA.