3 Steps to Build Trust through Teacher Compensation

A TrustED school leader exemplifies that he or she authentically cares for and supports teachers when he or she “recognizes and rewards individual accomplishments.”[1] These leaders are known for continual and public recognition of others and their contribution toward the fulfillment of the school’s mission and vision, or in emulating the school’s values. The most significant form of recognition, or contingent reward is money.[2] A universal element that affects the level of trust between the school’s leadership and employees is the level of compensation. Nothing else communicates more about the leadership’s level of genuine and authentic support than the priority placed on compensation levels. However, providing a compensation package, which authentically demonstrates the level of care and understanding of employee needs, is one of the most difficult challenges faced by school leaders.

The problems of finance related to personnel generally arise from the lack of an intentional and carefully designed compensation plan. In order to avoid problems such as inequity in salary levels or advancement, trusted school leaders embrace the old adage “Plan your work and then work your plan.” They design a compensation plan that meets their school community’s specific needs and realities. Then, just as importantly as the design, they are diligent in monitoring and following the plan.

Step 1: Philosophy of Compensation

The first step is to establish a philosophy of compensation. Just as schools begin with identifying a core educational philosophy, they also need to identify their core compensation beliefs. The compensation philosophy should address topics such as:

  • The fair and equitable timing of pay for all employees
  • Establishing compensation rates in line with the school’s ability to afford said rates
  • Recognizing compensation level impact in attracting and retaining qualified faculty and staff
  • Methods for rewarding high employee achievement in a fair manner, in alignment with industry standards, while meeting all local and federal legal requirements

Step 2: Compensation Strategy

Secondly, trusted school leaders establish a compensation strategy. “A typical compensation strategy consists of five codified components. They are affordability, pay markets, competitive level, mix of compensation elements, and employee contribution.”[3] As mentioned above, the compensation strategy must be in line with the school’s ability to meet financial commitments. Compensation levels should be based on at least a two-year projection of school income and growth. However, the affordability sometimes conflicts with the pay markets within a school’s community.[4] A compensation strategy must balance the school’s ability to pay with the compensation levels offered at similar schools in similar markets.

TrustED school leaders identify how competitive their compensation plan is within their given market, using a mixture of compensation elements (i.e. base salary, benefits, annual incentives, and incentives for high quality contribution and longevity). Their strategy takes into consideration the potential impact of employee contribution. In other words, the compensation strategy considers the actual and projected levels of employees who are, or could be, high achievers and potential backups for key leadership positions. All incentive-based components of the compensation strategy must align with the potential number of employees who meet incentive thresholds.

Step 3: Protocols & Practices

The third element is establishing the school compensation plan’s administrative protocols and practices. This includes job descriptions, performance evaluations, job and salary satisfaction surveys, salary level structures, merit-based increases, as well as increases for promotion and/or retention. All of these elements, if designed with the conviction that employees are the highest valued assets of the school, measure the leadership’s compassion toward their employees, and their level of trustability.

Berger and Berger suggest that a good compensation plan will answer three questions:  (1) Why does the program exist? (2) Why is it meaningful to employees? and (3) How does it give the organization a competitive advantage?[5]

For Christian schools the answers to these questions may look a bit different from the responses of a public or non-faith-based private school environment. Certainly, the fundamental functions of a compensation plan may be similar, but the meaning of school compensation is unique. For example, in the international Christian school market, faculty and staff compensation may be derived, or subsidized significantly, through personal fund-raising by the employee in order to support themselves as a missionary serving abroad (e.g. through an organization such as Resourcing Christian Education International).[6] For these individuals, any compensation received directly from the school may possess even greater meaning and significance, depending on the expectations established prior to employment at the school.

For example, if the expectation for the missionary employee is that the school will provide only a basic monthly stipend, and that the faculty or staff member is responsible for providing the balance of their financial support through a sponsoring mission organization – then anytime the school is able to increase the stipend or provided additional compensation it is significant. Missionary educators are always working two jobs. One is their function and role for the school, the other is typically as a fund-raiser and representative for the mission organization, which provides the necessary financial support for them to serve in the school. Compassion is demonstrated by leaders of missionary schools when they recognize this reality, and adjust workloads and expectations accordingly.

If, however, the sole source of compensation for the faculty or staff position is employment at the school, then the third question enumerated above regarding competitive advantage becomes the most critical. The U.S. Department of Education publishes listings of teacher shortages across the nation.[7] Even a quick read of the report makes clear that schools compete mightily for the highly qualified. Therefore, consideration of the competitive advantage of the school’s compensation plan is also essential.

©2016 Toby A. Travis, Ed.D.


[1] Marzano et. al., School Leadership That Works, 695, Kindle.

[2] Linda C. Morice and James E. Murray, “Compensation and Teacher Retention: A Success Story,” Educational Leadership 60, (2003): 40-43.

[3] Lance and Dorothy Berger, The Compensation Handbook, Sixth Edition: A State-of-the-Art Guide to Compensation Strategy and Design (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015), 347-348, Kindle.

[4] Jay G. Chambers, “Patterns of compensation of public and private school teachers,” Economics of Education Review 4, no. 4 (1985): 291-310.

[5] Berger & Berger, The Compensation Handbook, 400-402, Kindle.

[6] Resourcing Christian Education International, accessed 20 June 2016, http://www.rce-international.org.

[7] “Teacher Shortage Areas,” U.S. Department of Education, accessed 20 June 2016, http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ope/pol/tsa.html.

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