Reimagining and Implementing a New Faculty Compensation Model

Fall 2021

By Josh Cobb

NAIS_Fall2021-COC-BF-CobbIllustrationFile-alternateB-cropped.jpgIn fall 2020, I attended a keynote webinar at the Association of Colorado Independent Schools Leadership Conference called “Educational Inertia, the Pandemic, and Change to Come.” The presenter, John Gulla, president of the E.E. Ford Foundation, began by referencing the Fall 2012 Independent School article “What Dead Schools Can Teach Us” by Jim McManus and asserted that we were entering the third great extinction of independent schools. My initial enthusiasm for this session waned and was replaced by an increasing sense of dread. I was in the thick of leading a school through the COVID-19 crisis and admittedly was not feeling energized. Still, he reminded me of what inspires me most as an independent school leader: working in a sector of education that meets challenges with innovative ideas and has the courage to implement them. Although he acknowledged the exhausted state of school leaders, he nudged us to look at this moment as a time to embrace change—not just small alterations around the margins but a significant adjustment to the entirety of our schools’ financial model, including class size, pricing, and faculty compensation.

That last point captured my attention. Starting early in my career, I was fascinated with faculty compensation. As a ninth grade English teacher at Graland Country Day School (CO) for seven years, I found the rigidity of the school’s scaled salary system based solely on education and experience frustrating. It led me to investigate new models of compensation while studying at the Klingenstein Center. Realizing that any salary structure change was not on the near horizon, I tried to increase my salary through stipends for three leadership positions. Still, these efforts proved insufficient for me and my family.  I decided to move into administration in part because of the financial limitations of being a faculty member.

When I became an administrator, the salary scale also felt restricting. While trying to recruit the best teaching candidates, I lacked any flexibility to help make the move financially attractive or even tolerable. Throughout my decade in administration, my dissatisfaction with the salary system grew, and I joined two different compensation task forces at Graland, in 2008 and again in 2013. Still, my arguments for change fell short; other educators appreciated the predictability and transparency of the current model.

Then, in fall 2017, my first year as head of school at Graland, I made salary structure redesign my primary initiative. Coincidentally, Gulla was one of the thought leaders who reaffirmed my dedication to this change; in a Spring 2017 Independent School magazine article, “The Search for True Innovation,” he questioned the reliance on education and experience to define salary steps and acknowledged schools for “rethinking their model of faculty compensation—whether it be ‘broad-banding’ (defining a small number of explicit ranges for compensation), some performance-based components of compensation, or another model.” The article concludes “that there is nothing more important to a school than creating a model of compensation that will improve teaching.” This echoed the recommendation of former NAIS President Pat Bassett, who more than a decade before had encouraged schools to pursue this type of innovation.

As head of school, I began to see beyond my frustrations and realized the schoolwide impact that a new compensation model could have on faculty culture if that model truly valued and inspired faculty excellence. Educational workforce trends beyond Graland increased the urgency for compensation innovation. Suddenly, my vision for a new model gained traction and captivated trustees, administrators, and, most importantly, teachers. After much research and discussion, during the 2019–2020 school year, Graland implemented a new faculty compensation model.

The Starting Point

When I was preparing to transition from division head to head of school, the finance committee recommended that the board increase faculty compensation in conjunction with the strategic plan’s vision to “recruit and retain highly effective educators.” I persuaded them to wait to use the increases to support the move to a new model rather than pump more money into a flawed pay scale.

Meanwhile, the signs of a nationwide teacher shortage, one that would become more severe after COVID-19, were already present, as was an uproar, mostly in public schools, over inadequate teacher pay. Noting these two trends and their potential risk to Graland, in the 2017–2018 school year, the board worked on how best to finance a new compensation model, while senior administrators and I concurrently focused on designing that model. No matter how much school leadership believed in this change, the faculty would have to believe in it just as much.

To review our current pay scale and envision our future one, we organized a faculty compensation task force of 12 members: teachers and administrators who were new to Graland and had experienced different compensation systems recently as well as people who had been at Graland for nearly 20 years and had only experienced the existing salary structure. We included teachers with children—from newborns to college-aged—those without children, and single educators. We had teachers who work with our youngest students—preschoolers—and our oldest—eighth graders.

Charged with creating a system that aligned with the school’s vision of faculty excellence, the task force began by reviewing the current system. They realized early on that the current model’s inflexibility made it difficult to inspire the attributes of excellent teaching that were so essential to Graland’s mission to foster intellectual excellence and strong character. We needed to look for alternatives that might help propel faculty to further growth and excellence, so we explored the banded models from the Westtown School (PA), Colorado Academy (CO), and The Haverford School (PA)—a move away from step-and-lane pay scales.

We appreciated how these models outlined specific characteristics of excellence that captured faculty members’ daily contributions in and beyond the classroom. Though they still relied on experience and education, the models went beyond these criteria to traits of classroom mastery and instructional leadership. They also created a clear trajectory of professional growth from “Starting,” “Beginning,” or “General,” to more advanced stages, “Master Teacher” and “Faculty Leader.” The banded systems provided more flexibility as each stage had a salary range, not just one set level.

But we wondered whether these models would incentivize an overly competitive individual to try to climb from one band to another without engaging in the collaborative work that is necessary for a positive faculty culture. Recognizing this risk and the benefits, we distilled three priorities. A new model would need to: create a more flexible system that reflects our school’s educational values; inspire teachers to do their best in the classroom; and recognize faculty innovation, collaboration, and growth.

A New Spin

Faced with the challenge of moving away from a system that was a linear ascent from band to band, a preschool teacher on the task force suggested that we consider a spherical design (see “Graland Teaching Spheres” below) that rippled out from the “core” of what we value—mastery in the classroom. This design accomplishes the three important objectives we set out to meet, and the visual design reminds us of the collective effort of the faculty community.

It emphasizes that, at the core, the skillful classroom work between a teacher and student is essential to the school’s mission. Next, it defines a clear professional journey for teachers, an element that we believe will meet the needs of all educators, and specifically those in Generation Y and Z, who are expected to shift careers more often. The new system provides more monetary incentives earlier in one’s career. And it ensures that innovators, leaders, and collaborators will advance.

Working from the initial sphere concept, we placed “Professional” at the center and declared that all Graland educators are professionals instead of beginners or novices. All teachers, upon hiring, begin here, where criteria focus specifically on the essential work between teacher and student. Because this sphere is the entry level for all teachers hired—no matter their education or experience—it encompasses the entire salary range of our old system. For new hires, it’s impossible to judge performance against all the sphere criteria in an interview, so education and experience will still influence all teachers’ starting salaries, but over time, the influence of those criteria lessen.

The next ripple out, “Distinguished,” builds on these criteria and includes teachers who have shown a level of classroom mastery that is responsive to children of all backgrounds and learning styles. It relies on extensive knowledge of pedagogy, child development, diversity, and differentiation. In the winter of their second year at Graland, teachers can apply to advance spheres. If they are successful in the yearlong application process, their base salary increases by $3,000 in addition to the annual percentage increase every faculty member typically receives. Faculty will stay at this level for at least three years before applying to the next sphere.

The final two spheres shift the focus from the individual classroom to the overall learning environment of the school. An “Influential” teacher further demonstrates collaboration, leadership, and innovation, and applies those skills to create and sustain new programs that enhance the learning experience for students across that grade level and beyond. Building on these criteria, the “Transformative” teacher looks to initiate change across multiple grades by implementing new programs, mentoring other teachers, and becoming an instructional leader at the school. Teachers in this range will receive the highest salaries at Graland and may seek to become instructional administrators at the school.

Time to Assess

With the concept in hand, we needed to ensure that the entire faculty saw the benefit of the change. To ensure that the new model was consistent in concept and implementation, we crafted a rubric defining each sphere with criteria that reflected our school values. We also aligned the spheres with our faculty growth model—observations, coaching, and evaluations. Division heads support every faculty member with goal-setting meetings as well as midyear and end-of-year reviews. These goals will now address criteria in the spheres, even if the faculty member is not considering a sphere transition.

Teachers also receive support from their peer cohorts through observations and informal feedback. Those entering a yearlong sphere transition receive consistent feedback from their division head, a colleague of their choice, and a colleague of their division head’s choice, culminating in a portfolio and presentation that demonstrates their growth to the instructional leaders of the school. 

When we shared the rubric and transition process with the entire faculty through an anonymous survey, some told us they worried that the proposed system would pit teacher against teacher, or that it relied too much on financial incentives. But most appreciated one clear element: In this system, faculty would be compensated for what they contributed day in and day out, not simply for the education or experience reflected on their résumé. The majority of faculty were excited about the change and provided the necessary input to finalize the rubric and the overall structure.

Funding the System

As we garnered faculty buy-in, the board initiated its plan to fund the new model during tuition-setting conversations. Since the board’s finance committee had been primed to enhance the overall compensation of educators for more than a year, it recommended a 9% tuition increase—compared with the typical increase of 2–4%—that would allow us to provide every lead faculty member with a 10% or greater salary raise, ensuring that our faculty compensation would compete with any school in our region. Teachers were enthusiastic about the switch—no matter what sphere teachers would end up in, they’d be compensated at a higher rate after the transition. We planned to use a combination of the tuition increase and an endowment campaign to fund the salary increases.

In the spring of 2018, after receiving approval from the board, we quietly launched the school's Inspire Campaign to raise at least $10 million to initiate and sustain the new compensation structure. During that school year, we began meeting with individual donors before going public to the entire community in February 2019. Many donors were drawn to the idea that the new system would give school leaders the flexibility to recruit and retain the best teachers in a job market where the competition for excellent educators was growing more intense. By January 2019, we had saved enough money, raised enough funds, and built enough overall community support to launch the new system in the 2019–2020 school year.

Culture Change

Even with the increase in compensation, the transition to the new system came with challenges. We had to transfer more than 80 teachers from the old pay scale, based on education and experience, to a sphere, based on entirely different criteria. To do this, we met with faculty as a whole and in smaller focus groups and had one-on-ones with specific teachers. We asked the teachers to use the rubrics to assess themselves, and then we compared those self-assessments to the evaluations from their supervisors and other instructional leaders. For the vast majority, the assessments lined up; still, there were individual teachers who were placed below their self-assessment. Although there was no financial penalty for their placement, we still needed to acknowledge the discrepancy and have individual conversations with each teacher to explain our rationale for their sphere determination.

Since we had not performed enough formal observations and assessments of teachers in their first or second year at Graland to appropriately place them in one of the four spheres, we treated them like new hires and placed them in the “professional” sphere. The placements that did not align with faculty expectations affected morale, as some teachers did not feel fully valued for what they had contributed. This early feedback reminded us to move forward with implementing this change very carefully so as not to risk what has proven to be one of the most important elements of educating during the pandemic—positive faculty culture. Fortunately, the change to the new system did not lead to higher rates of faculty attrition, due in large part to the overall support of teachers.

As much as we tried to mitigate the competitive and emphasize the collaborative elements, it has been impossible for some teachers not to fixate on where they stand in the new model. Over the past two years, even when most were consumed with the challenge of the pandemic, a couple of teachers talked to me about feeling judged for being too ambitious in their pursuit of the next sphere, and one cautioned me that it was obvious who the go-getters were and how that ambition affected the overall faculty morale. As much as I empathized, I encouraged these teachers to take advantage of the new system and focus on their own professional trajectory more than the opinions of a colleague or two.

The Journey Forward

In the spring of 2019, some teachers began the sphere transition process. Each teacher demonstrated their development during the yearlong application period as well as throughout their entire teaching career. During these presentations, they discussed traits on the rubric that they had already displayed and those that they hoped to fully acquire. We established a clear path to professional growth, and we acknowledged their progression through the spheres by compensating them appropriately and fairly for their contribution. This new system is dynamic and motivates growth—not just through a financial incentive but a professional one.

This concept is also intriguing to new hires. In the past, when I interviewed finalists for a teaching position, I would rarely speak about compensation aside from the amount prescribed by our set scale. Now I go into detail about the sphere system and how it represents our values of faculty excellence, defines their professional journey, and encourages them to collaborate and innovate for the benefit of students and the school. The creative nature of the model reflects our school’s commitment to innovation. Not only does it give us the flexibility to recruit, it becomes a recruiting tool in and of itself.

It would be easy to shrink from the new challenges that the pandemic has presented and to view change as too risky or too difficult, but as I heard loud and clear during that keynote presentation, now is the time for innovation. At Graland, we are still early in our implementation of the new system, but I believe it will help sustain a dynamic, energized, growth-focused faculty and ensure that they feel truly and fairly valued. There will surely be more challenges ahead, but I look forward to seeing our revised compensation system benefit the adults and students in our thriving learning environment.


Graland Teaching Spheres

In 2019–2020, Graland Country Day School (CO) launched a new faculty compensation model that comprises four spheres.graland.JPG

Professional: All faculty members Graland hires are professionals who meet our high standards and create a classroom environment of respect and rapport, establish a culture of growth, provide a purposeful atmosphere for learning, and exhibit professionalism. These faculty apply a range of strategies to enhance student learning.
Distinguished: Showing the skills of the Professional, these faculty members take their mastery in the classroom to the next level with additional years of experience, more seasoned expertise, and the skillful engagement of a range of learners.
Influential: Expanding beyond their classrooms, Influential educators contribute to colleagues’ growth through effective collaboration. They continually seek to promote student learning through innovation, putting new ideas into action.
Transformative: The final sphere is reserved for those exceptional teachers who have truly influenced and sustained positive change at Graland. They implement new ideas and advance effective educational practices through schoolwide leadership.
Josh Cobb

Josh Cobb is head of school at Graland Country Day School in Denver, Colorado. He was previously an English teacher and head of middle school at Graland.