Why a Sucker Pay Plan Made Me Hate Teaching

I was a sorta teacher for a few years. While I did my masters, I taught some composition and literature courses. If you have any sort of ego whatsoever (and what HR blogger doesn’t?), the teaching part of being an educator is great. Stand up in front of the room, people listen to you and you can assign and judge people’s work. I loved facilitating debates and interacting with students.

The challenge was that I hated everything else. Meetings, committees, completing forms in triplicate, living and dying by budgets set 2 years in advance and driving change at glacier pace. Man, I died a little on the inside every time I went to a department meeting.

pay rateThe killer, however, was the pay philosophy. Check out the salary schedule to the right. This is a pretty standard sample public school teacher pay schedule. Take years of service, compare it to highest degree achieved and that’s the number. No matter how hard I worked, my pay raise was already determined.

What hurt me the most was that the goober in the office next to me—the lady who worked 1/10 what I did—her pay raise was already scheduled, too. No matter what. The value of my contribution to the school was already pre-determined, completely regardless of performance. The school determined my value before I did my job.

Bizarre. I got out as fast as I could.

Why is this a sucker play? Many reasons. Here’s 4:

1. Mission over dollars—forever. Schools attract people who love the mission. They are teachers because it’s a calling. Really hard to maintain this momentum over a 30-year career.

2. Regression to the mean. Top performers will drop performance as they see low performers progress at the same level. This is the heart of equity theory in action.

3. Goodbye, discretionary effort. If I want to over-achieve and work 10x as hard or 10x as smart as Tom next door, the organization will value us the same.

4. Risk takers need not apply. A pay

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philosophy that everyone is equal and their contributions are equal will be poison to some innovative risk takers who would consider the calling.

It’s not just teaching, either. I would argue that a lot of companies who say they pay to incentivize follow an almost informal version of this—creating strict compensation bands and giving everyone basically the same raise, based on a lack of desire to have tough conversations.

“Hey Sally, you knocked the cover off the ball this year and made a great impact. Here’s 2.8%.”

“Hey Tommy, you had an average year with some minor performance issues throughout the second half. Here’s 2.8%.”

None of this, of course, is just about cash money. Many great teachers do it because it is a true calling in life, and they know the pay plan when they sign up. I think that gets you in the door, but the educational institution has some responsibility to help reward top performers over the course of their career. If not, everyone ends up the same. Average.

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RJ Morris
R. J. Morris is based in the STL as the Director of Talent Acquisition and Management for McCarthy Building Companies, a multi-billion dollar national firm. Like many others in the FOT clan, he’s a sports nut who can endlessly draw the parallels between athletes, sports and the talent management game. I know, I know, as if we needed more of that. He has 10 years of practitioner experience leading talent efforts in corporate HR and another 7 years in leadership roles on the agency side, so he gets both sides of the desk. Talk to R.J. via emailLinkedInTwitter...


  1. Parker Davis says:

    RE: teachers. Most teachers are represented by a union. Even those that are not have their district follow the schedule the union set for everyone else. Hey, you voted for the union, you continue to support the union, you love the union when you have a “grievance.” You love the union when it protects your job, negotiates you days off, vacation, leaves, educational reimbursement, and benefits. You love the pension that most teachers still have,while most other workers have to depend on social security.
    You have the typical union pay system, based upon seniority as king, not performance. Performance is a dirty word to unions. So, if you want to be judged on your performance and effort exclusively, get rid of the union.
    BTW, the pay schedule seems very lucrative considering the time off, the benefits, the pension, the job security, etc.
    And, many, many, many people work hard, are dedicated, and do more than others, just because that’s the way they are, they find fulfillment in their work and their personal achievement, and they are loyal to the company they work for. But like you said, you were only “sorta” a teacher.

    • Erika says:

      I think the point he was trying to make was that passion and love for the job aside. Its not fair that a teacher who goes above and beyond gets the same pay increase as those who are just taking up space. Although you make some valid points ( pay by performance makes things political which could turn off hardworking, loyal teacher types). I don’t think he was taking away from people who are hardworking and loyal. He is saying that those people deserve a better pay increase than the rest. Finding fulfillment in their work and personal achievements does have a limit, after all they aren’t volunteering.

  2. CL says:

    Wait, so you get paid more as a reward for being rich enough to afford a superior education? That makes no sense whatsoever.

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