Main Street Nashville: LEAD teachers stay, say they feel valued with salary initiative
By Payne Ray Main Street Nashville
LEAD Public Schools has experienced an increase in retention among top teachers after introducing a salary initiative in 2019 focused on rewarding excellence, officials say.
The charter system’s CEO, Dwayne Tucker, a retired businessman-turned-charter school leader, said they came up with the idea after considering which financial investments most impacted student outcomes.
They concluded that a highly effective teacher was the most important resource they could invest in, Tucker said. And with a shortage of teachers and turnover rates soaring nationwide, they decided to create an incentive for skilled teachers to stay with them.
“We wanted to create an employee value proposition,” Tucker said. “The ultimate goal was to become the best place to work in Nashville — not just in charters but in Nashville.”
Since putting the plan in place, all six schools in the LEAD network have seen an increase in the number of teachers who stay at the schools, and Tucker said that in the first year of the program, retention among teachers who achieved high-end salary increases was 89%.
Tucker said keeping high-quality teachers was incredibly important, as LEAD doesn’t have an elementary school, and they need to be able to quickly catch students up if they come in having fallen behind grade level. A top teacher can help a student catch up to their grade level even if they’re one or two years behind their classmates, he said.
The initiative works on a series of salary bands that start at $45,000 a year for a beginning teacher. From there, teachers have the opportunity, based on performance, to gain a raise up to 10% of their current salary, up to a $65,000 salary cap, or $75,000 if they achieve the Master Teacher designation by receiving high scores three years in a row.
What’s more, LEAD’s head of academics, Chris Elliot, said, is that teachers know exactly how much they’ll be paid the next year before the current year ends.
That’s because the salary increases work on a points-based system, where certain scores on a comprehensive performance rubric that includes classroom teaching and contributions elsewhere at the school are directly tied to a flat percentage increase.
Jessica Simmons, a teacher at LEAD Southeast, became one of the first teachers in the charter school network to reach the Master Teacher salary band. The designation increases the salary cap for a teacher from $65,000 to $75,000, in exchange for the teacher taking on extra responsibilities.
Simmons said she took on the designation not because of the money, but because she wanted to grow professionally and grow her school, which achieved a 100% teacher retention rate in the 2020-21 school year.
“I just like building myself as a professional, and to continue to grow while staying put,” she said.
Simmons, who worked as a teacher in Colorado before moving to Nashville to work with LEAD, said she felt that the most important part of the salary system wasn’t just the money, but the fact that it rewarded teachers for their professional growth.
In Colorado, she said, they worked on a step system for raises, which is widely viewed as the national standard. It meant she got more money each year, but only for time served, not for her work.
Getting rewarded for her work, she said, was transformative to her feeling that she was valued.
She said she couldn’t speak for her fellow teachers, but she also noticed that when her colleagues spoke about what was stressing them most as they worked through a pandemic, conversations around pay essentially disappeared.
Tucker said creating that feeling of value and support was vital to create the culture the school network wants. That culture, where teachers feel valued and incentivized to grow as educators for their students, is essential, he said.
Tucker said that in studies examined by LEAD, teachers tend to show a growth plateau after around five years in the field, or they exit completely for a new, higher-paying career. They could continue to get better, he said, and many still do, but there is no incentive outside of themselves to do so in a traditional step system.
Simmons said she doesn’t plan on leaving any time soon. She said it’s great to work in an environment where teaching is treated as a profession and the path to a higher salary doesn’t mean taking on administrative roles.
“When you feel valued, then you put more into what you are doing because you feel seen,” she said.