I am often asked what keeps me up at night as a head of school. While I admit to being a pretty sound sleeper, I do worry about teachers. I have the highest level of respect and gratitude for teachers everywhere, and especially for those I’ve gotten to know through my work at Denver Jewish Day School. Teaching is really hard work, and it only seems to be getting more challenging and demanding.
I believe that teachers in the United States are underpaid and undervalued. That is especially true in many Jewish day schools, where teachers are typically valued more but make less than their counterparts who teach in the public school systems. The smaller class sizes, strong school culture, meaningful values and importance that the community places on education make it worthwhile for some teachers to accept less money to work in a Jewish day school or independent school.
More recently, we have seen an increase in the number of teachers deciding that the benefits of working in a Jewish day school don’t outweigh the opportunity to teach in another school for a higher salary. This is especially true as the teaching market becomes more competitive and the disparity in salaries becomes greater.
The answer, of course, is to increase teacher salaries. The question is: Where does the money come from to increase salaries significantly enough to have a real impact? Trying to increase salaries significantly through the annual operating budget at our school is not going to get us where we want to be.
A Creative Approach
Our school was ramping up for a capital campaign in 2020 just before the pandemic began. Like so many others, we soon switched to remote learning, which left our buildings unoccupied. Raising money for facilities was not going to work at that time.
The board of trustees and campaign leadership decided to change course and focus on raising money for a new endowment fund dedicated to increasing teacher salaries. The Raise Your Hand Campaign was launched with great excitement, even as Covid challenged us all like never before.
The initial goal was to raise $4 million to fund a teacher salary endowment fund. The proceeds from the endowment fund would be used each year to increase teacher salaries beyond the typical salary increase that is paid for through the annual operating budget. The fundraising work took time, as we had to relearn how to ask for major gifts in a virtual format. Nonetheless, the solicitations were generally met with excitement, as people were pleased to hear how they could support increasing teacher salaries in a meaningful and ongoing way. Our solicitors found that people really care about the teachers at Denver JDS, and the request for a major gift to support them resonated with many.
What We’ve Learned
When we hit the $3 million mark, an alumnus of the school stepped up and offered a dollar for dollar match up to $1 million towards the teacher salary endowment. The donor wanted to see us meet our $4 million goal and exceed it by $1 million. The initial challenge was limited to a two-month period last May and June. This ignited a great deal of urgency. Our team of lay and professional leaders raised $718,000 in two months, which was matched by the donor. We are grateful that the donor has agreed to match the remaining $282,000 whenever the money comes in.
We have now raised almost $5 million for the endowment. Moving forward, the proceeds from the endowment will be used each year for the sole purpose of increasing salaries.
We learned that people really care about our teachers, their children’s teachers, and some are willing to donate substantial amounts of money to help make sure that teachers earn a more competitive salary. I find this very reassuring, and I believe it is something that can be replicated in other schools.
Now that we will soon have more money to distribute to our faculty, how that money is distributed must be carefully considered. Should the money be split evenly between all teachers? Should it be weighted more toward the higher-performing teachers and if so, how are those teachers identified? Or perhaps a hybrid approach? These are things that we are working on now and should be considered by any school that wants to take a similar approach to increasing teacher salaries.
Lastly, we have learned that to truly reach our goals for our teachers, we will need to continue to grow the teacher salary endowment fund. Four or five million dollars might have increased our teacher’s salaries enough three or four years ago, but the market is even more competitive now. We need to continue to grow our teacher salary endowment so that we can truly pay teachers what they deserve for the long term. Thankfully, with salary endowment fundraising systems now in place, we have the ability to continue to build this important endowment and we are determined to do so.