Recruitment & Retention

Bonuses Are Nice, Teachers Say. But These Things Are Nicer

By Elizabeth Heubeck — February 03, 2022 4 min read
Image of a watering can with a money symbol and a plant.
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Many public school teachers across the country can count on some extra cash in their paychecks this year.

Several state and district officials are giving school employees bonuses, paid for mainly with pandemic-related federal relief funds. Most of the bonuses fall between $1,000 and $5,000.

Leaders say the bonuses are meant to show gratitude for hard work in trying times or to help entice teachers and other school employees to stay in their jobs, especially as many school districts contend with acute staffing shortages.

Richard Woods, Georgia’s state superintendent, communicated both messages to staff when announcing a one-time, $1,000 bonus for every public school teacher and school-level staff member: “...[W]e are providing these bonuses as a tangible gesture of our gratitude and respect… and as a means of retaining these dedicated educators and support personnel who make educating our students possible,” he said in a Jan. 14 news release.

Teachers say bonuses feel like an afterthought

The gestures have been met with weak enthusiasm by some teachers.

“After everything we’ve been through during the pandemic, it’s hard not to feel a little bit jaded or cynical,” said music and orchestra teacher Jen Retterer who, along with nearly 8,400 other full-time public school employees in Howard County, Md., will receive an $1,800 bonus over two installments this year; one this month and the second one in June.

The Lake Elkhorn Middle School teacher said the bonus seemed like “sort of a reactionary tactic to a crisis.”

Matt Yount, a veteran Florida teacher, had a similar response to the bonus he’s been promised this year as a full-time employee of Brevard Public Schools.

“I will absolutely cash the check,” said Yount, who teaches 6th grade at Imperial States Elementary School in Titusville, Fla. “But at the same time, I don’t want it to become the norm.”

Alternatives to bonuses teachers would prefer

Yount says that, in his experience, he’s seen bonuses offered when there’s not enough budget for raises. “If there’s an actual raise, no one really needs a bonus,” Yount said.

With a salary increase, Yount reasons, employees can make sustainable changes in their day-to-day lives. Yount, who has taught for 20 years and has a professional degree, makes $54,000 annually; the median annual income for a male with a professional degree is about $120,000, according to data from MoneyWise.

He says many teachers he knows—including himself and his wife, who is also a teacher—feel the need to take on side hustles in order to save for extras, like occasional vacations. Yount works an extra job as a licensed security officer at sporting and other events; his wife moonlights as a manicurist.

Educator advocacy groups also would prefer to see salary bumps over bonuses.

“Chiefly, [we] are looking for districts to raise salaries and compensation to help retain existing staff and recruit new employees into the schools,” said Justin Guillory, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Association of Educators, a professional development and advocacy group for teachers. But, he adds, anything helps.

Retterer, the Maryland teacher, points to proactive measures she and her colleagues wish school officials had embraced earlier this school year when many educators were hesitant to return to in-person learning. For one, she says, she would have liked if her school system had distributed KN95 masks to staff and students at the beginning of the school year, instead of in recent weeks as a reaction to outbreaks driven by the omicron variant.

Other things on Retterer’s wishlist include portable air purifiers with HEPA filters in every classroom, carefully crafted plans to address how a school system or single school would temporarily pivot to remote learning due to COVID-19 outbreaks, and investments in school buildings and grounds that would allow for more use of outdoor space during the school day.

Yount’s sentiments echo Retterer’s.

“Teachers feel like we’re the last line item on a budget,” said Yount. “We spend more on a new curriculum that we haven’t vetted than we do on the human resources in the building.”

Who gets the bonus matters

Educators in Rockingham County, N.C., have let district officials know they felt underappreciated, and demanded more.

Molithia Spencer teaches 3rd grade at Rockingham County’s Stoneville Elementary School and serves as president of the Rockingham County Association of Educators, the local advocacy group for teachers. This fall, she says, RCAE learned that the superintendent had proposed a $250 bonus for staff members with perfect attendance.

“That was a slap in the face,” Spencer said.

That spurred her group to act, Spencer said. They learned that other North Carolina districts were planning to give their employees bonuses as high as $5,000, and that the county of Rockingham would be receiving $42.6 million in federal COVID-relief aid for schools. RCAE developed a petition for the district’s staff members to get $4,000 bonuses.

“At $4,000 per staff member, it would be a small percentage of $42.6 million,” Spencer said.

Backed with a petition that had garnered several hundred signatures from employees, RCAE spoke before the school board this fall; in return, the board approved a $4,000 bonus in two installments. Initially, the bonus was allotted only for full-time certified staff. RCAE returned to the board, advocating for classified staff, from bus drivers to cafeteria workers, to be included. Later, the board approved bonuses for those employees too.

Spencer says she considers the bonus a starting point, but recognizes more needs to be done to recruit teachers to the county—especially those who don’t have a personal connection to the area.

“I could leave Rockingham County and make $9,000 to $11,0000 more in a nearby district,” Spencer said. “But I grew up here, and I want to see our county be successful, and for students to grow up with great teachers.”

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