Who is this for?

Learning to negotiate is useful for any type of job seeker, including teachers and school leaders looking for new jobs. It is an especially important skill for early-career teachers looking for their first or second job at a charter or independent school. For district school candidates — the salaries are set, but they can still apply the below insights to improve other aspects of a job offer.

Goals

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You can only negotiate effectively if you have clear goals (and long-term vision) — so the first step is to define them. This is an ambitious topic so let’s summarize: think deeply and develop a point of view on answers to:

  • What do you want from your career? How does this fit into the life you want to live?
  • How can your next job help you work towards this?

Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers (no one does). It’s important to remember the Eisenhower quote, “Planning is everything, the plan is nothing."

The next step is to prioritize what’s important. This is an equally ambitious topic — a few questions to ask yourself:

  • What do you value?
  • If you could have one thing in your career, what would it be?
  • If you could have one thing in your next job, what would it be?
  • Is this school right for me?
  • What are qualities in your next role and school that are deal breakers vs. nice-to-haves?
  • What are you willing to trade?

Have the discipline to write down the things you want and do not want from your next job. Your diligence will pay off over time as it will help solidify “why” you make the decisions that you do and help you identify the direction that you are stumbling towards. Only once you prioritize can you strategize.

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There are a seemingly infinite number of factors to consider — don’t let this paralyze you. Take a step — any step. A few things you can do right away are:

  • Start a “Want vs. Do Not Want” list: Don’t overthink it — write whatever comes to mind. Groom this list over time as you get more experience and learn.
  • Shortcut your learning by speaking to as many people as you can: Proactively seek out people who share your values, inspire you, are more experienced, and are in (or out of) your field. They can distill incredible wisdom that you can build on.

A few ways I assess what’s important to me in a new job opportunity:

  • People: It all starts and ends with people. When deciding whether to join an organization, I try to assess:
    • Quality of leadership: I can’t emphasize this enough. This will be the limiting factor of your growth. Scrutinize your potential manager all the way to the principal.
    • Culture: Does this organization truly live what you value? What’s the proof?
    • Coworkers: Will you be surrounded and learn from the best? Can you make a best friend at work? Will you hang out with these people long after you’ve moved on?
  • Learn and own: I am biased to opportunities that allow me to learn and own more responsibilities. I have been willing to trade money, titles, and perks to develop my capabilities. Sometimes I moved sideways or backwards to move forward.

There is no single right answer to what you should prioritize — just what you believe to be true. Keep trying to figure out what’s important to you. Remember, salary is just one part of the equation. How much is your health and sanity worth? The space to be your best and grow? School leaders that support and inspire you? Opportunities that open new doors?

Getting into the right mindset

I believe a common blocker for developing effective negotiation skills is fear. People are afraid of asking for what they deserve, offending or disappointing a future employer, saying something stupid, making an irreversible mistake, among other reasons.

Lean in and embrace the dance. Think of it as a fun game that you are playing with (not against) your potential employer. Have you ever traveled abroad, visited a market, and negotiated with a local vendor? It’s not disrespectful to ask for something you want, it’s actually the culture (just like negotiating job offers). So be native and give it your best effort!

Another major contributor to fear is the belief that a negotiation is adversarial. That is false. Have an abundance mentality — think win-win, not zero sum. Your potential employer does not have to lose for you to win. A signal of the wrong mindset is if you enter a negotiation with anxiety and the goal of beating “them”. You should walk into the conversation excited to collaborate with partners in crafting an arrangement where everyone is much better off working together.

Few mental habits to train:

  • Be deliberate: Have conviction about what you want and what’s most important. Be firm about your goals.
  • Actively and empathetically understand others: You are there to listen, not just talk, and to meet the needs of others, not just yours.
  • Separate issues from the people: When someone questions or challenges something you said, don’t take it personally. Ideas can and should change as more mutual understanding is achieved.
  • Focus on interests, not positions: Don’t get hung up on the position someone is presenting — focus on whether you can still get what you want out of the opportunity. Here is a story that explains this concept well: two sisters are fighting over the last orange. Each sister wants the orange (“You had the last orange!”). A wise parent, let’s call her Tami Taylor, asks each sister in private why she wants the orange. One explains that she needs the juice to stick to her week-long cleanse; the other needs the rind to zest a cake for her school’s bake sale. A sister wanting the orange is her position, why she wants it is her interest. In this case, Tami’s simple solution is to give the baker the rind after the juice has been squeezed, meeting the interests of both.
  • Be creative and entrepreneurial: Propose all types of clever solutions that will help everyone get what’s most important to them. Like the story above, you have to understand people’s goals and problems to do so.
  • Be proactive, not reactive: Do not buy into false choices. “Do you want to work this weekend or next weekend?” (I don’t want to work either!). If you feel like a school is pinning you into a disagreeable premise (e.g., they offered you one job but are suddenly trying to get you to agree to another), reframe the conversation immediately rather than dignifying their bait-and-switch. Your ultimate power is that you can always walk away. Remember, win-win or no deal. The big picture is not what one party can win from the other, it’s that mutual teacher-school fit is paramount for long-term success.

Preparation

Start by understanding your worth. Use objective criteria and data to benchmark your market value. Study all the data on teacher compensation that you can get your hands on. What are you realistically worth in the local labor market? What are teachers at your level, background, and skills being offered? These are comparables (“comps”).

The comps can vary significantly depending on multiple factors. Analyze salaries at the school you are considering, then similar schools, different schools (e.g., district, charter, independent, religious), locales, grades, subjects (low-supply STEM, special education, ENL, vs. high-supply gen ed, ELA, social studies), degrees (e.g., Master’s), multiple certifications, non-English languages spoken, distinctions (e.g, TFA alum), etc.

Your goal is to synthesize all the data to have a realistic salary range for yourself:

  • Your stretch goal
  • What you’d be happy with
  • Minimum amount you’d accept

This range will give you a firm starting point, an informed basis for making trades, and allow you to cogently argue a potential employer’s question, “Why should we pay you more?” Less experienced people will pull a magic number out of the air (e.g., “I want… one… million dollars!).

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More experienced negotiators will have well reasoned, data-backed numbers (e.g., “The data I saw shows that teachers with a similar background to mine are receiving $A-B thousand more than your offer. Can we work together to be more in-line with the market?”).

Strategy

The best strategy to create the most negotiating leverage for yourself (in addition to becoming a better and more marketable person) is to create as many options for yourself, as possible. It’s hard to walk away if you have only one job offer, bills piling up, and it’s already August. Now imagine your position if you:

  • Have multiple good offers
  • Could move to a different city
  • Could go back to school
  • Teach English in southern Spain

You’d probably feel a bit more confident and comfortable headed into a negotiation. Before joining Selected, I worked at OkCupid (matching millions of daters). Think of the same dynamic as applied to dating. Desperation is not a good look on anyone, so give yourself some options.

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A fancy term for what’s being described above is BATNA. The Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement is the “most advantageous alternative course of action a party can take if negotiations fail and an agreement cannot be reached.”

BATNA relates to the skills and strategy of identifying your best alternative and understanding it’s value (so you can make the optimal, informed decision). It’s the best you can do without the school you are negotiating with. Example:

  • School A is close to your home and offers you a job for $50,000
  • School B then offers you a job for $60,000 but is much further away
  • Your mom gave you a standing offer to live in her basement for free

If negotiation breaks down with School A, the offer from School B is your best alternative (as tempting as it is to eat Bagel Bites and live in your mom’s basement). The second offer gives you more power in working with school A to improve its offer. If it doesn’t offer $60,000 or more, you can walk away and take the second job. School A might not be able to match. If it reaches $55,000, it is up to you to decide — do you trade $5,000 for a shorter commute? What are the other terms in the negotiated agreement that you can evaluate and improve? What is most important to you?

Alternative options are critical because:

  • You can only make an informed, reasonable decision if you have a sense of the bigger picture. What is the market for your skillset? What are you worth as a teacher?
  • You will have a better chance of picking a job and a school that you love, only if you can compare them to others (sounds like dating, right?)
  • What are the important terms? What are the patterns that you see over and over? Options help you understand what are favorable vs. unfavorable terms, so you don’t accept unacceptable conditions or accidentally overlook/reject conditions that would be in your interest
  • You have more safety to be more assertive in asking for stuff
  • You are less likely to concede things that are important to you, get pushed around, or take an unattractive job offer

Therefore, it is critical for you to generate more and better job offers to drive the best outcome for yourself. Many teachers we have worked with end up taking the first and only job offer they received without really negotiating. Teachers may be the most caring, altruistic group of professionals that I’ve met, but don’t let an employer take advantage of that — self-care is a prerequisite for caring for others.

This means that you should consistently try to improve the offers that you received. You do not have to accept them as is. The artful balance is not overplaying your hand and being too aggressive at the cost of your long-term relationship. Have the big picture in mind — be reasonable and respectful to people you (hopefully) will be working with for a long time. Relationships are more important than a few thousands of dollars.

Despite your sick negotiation skills, many schools have strict compensation bands which can’t be exceeded. Work within the constraint to develop a basic strategy. One example:

  • Try to get in the highest compensation band
  • Maximize the salary amount you receive within that band
  • Optimize everything else that’s not bolted down by priority (e.g, benefits, title, perks)
  • Hustle and trade to get the most appealing total package

Tactics

To successfully execute your strategy, you need to have an intimate understanding of the schools that you are negotiating with. You are not negotiating with a monolithic “school”, but rather, a collection of individuals — recruiters, hiring managers, principals, etc. Who is the real decision maker? Who is your champion? Who are potential influencers and saboteurs? Who has veto rights?

You should work to understand what is most important to each person you are speaking with. This includes understanding their goals, motivations, situations, and constraints:

  • Do you get a sense of the political and interpersonal dynamics?
  • Are they in a rush to fill the position? Does the recruiter feel pressure from her Chief Talent Officer to fill the role (and 10 others) before July?
  • How many teachers in the department won’t be coming back next year?
  • How is their pipeline of candidates?
  • How does the school budget for this role? Is the department growing or shrinking?

Getting more info will help you better understand the school’s needs, thus allow you to better communicate how you are best suited to meet those needs, thus increase your perceived value.

There are many resources online describing negotiating tactics — research them. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Likeability and Trust: Trust is a powerful lubricant and being likeable goes a long way. I don’t buy into personality mirroring, but I do believe in being genuine and finding ways to relate and connect with someone.
  • Tempo: Modulate the rhythm of the conversation (e.g., many novice negotiators have only one speed — too fast)
  • Silence: Upon receiving a bid (e.g., offer, counter-offer), well timed silence might have an impact on a hiring manager who is eager to close you. It might be taken as a sign that the offer isn't competitive enough and result in more concessions for you.
  • Never negotiate against yourself: This is a common mistake, if you ask or offer anything — never undermine yourself. Example:
    • School: We’d like you to start immediately
    • You: Hmm, I have plans (you actually have an awesome trip booked), can I start in a month?
    • You: (before school can react, and in your eagerness to please) I guess I could start in a week.
    • School: Ok, great!
  • Agency: Use third parties to your advantage. If you need more time/space to make a decision, use your partner as a buffer. Example: “This feels good to me but let me make sure my husband/wife/partner buys into my decision.” On a related note, you should emotionally detach from yourself. Pretend you are an agent for yourself. An agent is professional and does not get emotional when things get tough.
  • There are countless other tactics of varying effectiveness (and morality), such as playing dumb, leveraging sunk cost, low balling, good cop/bad cop, and artificial timing pressures. Here is one list of common tactics used.

Don’t overvalue tactics and manipulation hacks — they can be helpful in certain situations, but they won’t drive great outcomes like solid goals and strategies can.

When to walk away from a "bad date"

We are conditioned to be analytical and rational when making decisions. I want to make the case for trusting your gut. Your intuition is an incredibly powerful thing — listen to it. If you get a bad vibe, dig deep to understand why. If you can’t shake the feeling, remember “no deal” is an option.

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Consider walking away if there are character issues:

  • If a school is not willing to have an open conversation about your role, situation, or future, that is a red flag. Observe how they treat every single person, particularly junior colleagues who they don’t have to impress. This is likely the “nicest” the school will ever treat you. What will it be like when you’re locked in?
  • They have high teacher turnover and aren’t honest about why or can’t provide a compelling answer about what they are doing about it. Where is the proof?
  • School’s offer is way off market (e.g., salary is too low or too high) and won’t be honest about why.
  • The school does not unequivocally meet your standard for quality of leadership, culture, and coworkers.

Next steps

You deserve to get the best offer possible at a school you love. Work to get multiple options:

  • Learn from others — find people who have seen this process many times and make them your coach.
  • Start early and manage a tight job search process over weeks, not months. Don’t drag it out. Have a clear start and end date.
  • Concurrently speak to and interview with as many schools as possible. You might discover some amazing school that you never would have expected.
  • Get multiple job offers as close to each other as possible
  • Focus on the most compelling offers, work with the schools to improve them, and pick the one you feel best about — a job that gets you super excited at a school you love.

We purposefully designed Selected to help you do all of the things described. Each candidate gets a dedicated Selected career coach (former teachers or recruiters). An average candidate gets contacted by 5 schools in the first week on the platform. Candidates who end up taking a job through Selected finish the job search in ~4 weeks from first entering the candidate pool. If this sounds helpful, get started here.

Remember to get the most out of your offers! There are many studies that show how your willingness to negotiate has a huge impact on your lifetime earnings. This applies particularly to women — according to Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, authors of Ask for It, men are four times more likely than women to negotiate for a higher first salary. The authors claim that failing to ask for more money at the beginning stages of your career can cost as much as half a million dollars over the course of your lifetime. That stat is not specific to education, but it’s a lesson worth learning.

Go for it and good luck!

Want to learn more?

Here are a few more resources:

About Eric

Eric has practiced (and made many mistakes) negotiating as a job seeker, hiring manager, product owner reconciling competing interests of numerous stakeholders, and as an M&A investment banker helping to buy and sell companies.

About Selected

Selected helps teachers get jobs at schools they love. We offer a matching platform that connects teachers with 600+ schools in urban metro areas in the Northeast, including NYC, Philadelphia, Newark, Trenton, Boston, CT, and DC. Selected is 100% free for teachers. Schools apply to you, not the other way around. Make a profile and finish your job search in weeks, not months.