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Using Buyback to Nurture a Culture of Professionalism

By Neil Morgan Griffiths
Using Buyback to Nurture  a Culture of Professionalism

In my 28 years of teaching in numerous international schools, one observation that perhaps baffles me more than most is the infrequency with which the buyback system has been implemented. Buyback, in its simplest form, is where an institution agrees to buyback any sick/personal days that remain unused out of the annual contractual allotment. When considering why institutions are often reluctant to use such a system, several key questions are likely to dictate the rationale: Will it cost the school money? Will it punish teachers for being sick? Will it encourage teachers to come to school when they are sick? Tom Warner describes critical thinking as our ability to ask the right question. Perhaps in this case we need to consider whether we have been successful to that end. The rationale for employing buyback systems boasts a robust list of positives versus a small and questionable list of negatives. With this in mind, the following questions allow us to initiate the conversation with a view to attaining a more constructive outlook: How might we become more accountable, from a budgetary perspective, when dealing with the unknowns associated with the cost of providing substitute teachers? How can we become proactive in raising staff morale by reducing the amount of absences? How might we increase staff benefits while at the same time ensuring tangible systemic rewards in return? How do we reduce the administrative time associated with managing faculty sick/personal days? Asking these questions has the potential to guide institutions toward the implementation of a buyback plan. In looking at the positives, buyback systems carry with them a multitude of merits. They facilitate: • a potentially substantial annual monetary bonus • a reduction in the amount of sick-days taken school-wide • a self-vetting mechanism for NEMP (Non-emergency medical procedures) • an opportunity to use cost matching to control all sick/personal day costs at a fixed amount • active support for professionalism • removal of the potential stigma and guilt factor associated with taking a sick day • active support for faculty when they are sick by facilitating genuine sympathy • the elimination of inevitable administrator discussions associated with sick faculty • the opportunity to offer qualified teaching staff small stipends for additional cover duties as needed in busy supply times. Cost matching is a simple concept; first off, schools identify the per diem cost of a substitute, and subsequently adopt this as the basis for the per-diem buyback allocation. From this point forward, the cost of all substitute teachers becomes pre-budgeted. Allocating US$1500 per faculty member annually, at a per-diem substitute rate of US$150, would cost an institution with 150 faculty members a fixed amount of US$225,000. The challenge arises when schools compare this number to their current substitute teacher annual expenses. Unless the faculty has used all of its sick/personal day allocation in a given year, then that current number will always be lower. This situation often causes school administrators to conclude that such a plan would simply represent an added cost. However, the substantial and unpredictable cost of financing substitutes for the year is limited to buying schools the guarantee of a warm body in the classroom. The fixed cost of the per diem buyback allocation, on the other hand, can buy the school a flourishing school culture of professionalism, along with a whole array of supplementary benefits that accompany buyback systems. In addition, when looking at buyback systems in their entirety, it is the cost of inaction that could be viewed as the most powerful driving factor. It has often been the case in my career that colleagues who had not taken a sick day in perhaps five years were working alongside others who, at the start of each school year, planned out the 10 days on which they would be sick. We might consider this to be an example of differences in professionalism. However, it may be more accurate to view this as a reflection of the failure to envision and implement effective policies and practices at the institutional level. Professionals are most effective when they feel valued, and great schools take the steps necessary to bring this to fruition. Being sick and using your sick days is not consistent with being unprofessional, but apart from an inner resolve, what incentive is there for faculty members to not use their allotment of sick days? Also, when considering the urgency of an NEMP, might it be more effective to rely on the presence of the buyback per diem to work as the self-vetting filter? This could save valuable administrative time. When policies and practices are designed to support and encourage professionalism, they positively impact school culture. Buyback is the medical world’s equivalent of exercise, in that it cures just about everything, and enhances what is already good. If we are willing to ask the right questions, we can all benefit from the power of buyback.

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