By Clare Berke March 5th, 2014 9:00 AM

My sister and I , who are less than two years apart in age, have always been competitive.  We went to a small high school in a small town, so we had frequent opportunities to compare our achievements.  Speech team medals, honor band awards, GPA, college scholarships, even a role in a one-act play incited competition (I was cast as her real-life-boyfriend’s on-stage fiance’).

Although most of our competitions died down with time and distance between us, I discovered a new competition a few years ago: job title and salary.  It’s not that my sister or I chose our jobs because they are highly profitable — I am a public school teacher; she works in the nonprofit sector; we are the children of a nurse and a minister.  What bothered me was the fact that she could ask her boss for a raise, and if she made her case, she could reasonably expect to get it.  I had no such opportunity to discuss with my principal the monetary value of my service, and there were few options for moving to a position that would warrant a change in title or a  significant pay increase.  Although my sister had been able to advocate for a new title and salary, I was stuck waiting for the years of teaching to pass.

Then came LIFT.  LIFT (the Leadership Initiative for Teachers) is a career ladder designed to keep teachers in the classroom, while rewarding and recognizing them for their success.  You can check out the details of LIFT here and here, but suffice to know that it involves paying highly effective teachers more – and quickly.  The lowest rung of the ladder is “Teacher”, followed by Established Teacher, Advanced Teacher, Distinguished Teacher, and finally, Expert Teacher.  Each first-year teacher begins at the “Teacher” phase.  A teacher who is new to the District, but has experience teaching elsewhere, begins at the Established or Advanced Teacher phase.  Moving up the ladder requires successive scores of effective or highly effective on your annual IMPACT evaluation.  When you move up to the Advanced, Distinguished or Expert phases, you have the option of applying a two to five  year service credit to your salary base, in addition to receiving bonus money if you were rated highly effective.  Leadership opportunities also broaden as you move up the ladder; and, once you’re LIFTed, you can’t return to a lower rung.

Although the introduction of LIFT in the fall of 2012 brought out the puns in many a teacher (“I’m trying to be LIFTed.”  “LIFT me up.”  “Can you give me a LIFT?”), its inception also opened the doors of recognition and reward for many new and emerging teachers.  Whereas a friend of mine who has taught in Fairfax County for the past four years feels like he has reached the apex of his teaching career, I know that there are many opportunities – and perhaps more money – in my near and distant future.  Despite receiving a minimally effective IMPACT score in my second year of teaching (which consequently froze me for a year on the pay scale), in my fifth year of teaching, I am now an Advanced Teacher on year six of the pay scale.  I have also served in leadership positions, including as a grade level team leader, a lead ELA teacher, a professional development facilitator, and a curriculum developer.  Recently, I was asked to open my classroom for new and developing teachers to observe.  Only two and a half years ago, I was the developing teacher who took advantage of observing the more experienced teachers.

Not every year of teaching will be a highly effective year, but I feel more confident in my career choice knowing that I will never drop below the Advanced Teacher level.  I am also encouraged, and my teaching is strengthened, by the leadership opportunities I have learned from and enjoyed.  When I get to sit down with a group of teachers and hash out a plan for strengthening students’ skills for analysis or examine student writing for growth areas, I am better prepared to teach, and my students benefit.

I may never have the title of Director in my email signature, as my sister does, but perhaps one day I will be called Distinguished, or even Expert.  The possibility is enough to keep me content — and our healthy sibling rivalry alive.

Clare Berke is an English teacher at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School.