How to Auction Off an Unwanted Duty

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A high-school economics teacher named Steve Fortna writes from Colorado with a clever solution:

The Spirit Week (formerly known as Homecoming) Dance is upon us.  This Friday I will be pressed into service to monitor the dress and dance of around 150 kids while a DJ, who does not care about the moral development of young adults in their formative years, plays whatever music they want to hear.  Loudly.  I really do not want to be there.  I am not alone in that sentiment.  

My school has tried various methods of determining which teachers should be on chaperone duty at each dance over the years without much success.  Either we all go (way too many people but at least we’re all in the same boat), or only a select few (more efficient use of faculty, but it’s not fair).  While most teachers don’t particularly enjoy monitoring dances, there are different levels of unease.  What’s an equitable way to determine who’s on duty?

The economics teacher in me has found a solution.  Determine the ideal number of teacher chaperones, then auction off the right not to go to the dance to the highest bidders in a silent auction.  The low bidders would have to work the dance, but their low bids would indicate more of a willingness to be at the event in the first place.  The opposite would be true for the high bidders.  (I would happily pay upwards of $50 to avoid the dance.)  The money raised would be put into a pot for the year-end faculty party.

Actually, the same method could be used for any number of “adjunct duties” that teachers face: lunch duty, study halls, detentions, chapels, etc.  I can only think of a few drawbacks:  constantly bidding on getting out of tasks sends a bad message to students; some teachers that loathe certain tasks may also be the very ones who are best at (and most needed) doing them; and by the end of the year, the party pot would probably be big enough to fly everyone to Las Vegas.  Then again, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

Ben Silver

I love that idea! I'm not sure that real money would be appropriate, but it could tie into another incentive program.
The school administration could issue ''Faculty Points" for various services, accomplishments, and accolades. The teachers can then use those points in bidding.
Sure, it gets rid of the party-pot, but I'm not too sure on the legality of a real bid system like that.

Auction Equality

The classic knock against solving equality related issues with auctions is that 50$ doesn't actually represent the same level of repugnance for teachers of varying levels of wealth...I'd think there would be a fair amount of variance here, but maybe the fact that you are all working basically the same job generally limits it?

Enter your name...

The household income diversity should be just about as limited as any other profession: You'll have some teachers who are just getting started, at the bottom of the pay scale, and trying to cope with massive school-related debts, and others who are at the top of the pay scale. You'll have some who are single parents and others who are married to millionaires.

martin fairhurst

Really simple question.

I have searched as much as possible and still have not found a quantitative or qualitative answer to;

why do people tend to sit at the back?

I looked at church, as normally the first three rows are always empty. The bus, are the opening seats left for the elderly and disabled? lectures / schools, I read a few reports on this.

there is a contradiction to this. For example, It charges when people are watching sport or music as they want to be near the action, look at price of seats for center court, court side. You go and watch a music concert and buy seats in your prices range, but as near to the front as possible.


You could use a "fake currency" to adjust duties.

For example:
There are 10 such "adjunct duties" through the year. Give each teacher 10 "points" These points are used to bid on the duties they would rather not do. For each duty the teachers are added to the duty roster in order of increasing bid. So 0 bidders are added first, then 1 point bidders etc...

No "I can't afford to bid" issues
No "I hate students so I bid $100 on everything" issues
No "I'm the worst one for the job but don't give a crap so I don't bid" issues


This was my first thought as well, but a little bit different. As the author pointed out, there are several duties throughout the year where a "forced volunteering" is required of the faculty. Simply identify how many slots there are, assign teachers to them all randomly, and then allow one-for-X trades between teachers. Don't like the homecoming gig? Trade it for 5 afterschool detention gigs. Have 5 detention gigs but have a family and really value time at home? Trade them all for the one homecoming gig and get your work over in one night. The only thing I can't put a finger on incentivizing is the teacher who is "good" at chaperoning; if one was particularly skilled it would be presumed that they wouldn't find it as objectionable since an easy task is almost always preferred to a difficult/chaotic one.


This scenario also assumes that every teacher has the same personal finance scenario - that they all have parity in purchasing power. How realistic is that?

Enter your name...

Why should the money go into a fund for everyone to enjoy? Why not pay it directly to the teachers who are stuck with the duty?

You're thinking of it as "how can I get out of this unpleasant duty?". Try thinking of it as "how can not only I get volunteers for this duty, but also make them be happy about doing it?" I think that having three other teachers pay me $50 each would result in me being pretty happy about supervising a three-hour dance.


You would eventually have to dole out subsidies to single parent teachers, teacher as the primary breadwinner, teacher with medical bills, teachers with kids in college. Teachers with high paid spouces would have to incur a heavy tax. It would start to reflect our dysfuntional govt we have today.

As a teacher (an economics teacher at that), the ONLY way to distribute chapparone assignments to high school teachers is to (1) fill as much of the quota with volunteers then (2) have a random lottery to assign the rest. If chosen by random lottery you would have to find someone else to take your place.

I guess I am more Thomas Friedman than Ronald Coase. :)

Enter your name...

If you ran a lottery at the start of the year to randomly assign people to duties, then you could permit individually arranged trades. I wouldn't be surprised to hear that many schools do that.

not a cleaning lady

Everybody seems to assume that women are merely the clearner uppers. I can understand where you got that idea from- but it is just plain and simply untrue.


If this auction could be iterated several times (say over the course of a 30 year career), it would eventually result in a Nash equilibrium where a teacher either bid $0 or n>$0.

Given a pool of 20 teachers, out of which 5 are needed to perform a duty, each teacher bid's his or her valuation of getting out of the task. Regardless of how the bids are distributed, the bottom 5 will have to attend the event and all 20 will contribute their money to the pot. In all following iterations, the five teachers whose bids were less than the 15th highest bid, bid nothing (assuming their valuation has not changed) because it is less optimal to pay a bid AND perform the task than either JUST performing the task or JUST paying. In addition, those teachers that bid more than the 15th highest bid effectively paid more than than necessary to get out of the duty. In subsequent iterations, those teachers will lower their bids to the lowest amount required to avoid the duty and thus maximize their surplus utility.

Since this is the eventual outcome, it might be more efficient to stage a dutch auction in which teachers still bid their valuation as the price descends until 5 teachers remain. Those five pay nothing, and the remaining 15 pay the price the last teacher bid. Everybody is happy... but as the iterations add up, the holiday party gets more and more austere!



My school has a "merit" based pay system and chaperone duties are completely voluntary but if you want to get the maximum raise you have to do at least a certain amount of chaperone hours (24 hours) during the course of the year. It makes up a fairly small portion of our total raise amount but it's enough to get most people to get out and do the dances and stuff while there are definitely a few people who just pass on it. Seems to work pretty well to me but it obviously involves a pay system that most teachers want nothing to do with.


This method discriminates against single income families with children (those with the least money and time) in favor of DINKs (those with double-income and no kids). I would hardly call the method fair.

Joe J

Of course since it is a silent auction, the first thing I thought of was submitting a negative bid.
-$1 They pay me 1 dollar and I'll go. If they accept that as fair I'd next try bidding negative 1000. It is much lower than a bid of positive 50,


I can't believe this person didn't consider that some people might not be able to afford to pay their way out of unpleasant duties, and because of their financial situation will ALWAYS be stuck doing the worst jobs.

I bet that would do wonders for teacher morale.

Steve Cebalt

Pure Genius! Several people (rightly) objected because the teachers with the lowest disposable household income would get shafted. But there are many creative solutions in some of the previous posts, such as using "points" instead of money, OR, putting some or all of the auction proceeds into a pot to pay a stiped to the person who gets stuck with the duty. All brilliant ideas.


I think that some of those other duties come with the territory of being a teacher, but a dance is after hours (not to say that there aren't other after hour duties) and on the weekend, that is asking a lot. I was thinking that the pot going back to the teachers that do chaperone was fair, but I don't think you should have people paying to get out of something, plus the fact that you would have people trying to raise the bid and I assume there are a lot more teachers than spots so you would be auctioning off a lot of spots.

I assume the school pulls in some funds from the dance, so the cost could be passed onto the "students" (read: the parents) and that could help pay the "volunteers" time. Depending on the ratio may only be a $2 raise per ticket.

Another thing that could be used would be a raffle for the teachers that do volunteer, like a free day off of work. You could technically do it with all the teachers, but you would have to be sure to not let them do it all at once. Of course, in this case you would incur higher costs to the school (read tax payor unless it is a private school) for the substitute than just paying them straight from the budget for their time.



Or you could not monitor the dress and dance of the young adults involved...

Though UK school events have some supervision, we don't police our young peoples' leisure activity.

Steve S.

Why not enlist a little help from supportive, like-minded parents? Maybe this wouldn't be such a loathsome task after that.