The Cost of Teaching: Examining the Paychecks of America’s Educators

Monday morning, the alarm clock sounds… roll out of bed, start the coffee maker, gather your things. Are you ready for the morning? Are the lesson plans done? How are the kids going to show up today? The life of a teacher is one of adventure, but the uncertainty is often undermined by the demand. The extensive demand of educating America’s youth; accompanied by pending resource allocation, scanty compensation, and an expectation of overtime. All considered, the beckon to work summoned by the morning alarm clock can quickly become a woe for help as teachers across the country are overworked, underpaid and reliant on the sympathy of top-down administrative acknowledgment. Enter burnout.

The average starting salary for teachers in the United States is around $40,000 coupled with nearly 60-hour work weeks. While teachers do not work year-round, accounting for holidays and extended breaks, their contracts usually require 180 days. After tapping a few buttons on the calculator, one quickly finds that teachers are provided roughly $21 per hour. A salary comparable to that found in entry-level minimum wage positions in many states.

Todd Smolden, a former teacher from Alaska, connects this salary deficit to a teacher retention issue, expressing that new teachers quickly discover the expectations cast upon them do not match fair compensation, and after a while, an open door may feel like the only option to escape burnout.

A closer look at U.S. teacher salaries

If you dive into the statistics of teacher compensation in the U.S., the wage gap provides a compelling argument for change. The wage gap refers to the percent difference teachers are paid compared to their college-educated counterpoints. While this varies state to state, the Economic Policy Institute provides a helpful breakdown which highlights states with larger disparities.

For example, in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Oregon and Utah teachers are paid on average 30-40% less than their non-educator counterparts. Schools nationwide require at least a bachelor’s degree to assume the position and compared with professions in mental health, engineering, science and technology—the return on a 4-year collegiate investment for teachers is miniscule.

In comparison, the 4-year return on a computer science degree can total nearly $110,000. To add to the dissonance, geographic location can drastically influence teacher salaries as educational funding is a byproduct of voter agendas. Choosing a state with higher wages can be a workaround for novel teachers, but if relocation doesn’t float your boat, masters educated teachers can accelerate their income.

How do teachers feel about what they’re getting paid?

In a recent report released by the Colorado Education Association, nearly 60% of surveyed teachers are considering leaving the position in the near future. Low pay, high stress, political divisiveness, rising violence and staff shortages are among the top issues pressing teachers. The report highlights that the industry isn’t facing a staffing shortage in the sense that there are not enough qualified individuals in the job market, but rather, “a deficit of educators willing to work in untenable conditions.”

Regardless of these issues, many teachers with passion and devotion to the field are finding ways to stay positive. Keri Gordon, an elementary teacher in Denver, expresses this sentiment through teaching students to read, claiming, “their eyes light up, and I tell them that learning to read is a gift… and you know they feel it, and you know you were a part of that. That’s the best feeling ever.”

Although there are many good moments, it doesn’t change the fact that many teachers leave the classroom wondering how they will make ends meet at home; how they will pay their bills, afford their mortgages and find time to spend with their families without having to work supplemental jobs.

True passion is one of the most delicate and bold aspects of the human experience, and when true passion is found, humans will go to extreme measures to nurture it. When passion is recognized in employment, the outcome is a win-win for the employer and the employee, but when passion is normalized as an industry standard, moments of validation and recognition are scant. The impact this has on teacher morale is explicit as more and more teachers leave the profession, sacrificing their passion for their mental health.

Who decides teacher pay?

Public education in America is a governmental entity, meaning resource allocation and teacher salaries are largely a byproduct of local and national governmental policy, influenced by taxpayers. In addition, many teachers rely on “steps” and “lanes” to gain salary increases. Steps refer to teacher seniority or receiving annual raises which encourage retention. Lanes refer to salary increases scaled by newly acquired expertise, such as the pursuance of a master’s degree.

Teacher salaries are dependent on school districts operating revenue, pooled entirely by state and local sources. As such, the amount of revenue within a given district is variable leading to unpredictable allocation. In reaction, if school districts are experiencing shortages, they may prioritize new teacher pay, diminishing or docking pay from veteran teachers. This is where unions can be helpful, but weighing the pros and cons of opting in are important.

Although unions provide teachers with resources and a voice of advocating for higher pay and better working conditions, annual wage dues can total nearly an entire paycheck. On one hand, unionized teachers make on average 13% more than their non-unionized counterparts, but this offset may be leveled out by annual union dues. Opting out of a union is a matter of personal preference and values. The collective bargaining power which accompanies union membership can be enticing, but personal negotiation can produce similar outcomes that may better align with your individual goals and needs. Ultimately, the lack of attention education receives on the legislative docket is one of the reasons awareness has remained stagnant. To drive this point home, between 1996 and 2021, public school teachers have seen a $29 weekly increase in their wages compared to a $445 increase for other college graduates.

The future of teacher compensation

Teacher strikes are a potent way to raise awareness surrounding educational fallacies, but 37 states and Washington, D.C. have bans in place to keep teachers from walking out of the classroom. Without the option to protest, many teachers must rely on internal negotiation and rely on seniority benefits which take years to kick in. While teachers remain underpaid nationwide, awareness surrounding teacher burnout is making waves on social media. Hand in hand, education has been a hot debate targeted by identity politics bringing educational issues to not only local but also national legislature.

A recent article published by Education Week claims that under a new federal bill, teachers would make at least $60,000 per year. The American Teacher Act would not only raise salaries in K-12 schools, but it would also guarantee that future teacher salaries are adjusted to keep pace with rising inflation.

As technology advances, its power in the classroom is felt by all. Artificial intelligence has changed the educational landscape for better and for worse. It has significantly reduced the time needed to complete menial tasks, has pioneered creative ideas for educational delivery and instruction and provides teachers with substantive pivot points when attention in classrooms is waning. Merlyn Mind has found a helpful way to provide teachers with a personalized AI to aid with classroom learning while organizations like Khan Academy are working on personal student AI tutors.

While the emergence of new technologies can create fear, AI could be a plausible intervention to aid with teacher burnout, stress, dissatisfaction, and retention rates. If AI in part can help close the productivity gap, teachers could possibly spend less of their time outside of the classroom planning for the next day, and more time doing the things they love.

What can you do?

Teachers are the backbone of support for America’s youth, and as such their demand is crucial to uplifting democracy and equipping students for a life of success. With 60% of U.S. teachers considering quitting the profession, change can be found in the surplus of voices. Since teacher pay is a stagnant entity without proper legislation, educational campaigns are crucial to educate the population on the need for increased wages.

Teacher blogs highlighting teacher stories and frustrations are an immediate way to advocate for change. There are also websites such as Teachers Pay Teachers where educators can profit off their innovative classroom materials. Further, incentivizing teachers to optimize their professional development or pursue continuing education would not only benefit the professional cohort as a whole but might offer teachers the support they need to strengthen their competence and demand fair compensation for new skills. We Are Teachers is a great resource for educators who are seeking this option and includes many free resources along with tips to upgrade lessons with modern components.

While much of the burden for teacher advocacy has fallen back on these overworked professionals, it is time that society emerges in the wake of a crowd with tired voices. Strength is always found in numbers, and the more parents and members of the public we have walking alongside teachers, the faster a call for change will cease to fall upon deaf ears.

The bottom line

Compensation is not a teacher issue; it is a human issue. Whether you are an electrician, a journalist, a chef, or a mechanic; without fair compensation industries will shatter. The American educational system is on the verge of crisis as tired teachers are collapsing from overstress and a lack of pay. Rather than offering teachers verbal support, it is time that parents, students and members of the public hoist the picket signs in place of the teachers who can’t.

Change happens slowly, but without proper education, advocacy is a lost cause. This article demonstrates a start, an exposition of lived experience, an examination of the fallacies, but a glimmer of hope for a better future.

In the words of Nelson Mandela, “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”, and power as such demand’s responsibility. Responsibility which needs to be awarded not only fairly, but generously. Rather than waiting around for the next policy maker to propose boosted wages, we can all start by showing care for our teachers, supporting them financially and educating students on the sacrifices teachers make in the classroom to ensure each one of them can see a bright future.