For the Love of the Job: Does Society Pay Teachers What They Are Worth?

by Jen Hubley Luckwaldt


When it comes to choosing a career, you don't have to decide between meaning and money. For example, surgeons earn over $300,000 a year and 96 percent of them say their job makes the world a better place. For many occupations, however, there is a significant disparity between pay and meaning. And because of that disparity, some jobs, like teachers, end up having to leave the profession they felt so driven to go into.

PayScale's recent report, The Most and Least Meaningful Jobs, shows that teachers at all levels report consistently high levels of job meaning. But they also report consistently low rates of pay. Ninety-six percent of postsecondary English language and literature teachers reported high job meaning. That's second only to the clergy for high job meaning. Their earnings also hover around clergy level: $43,600 median pay for postsecondary English teachers, and $46,600 for clergy.

Other teachers report similarly high meaning and low pay. More than 80 percent of Kindergarten teachers, middle school teachers and secondary school teachers say their job makes the world a better place, but all earn less than $45,000 per year.

That’s not exactly poverty-level earnings. The median household income in the United States is $53,046, according to the Census Bureau; a family whose earning members included two secondary school teachers would potentially make $64,200. It's not petroleum engineer money, but it's not peanuts, either. So why do we characterize teachers as low paid workers, especially if their careers offer so many intangible benefits like a consistently strong feeling that teaching makes the world a better place?

Pay vs. Investment

It takes a lot of education to become a teacher, and education, in the U.S., has never been a more expensive investment. Requirements vary by state, but teachers are typically required to complete a bachelor's degree and a teacher preparation program, which sometimes requires a master's degree. And generally, before anybody is allowed to get in front of a classroom, they have to get a state-approved teaching certification, which usually requires spending time as an unpaid student teacher. At minimum, teachers have to complete four years of postsecondary education; in many areas, a master's degree is either an official or informal requirement.

Most teachers are looking at five or six years of preparation for their profession, in an era when the cost of college is rising faster than wages. Tuition and fees for full-time students at four-year schools averaged $14,300 in 2013-14, according to the National Center for Education Statistics – a 45 percent increase from 2000-1. Unsurprisingly, student loan debt has also increased, with 49 percent of first-time, full-time students receiving loans for 2012-3. The average amount of loans also increased for first-time, full-time students, by 39 percent, from $5,100 in 2001 to $7,000 in 2012.

That's a lot of money to potentially owe, if you're going to going to graduate with a master's degree that prepares you for a job that pays so little. Compare that with other jobs that pay more with a master's degree, like a database administrator (median salary for all education levels: $69,626) or a software engineer (median salary for all education levels: $77,982).

Programs to partially fund or repay loans for teachers' educations can help reduce the debt load, but most have caps, such as the Stafford Loan Forgiveness Program for Teachers, which forgives $17,500 in principal and interest; or the Teach for America program, which offers a chance to win an award worth $11,375; or the TEACH Grant Program, which offers $4,000 a year for eligible teachers who promise to teach high-need subjects in low-income schools. Funding sources like these, while helpful, won't do much to offset the cost of a degree that costs tens of thousands a year.

Women's Work Is Underpaid

Another PayScale report, Women at Work, found that the gender wage gap is largely due to women opting into lower paying professions that give back to the world. The question, of course, is whether those occupations are lower paid because society places less value on jobs that are more focused on bettering society than generating a profit for a company, or because those jobs have historically been held by women, who were less likely to be seen as primary breadwinners and have been less likely to negotiate.

The teaching profession is heavily female dominated, especially for younger students. Ninety-seven percent of kindergarten and 85 percent of elementary school teachers are women; gender parity in teaching staff doesn't occur until high school, when 50 percent of teachers are male. Surgeons, on the other hand, to use our example from earlier, are 76 percent male, and can make nearly 10 times what some teachers earn.

To a certain extent, looking at occupations in this way is always comparing apples to oranges – someone who wants to become a teacher isn't going to be a surgeon, and vice versa. But it's worth asking if high-value, low-paid professions like teaching are caught in a loop: women are taught to value giving back to the world, instead of to their own bottom line, and choose their career accordingly, which results in a female-dominated occupation that continues to pay relatively low wages. 

Location Matters

As with all occupations, where you live makes a difference when it comes to pay. The National Education Association lists starting salaries for teachers in each state, and there's a wide variation in pay. For example, for the 2012-13 school year, teachers in Montana averaged $27,274 for their first year; teachers in the District of Columbia earned $51,539 in 2011-2.

Of course, cost of living also counts for something. According to PayScale's Cost of Living Calculator, the cost of living in Washington, D.C. is 38 percent higher than it is in Bozeman, Montana. However, that doesn't completely offset the salary difference.

Perhaps more importantly, quality of life as a teacher can be very different, depending on location. A recent Career News blog post on WalletHub's worst states for teachers brought former teachers out in droves to weigh in on which states seemed more teacher-friendly than others.

SW in NC writes:

As an educator in NC I've seen many a great teacher rushing out the door to head to second and sometimes third jobs just to provide a reasonable salary to support their families. ...Teachers don't get in this business to get rich, they get in it to make a difference in lives of students. Take money off the table as a hurdle and teachers will pour themselves into their passions to teach. Right now- if you can retire you do so. There is no incentive to get into teaching even with the funding shift to the least experienced teachers that was sold as a raise - which it was not. There are good young teachers but no replacement for experience and having mentor master teachers. Education is the basis of any economy. I wish that was valued as well as teachers!

Why Teachers Leave

No matter what state a teacher works in, the demands and low pay of the teaching profession can make it hard to stay – even for teachers who are dedicated to the profession.

"I loved teaching," says educational content writer and consultant Gina Belli, who taught for over a decade. "I feel more present, more 'myself' when I'm teaching than when I'm doing anything else."

Belli notes the opportunity teaching provides to continue learning, to become invested in the community of the school, and speaks of her students and their parents as feeling like family. When she first began her career, she didn't even enjoy her summers, because she couldn't wait to get back to the classroom.

"But, eventually, it all started to take a huge toll," she says. "While I wasn't struggling to survive, my salary didn't exactly afford me any luxuries."

In the end, she said, a middle-class lifestyle felt "permanently out of my reach." That, combined with increasing responsibilities outside the classroom, made her decide to "leave the party while I was still having fun."

"I don't regret leaving teaching," Belli says. "I only regret that even though it was so hard to leave, the profession, the culture, made it feel like it would've been even harder to stay."

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