When people talk about teacher salaries, they often talk about teacher schedules—or what they think are their work schedules. Depending on where you live, school hours might go from 8:00 to 2:30. And teachers are usually contracted for around 180 days a year. With a 6 or 7 hour work day and summers and holiday breaks off, aren't teachers making decent money for the hours they work?
The assumption some people make is that teachers only work their contracted hours, but that's simply not true for most teachers. One teacher broke down the extra hours she puts in beyond her contract and estimated that she actually works 42 hours a week, and actually works 250 days per year. That's a pretty normal, full-time job, for which she only gets paid part-time wages. Scholastic reported that a survey of 10,000 teachers found that most work 10 to 11 hour work days, with those who advise extracurricular activities clocking even more than that.
Salaries for teachers vary a lot by state, but according to Business Insider, in the majority of school districts starting salaries for a new teacher is less than $40,000 a year. In 300 districts, it's less than $30,000. If we consider that teachers do work full-time hours, that's less than the proposed $15 per hour we've seen proposed as a minimum wage.
My brother currently works as an art teacher. I've seen his pandemic hybrid school schedule—in addition to photos of him up planning at 1:30 am—and it's absolutely bananas. Having been a teacher myself, I'm familiar with the amount of work teachers put in beyond school hours—and not just in terms of time, but in emotional labor.
Teaching itself—as in instructing students on how to write essays, how to do algebra, how to analyze history—is somewhat of a challenge with dozens of unique students, but that's not really the hard part of teaching. The hard part is caring about those dozens of students on a personal level, advocating for them in a system of standardization and testing that doesn't acknowledge their unique gifts, dealing with parents who take out their parenting frustrations on the school, and feeling like society doesn't value your work even though you know it's vitally important.
And the real kicker is that the system would suffer greatly if teachers only worked the hours they are paid to work and only used the resources they are provided. We've created a culture in which teachers are expected to work sacrificially, which is ridiculous. Teachers are skilled professionals. They deserve to be paid as if their time, knowledge, skills and experience are exceptionally valuable because they are.
Of course, there are plenty of jobs where people work beyond their expected work hours. But such jobs usually come with bonus incentives or high-paying salaries or some other perks that make up for it. It's like teachers are expected to see the rewarding nature of working with kids as enough—but that expectation doesn't account for the fact that working with kids is as stressful as it is rewarding.
Sometimes it feels like we as a society take advantage of the fact that teachers care so much. Generally speaking, people who go into teaching do it for the right reasons—to help kids learn and grow. It's a job that requires an emotional investment in order to do it well. We know that good teachers are going to be good teachers whether we pay them well or not. They're going to put in the hours and make the sacrifices regardless, and our system exploits that dedication in so many ways.
I've worked in a lot of different jobs, and teaching in a public school was by far the most challenging work I've done. I loved it, but it was hard. I know a man who worked as a garbage collector and in sawmills and the logging industry for 30 years before he became a high school math teacher. He says teaching is the hardest job he's ever had. Long hours, 6 to 7 days a week. Rewarding and meaningful work, of course, but definitely not easy.
It's time to stop expecting the work itself to be the reward and acknowledge that teachers deserve not just decent but competitive incomes. Teachers shouldn't have to be saints or martyrs—they deserve to have their work recognized with salaries that reflect their real value. I haven't taught in a classroom in more than two decades, so I have no skin in the game myself in saying that I think teachers should be paid bucketloads of money. Not just the average for their education and skill level, but beyond it.
In paying teachers extremely well, we would retain more good teachers who leave the job for financial reasons and we would recruit more top people to the profession. We would show as a society that we truly value education and see it as the best investment in the future. And we would all be the better for it.
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