Punished for Passion: The Teacher Pay Penalty

Growing up in public schools, I have always heard that teachers are underpaid.  “You don’t go into teaching to become a millionaire.  You do it because you’re passionate about it,” I remember a teacher telling me in high school, “but how little we are paid is just not okay.”

So, how “not okay” is teacher salary?  I would say it’s worse than just “not okay” – it is an injustice.

According to the National Education Association, the “teacher pay penalty” is defined as the “loss of income when choosing teaching for an alternate profession.”

In a recent report published by National Education Association (NEA)  author Tim Walker, it was revealed that educators earned 17% less weekly than “similarly-trained workers in other fields” in 2015.

The data the NEA cites in their article comes from a  2016 Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report published by Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel.  Before delving into the data, the EPI offers this explanation as to why this study and its findings matter for public education:

“An effective teacher is the most important school-based determinant of education outcomes. It is therefore crucial that school districts recruit and retain high-quality teachers. This is particularly difficult at a time when the supply of teachers is constrained by high turnover rates, annual retirements of longtime teachers, and a decline in students opting for a teaching career—and when demand for teachers is rising due to rigorous national student performance standards and many locales’ mandates to shrink class sizes. In light of these challenges, providing adequate wages and benefits is a crucial tool for attracting and keeping the teachers America’s children need.”

EPI’s justification for the report especially rings true for me (and many other young people who have toyed around with the idea of going into teaching).  When I tell people that I am interested in working in some facet of education after I graduate next spring, I am almost invariably met with the same response – “Just don’t be a public school teacher.”

The feelings of doubt and uncertainty towards securing a financial future through teaching (especially for those who have student loans coming out of graduation), are causing some to opt out of the profession entirely.  In another article published by the NEA, it was found that only 4.2 percent of university first-years say they are planning on majoring in education: the lowest this response has been in almost a half century.

To assume (or hope) that students will go into teaching for purely altruistic reasons is naive.  Many of us who have grown up in public schools have witnessed firsthand the struggles our teachers have had to overcome and the disappointment and dejection they feel from their salaries.  According to U.S. News, one in ten teachers nationally have second jobs.  There’s an interactive map in the article that allows you to see what percentage of teachers have additional jobs across the United States: for North Carolina, it’s 24.  The Huffington Post published a blog post in 2015 about the hardships faced by public school teachers in our state.  Here’s the story of Denise, a Chatham County teacher who has a second job at Macy’s:

I met an elementary school teacher last year who taught night classes at the YMCA to make ends meet for her family. The fact that there are teachers out there who expend all of their time, resources, and energy towards molding the minds of tomorrow’s leaders who cannot support their own family with the salary they have been given is deplorable: something must chage.

The fight to end the teacher pay penalty is a long way from being won.  Teachers should not be punished financially for pursuing a career they are passionate about – they deserve far more than that.

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3 Responses to Punished for Passion: The Teacher Pay Penalty

  1. liznels says:

    Thank you for writing this post (and for all of you links and videos!). This is such an issue and it is appalling to see how our society treats the very people that enable it to function. My boyfriend and I (we will likely get married) both want to be teachers and it scary to think about how we will provide for ourselves and our family. Quite honestly, I don’t know if we will. Sadly, like most people interested in being teachers, one or both of us will probably have to get a job that we are not as interested in because it is simply not possible to support a family on a teacher salary. Out of curiosity, have you read any article or seen anything about proposed ways to improve the teacher pay situation? Is there anyway that this situation will improve in the somewhat near future?


  2. bayhillblog says:

    Wow! Excellent post. In an time where misinformed people are saying that teachers are paid too much, this is such a needed post! I’m going to share on my facebook page.


  3. leighahall says:

    I’ve shared this on twitter and FB and hope some teachers join in on the conversation. As we lose teachers, or fail to attract new ones, we risk the overall quality of instruction that students will receive.


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