Considering Becoming a Teacher? Here’s the Real Deal about Teacher Salaries

It’s true. In general, teachers are considered to be inadequately compensated. But it’s not all bad. Even though teachers receive modest compensation compared to other professions, they benefit from very stable and generous benefit packages and virtually guaranteed annual salary increases. Let’s take a closer look at the kind of salary and benefits teachers receive.

Salaries. A study of teacher salaries conducted by the American Federation of Teachers (2008) showed that the average teacher salary in the United States was $51,009, while the average starting salary was $35,284. Teacher salaries vary considerably based on many factors, such as state, region, or community.

  • The state where they teach: Generally, states having a high cost of living are likely to pay teachers more. Consequently, in 2007, the highest average salaries were paid in California ($64,424) and the lowest in South Dakota ($36,674).
  • The grade level they teach: A beginning elementary teacher is paid less than a beginning high school biology teacher.
  • The level of formal education completed: Teachers with graduate degrees receive higher salaries.
  • The length of employment: Someone with 20 years of teaching experience is typically paid more than someone who has just started teaching.

Another way to look at the average salaries of teachers is to compare teachers’ salaries to the average salaries of other professions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2012), the mean salary of various other professions was as follows:

  • Lawyers: $112,760
  • Pharmacists: $111,570
  • Professors: $62,050
  • Physicians and Surgeons: $166,400
  • Psychologists: $68,640

These salaries compare to the average salary of $51,380 for elementary teachers, $51,960 for middle school teachers, and $53,230 for high school teachers.

Teachers’ average salaries clearly are lower than those of professionals in other fields. Fortunately, teacher salaries are on the rise. Americans who want a better education for their children are willing to pay teachers higher salaries in order to increase the quality of teachers in their school districts. The National Center for Education Statistics (2008) estimated that in 2006, schools across the United States hired more than 2 million elementary teachers and 1.4 million secondary teachers. These numbers do not reflect the number of new hires to replace retiring teachers. They also do not factor in the number of additional teachers that will be needed to accommodate the increased number of “baby boom echo” students. As you can see, the need for teachers is on the rise and will remain relatively high for the next few decades as more and more students continue to enter the nations’ elementary and secondary schools.

Benefits. Although teachers’ salaries are not high relative to some of the more lucrative professions, teachers have access to much better benefit programs, which include pensions and health care. Teachers also enjoy full pension benefits after 30 to 35 years of service, regardless of their age at retirement, as long as they meet state-determined retirement formulas.

Teachers can retire earlier. According to Costrell and Podgursky (2009), the median age of retirement for teachers is 58 years, compared to a median retirement age of 62 for most of the labor force. They also suggest that teachers with 30 years of service could conceivably receive an annuity of 60% to 75% of their final salary at the time of retirement, as they retire in their mid- to late 50s. Many professions in the private sector require people to work until a certain age before they can benefit from retirement plans. In addition to a solid pension plan, teachers have access to extensive health care packages and insurance plans offered by their school districts.

Other incentives. In addition to salaries and benefits, teachers may be offered sign-on bonuses and annual “local supplements.” In some districts, teachers can receive up to $2,000 in local supplements and up to $1,500 in sign-on bonuses. The amount of these incentives depends on the teacher’s specialty area. For example, teachers hired to teach mathematics, science, foreign languages, technology, or special education could receive $1,500 in supplements. Teachers in elementary education, media, or career and technical education could receive $1,000 in supplements.

Earning a graduate degree can further increase the starting salary. For example, in 2006, the average salary for teachers with a bachelor’s degree was $44,138, while the average salary for teachers with a master’s degree was $52,710.

Some teachers may be intrigued by the idea of working in districts that offer year-round teaching opportunities. A number of states have moved to a nontraditional year-around schedule to address both financial- and achievement-related issues. From a personal perspective, teachers may be attracted to the idea of taking more time off throughout the academic year. From a professional perspective, others may be drawn to a school structure that holds promise for addressing difficult issues in the teaching profession, like the achievement gap between students from low-income backgrounds and those from middle-income backgrounds.

There’s a lot of discussion about how unfairly teachers are paid, and it’s a valid one. However, there are protections for teachers that make teaching an attractive career, even from a financial standpoint.

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