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How much do teachers make? 4 Critical factors to consider regarding compensation

Teacher Compensation

There are more than 3.5 million elementary, middle and high school teachers across the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). While all educators are dedicated to guiding and instructing students, not all teachers are compensated equally. In fact, teacher salaries can vary quite drastically from one state to the next.

It’s true that very few teachers join the profession for the money — many are drawn to the idea of making a difference in the lives of young learners and even the flexibility a teaching career can offer them. But a steady salary can have a tremendous impact on a person’s quality of life.

It’s clear that compensation does matter. So it’s logical for you to wonder, “How much do teachers make?” Join us as we explore some of the elements that are important to consider when finding an answer to that question.

4 Elements to consider when it comes to teacher salaries

Teacher compensation is far from a cut-and-dry issue. There are discrepancies in teacher salaries from one state to the next and there are non-monetary benefits afforded to our country’s educators that may also be helpful to consider. When exploring the multi-layered issue of teacher compensation, keep these four things in mind.

1. Some states pay teachers more than others

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the median annual salary for elementary, middle and high school teachers in the U.S. ranges between $57,000 and $61,000. But if you’re a prospective teacher wondering about your potential salary prospects, scoping out the national average won’t do you much good.

Teacher salaries can vary quite a bit from state to state. For example, Colorado, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Mississippi and South Dakota pay their educators the least. All five states’ averages fall below $47,000 annually.

But there are other states where teachers see more promising compensation. Below is a breakdown of the five states with the highest average teacher salary for elementary, middle and high school teachers based on the latest BLS reports:

  • Elementary school teachers
    1. New York - $83,010
    2. Massachusetts - $82,600
    3. California - $80,100
    4. District of Columbia - $79,480
    5. Connecticut - $75,480


  • Middle school teachers
    1. New York - $83,490
    2. Massachusetts - $79,030
    3. Connecticut - $76,130
    4. Alaska - $75,770
    5. California - $75,660


  • High school teachers
    1. New York - $85,300
    2. California - $80,510
    3. Massachusetts - $80,020
    4. Alaska - $77,920

As you review these numbers, it’s also worth noting that different states will have different education requirements for teaching positions. Teaching hopefuls should take a look at the state-specific requirements before setting their sights on classroom instruction in a particular place.

 2. Low pay has contributed to teacher strikes across the nation

Nationwide teacher strikes have risen to the forefront of the conversation about America’s K-12 education system in recent years. They began with a 2018 strike in West Virginia. But data suggest the strikes were decades in the making, caused by dramatic budget cuts, increasing class sizes, low per-pupil spending and low salaries.

Since the spring of 2018, strikes have moved to Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia and Tennessee. In some areas, the strikes have resulted in notable salary increases for the state’s educators. Arizona lawmakers, for example, have committed to a 20 percent pay increase by 2020.

Part of what has made this wave of teacher strikes unique is public support. A 2018 poll from The Associated Press revealed that 78 percent of Americans believe teachers don’t make enough money. A separate 2018 poll — this one from Phi Delta Kappan — found 73 percent of public school parents would be willing to support their community teachers if they went on strike for increased pay.

3. Many believe teachers earn less due to more generous benefits

Some suggest teacher salaries are lower than most occupations because teacher retirement and health care benefits are typically more generous than all occupations nationwide. For example, public school teachers receive $6.22 for retirement benefits for every hour worked. In contrast, the average civilian employee receives approximately $1.78 per hour worked.

While teacher salaries fell between 2003 and 2014, money spent on benefits rose from $14,000 to more than $21,000 during that time. It should be noted, however, that much of that money is put toward paying down existing pension debt. This means a current teacher’s actual retirement benefit is unrelated to how much was contributed on his or her behalf. For every $10 contributed to teacher pension by states and districts, just $3 goes toward benefits for current teachers.

A study from the Economic Policy Institute determined that while teachers enjoy more attractive benefit packages than those in other professions, their total compensation — which includes salary plus benefits — still lags behind that of other occupations across the nation.

It should also be noted, however, that one other benefit many teachers receive is having summers off along with their students. With that in mind, their monthly salaries – for nine months of work, rather than 12 – become more in line with what we’re accustomed to seeing from other careers paths.

4. There are some ways teachers can increase their earning potential

When it comes to asking for better compensation, teachers often feel they’re in a no-win situation. Many are beginning to explore ways they can take on more responsibilities and amplify qualifications in the field while waiting for policy changes needed to enact statewide salary increases.

Most teachers work a typical nine-month school year, but opting to teach summer school can be an effective way to earn extra pay as a teacher. In fact, the average U.S. elementary summer school teacher salary rests around $37,300. Couple that with the median annual salary of the country’s elementary school teachers, and you’d have a figure closer to $95,280.

Teachers can also work toward increasing their earning potential by adding to their educational qualifications. This can include pursuing professional development opportunities through specialized teacher certifications, such as earning a certificate in instructional technology or applied behavior analysis. Others may opt to obtain a Master of Arts in Education with an emphasis in teaching and learning or an emphasis in educational leadership.

It can be helpful to consider the general pay structure that’s in place for those in the teaching profession. Generally speaking, the current structure of teacher compensation in many states and districts is organized to reward career service. However, this can sometimes come at the expense of entry-level teachers, whose salaries are artificially depressed in order to afford the compensation packages of more senior teachers.

The Department of Education encourages states and districts to implement a compensation structure that prioritizes the improvement of student achievement. In practice, this could mean that a compensation system might replace the single salary schedule with a system of incentives for specific accomplishments. This would mean that teachers who obtain specialized teacher certifications or even a master’s degree could be eligible to earn more money.

Increase your potential as a teacher

So how much do teachers make? You’re now aware that the answer can be complicated. Teacher compensation is an issue with multiple layers to consider. As you venture forward in your own teaching career, you may find yourself eager to do what you can to increase your earning potential.

In mapping out your path as an educator, you might find it helpful to consider the educational options that can help you along the way. Visit University of Massachusetts Global’s School of Education page to learn more about your options.

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