Teachers are underpaid and overworked. At least that’s the prevailing narrative driving conversations about education funding across the country.
During teacher walkouts earlier this year in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arizona, mainstream media reports painted sympathetic portraits of teachers forced to take second jobs to make ends meet. Last month, a cover story in Time magazine continued the trend by featuring three teachers struggling to survive on their supposedly meager salaries. One headline declared, “I have 20 years of experience, but I can’t afford to fix my car, see a doctor for headaches or save for my child’s future.”
A recent poll shows Americans sympathize with the teachers’ plight. Most say educators deserve more money, although they have less sympathy when they learn how much teachers actually make. The average U.S. teacher brings home nearly $59,000 a year. That’s only slightly below the current median household income, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
While they’re not getting rich, most teachers aren’t doing that bad, said Frederick M. Hess, an education policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.
“I think most people would think of $59,000 a year on average as a solid middle-class salary, especially given teachers have more-generous-than-usual healthcare and retirement benefits,” he told me. “That said, it’s certainly not a lot of money and it’s certainly not enough money for people who are really good at their job.”
Hess noted discrepancies in certain states do make it harder for teachers to live a legitimate middle-class lifestyle. Teacher pay in Oklahoma or West Virginia, for example, falls well below the national average. It’s also harder for teachers to cover their living expenses in high-cost areas, like New York, Washington, D.C., or just about anywhere in California.
But teachers also get perks that often go unmentioned in media accounts about pay. Retirement benefits can total between 8 and 10 percent of a teacher’s salary. The average civilian employee gets $1.78 in retirement benefits per work hour, while public school teachers get $6.22 per hour. And teachers only work about 190 days per year, while most professionals work closer to 240 days. That time off translates into a financial benefit for teachers with school-aged children because they don’t have to pay for additional child care after school, during the summer, and on holidays.
Robin Beck has worked as a teacher in Texas for 29 years. She told me she’s always thought of her job as the best of both worlds.
“It's a full-time job with a good salary, and I also had the luxury of being a stay-at-home mom when my kids were home because for the most part if they were home it allowed me to be home,” she said.
Beck makes about $64,000 a year. That’s only about $12,000 more than a first-year teacher in her district, but it’s more than double what she made starting out: $24,500.
Many of the media reports about teacher pay feature educators who have second or even third jobs to pay their bills. The Time story featured a teacher who even sold plasma twice a week because she needed the extra $60 to make her car payment.
Beck also has a side business, making gourmet cookies for birthdays, baby showers, and other special occasions. She started it 10 years ago to help pay for extra things her kids needed as they entered their high school and college years. But she never considered it necessary to make ends meet.
Hess told me stories of struggling teachers probably aren’t difficult to find among a national workforce of nearly 3.5 million educators, but that doesn’t make them the norm. It’s also important to look past the headlines to the details. The teacher in the Time story who can’t afford to fix her car makes $69,000 a year and lives in Raleigh, N.C. But she’s also a single mom with two kids.
Beck told me that while she’s always considered herself sufficiently compensated, she knows individual circumstances matter.
“It does depend on your situation, if you're a second income or if you’re a sole income,” she said. “If you’re a sole income and have kids, then that makes it harder. But that’s the way it is for any job.”