How Much is the Average Teacher Salary in America?
The teaching profession, especially in public schools, has been undervalued and underappreciated for decades. It has been assumed, if not expected, that teachers work from a place of altruism, generosity, and kindness because they aren’t paid enough to do it for the money. It’s all too common that teachers spend their own money to provide their students with basic classroom supplies to help them learn. While the idea that teachers are almost obligated to be selfless or even noble in the support of their students is idealistic, it isn’t very practical or realistic. Teachers, like everyone, have to be able to pay their bills, save money and plan for retirement.
How much are teacher salaries?
The median American teacher salary is about $58,000. In states like Alaska, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and California teachers can make over $70,000 per year and even $80,000 or more depending on the grade level. The lowest teacher salaries are in Oklahoma, Arizona, South Dakota, Mississippi, North Carolina, West Virginia, Idaho and Missouri. The median teacher salary in Oklahoma is about $39,000.
Teacher salaries typically are the largest for high school teachers and the smallest for elementary school teachers.
You probably noticed that the largest teacher salaries are in states where the cost of living is also high, or very high. In parts of California like the Bay Area, Los Angeles and San Diego the cost of housing is so challenging that many middle class people don’t have much or any chance of owning a home. Renting for a lifetime is an enormous opportunity cost. If you lived in a much affordable area you could accumulate enough for a down payment and then buy a home to build equity in. Once you have done that if it is necessary to move you could sell your home and get that equity back. You could also rent it out to have a monthly income. Lifelong renters never have those kinds of opportunities. Being a teacher can be a costly venture if you are not careful.
Teacher salaries are a core issue in the education field, so much so that teachers have banded together to try to negotiate with school districts and influence public policy. Teacher strikes and strike votes have been occurring or were on the verge of taking place in Arizona, Nevada, California, Oklahoma and other states. Teachers have been underpaid for so long that many people may simply assume low pay is acceptable for the teaching profession. Teachers have had to battle against this unfair expectation by taking collective action when necessary.
Per pupil spending, teacher benefits, school security, classroom size and management issues, classroom supplies, cost of living increases, and pension issues are all part of the mix that has teachers motivated to speak up and out about their work and life conditions.
Los Angeles Unified School District schools Supt. Austin Beutner provided a very succinct snapshot of the situation when he said, “We are at an historic moment to start addressing the issue of 40 years of underfunding public education. Let’s work together to make sure every student gets a great education.”
Political candidates like Democratic Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders wants to make $60,000 per year the minimum teacher salary. There are many states where teachers make quite a bit less than this figure and public school funding is typically tied to local property taxes. However, property owners often don’t want to vote to raise their own property taxes. To increase teacher salaries it might be necessary to create a national fund administered through the Department of Education which could make up the difference for the teachers who make less than $60,000. Where would the funds come from? In a pipe dream kind of way, usually people point to shaving the annual military budget and redirecting it for social support programs — also known as the ‘books not bombs’ strategy.
Increasing starting teacher salaries $10,000 to $22,000 per year would help many individual teachers and they deserve it. Yet, there still exists a situation where the value of teaching is not being addressed.
“I think teachers are way underpaid. I think we ought to see a lot more six-digit salaries for the top teachers,” said Eric Hanushek from Stanford’s Hoover Institution. His point seems to be that raising the starting teacher minimum salary does not provide greater financial rewards for the best teachers.
Another issue is the competitiveness of teacher salaries. If a young adult can make $60,000 – $100,000 a year working as a software engineer or a lawyer she or he will not likely choose to become a public school teacher.
There is a great need for competent teachers though. For example, reportedly, tens of millions of Americans can’t read or can only read a little. Some of them are public high school graduates who didn’t learn much for all the years they were in school.
Low literacy adults will most likely be stuck in jobs that don’t pay much and aren’t very meaningful on a personal level. Innumeracy is another very important issue and there are many Americans who don’t have much literacy with numbers either. This deficiency means they will probably not manage their money well and may remain in the poverty cycle. Teachers who can reach low-income and at-risk students provide a great value to them that can last throughout their lives.
How many teachers are there in the US?
About 3.2 million.
What is the job outlook for teachers?
From 2016 to 2026, the total number of teaching jobs is projected to grow about 7%.
Why are teacher salaries typically low?
To understand this sad state of affairs, one must dig into a huge, complex backstory.
You might say that teacher salaries have been underpaid since public education began in America. The first public learning institution in the American colonies was the Boston Latin School in Massachusetts which was established in 1635 by Puritans. These people highly valued education because it supported one of their chief religious practices which was reading the Bible. Initially, the school was funded by land rentals and donations, not taxation. The Mather School was the first tax-payer supported school in North America; it was established in 1639.
Over many decades, various inequities began to emerge like the fact that many public schools were intended for white males mostly. (Even when African-American students were admitted into some public schools these institutions were deliberately underfunded by white politicians.)
In many rural areas, public schools did not teach classes beyond the level of eighth grade, which meant students in these areas were far behind their age peers who lived in cities. Racially segregated schools were also obviously racist and it would not be until 1767 or well over 100 years after public schools were opened that the first tax-supported schools for girls were created.
In the early 1800s, many public school teachers were young, single women. School boards conducted the hiring for their schools and preferred to limit costs and this demographic appealed to them because they would accept low pay. Because of their limited options living in a sexist society, they were also more likely to stay in their jobs.
In addition to the issues related to race and sex there was class. Some poor parents did not want to send their children to school because it would take them outside the family or off the farm and the parents wanted them to work. There were also many rich people who did not want to pay taxes that would be used to educate the children of poor adults.
Racism, sexism, classism, low teacher pay — these are some of the systemic problems that have persisted in public education for many years.
Today, teachers, like other kinds of workers, communicate with each other, organize and mobilize to try to overcome some of these challenges. By using our Fishbowl app, teachers can communicate about their pay, schools, school districts, cost of living, classroom management and other aspects of their work. In fact, there are thousands of teachers using our app. Recently, we interviewed a veteran teacher, Monica Monfre, about how to maximize classroom funding.
Being a teacher comes with many rewards — chief among them is the chance to positively impact the lives of children and youth. If teaching is the right career for you and you can make it work financially you may experience what so many people seek in their lives — the fulfillment of doing meaningful work.
Teachers often do make sacrifices, but they are some options available like joining together and mobilizing to have their needs met.