Here’s Why Teacher Pay Should Be Important to More Than Just Educators

By Kate BoveLast Updated Nov 13, 2020 11:44:39 AM ET
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Pictured: Teachers and supporters hold signs and march during a protest over the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, U.S., on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020. Credit: Paul Frangipane/Bloomberg/Getty Images

In 2018, teacher protests swept the country with educators speaking out against widespread public school budget cuts and wage stagnation. Those protests led to strikes, including the Los Angeles teachers strike in Grand Park on January 22, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. There, thousands of teachers — and supportive parents and students — celebrated a seeming victory when the United Teachers Los Angeles union and the Los Angeles Unified School District struck a deal that included capping class sizes, providing funding for school nurses and increasing educator pay.

While this victory was significant, it also serves as a testament to the ongoing issues plaguing the United States’ education system. If waves of protestors aren’t enough to convince you of the problems surrounding teacher pay (and other concerns raised by educators), then maybe these shocking numbers will. According to Business Insider, the average starting salary for a public educator often falls below $40,000; on the other end of the payscale, top-paid U.S. elementary school teachers make $67,000 annually, while top-paid high school teachers make an average of $71,000 a year. Meanwhile, in Luxembourg, the top country when it comes to teacher salaries, elementary school teachers make an average of $124,000 annually.

Looking at things on a state-by-state basis, New York teachers come out on top, making a median salary of $78,500 (via USA Today) — though New York also requires teachers to earn a master’s degree within their first five years of being on the job, a caveat that can create more barriers for fledgling educators. Other states that compare to New York’s payscale include California, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Alaska, but so many others land on the opposite end of the spectrum, including Oklahoma, where "half of all teachers are making less than $33,630 a year."

Teachers Spend Their Own Money on Supplies and Hold Second Jobs — but This Shouldn’t Be the Norm

EdTech Magazine asks, "If you were offered a job that paid an average annual salary of $49,000 and required you to work 12- to 16-hour days, would you take it?" Sounds rough, doesn’t it? Well, sadly, that’s the norm for the majority of teachers in the U.S. In 2018, the National Center of Education Statistics reported that teachers spend an average of $480 a year of their own money on essential supplies for their students and classrooms. To frame it another way, the Center found that 94% of teachers in the U.S. bought their own school supplies. While it’s admirable of educators to do so, it also shouldn’t have to happen.

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Pictured: Chris Frank, a teacher at Yung Wing School P.S. 124, prepares his classroom for the school year on September 8, 2020, in New York City. Credit: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

To make matters more frustrating, the National Education Association (NEA) found that roughly 16% of teachers hold second jobs over the summer, while 20% rely on secondary income year-round. If at-school secondary jobs are counted — coaching sports, teaching extra courses, helping with extracurriculars — that figure jumps to 59%. The bottom line? Public schools should be funded adequately; teachers should be compensated fairly for all they do. Despite all of this, Education Week found that once the pandemic hit, legislators actually scaled back or nixed plans to raise teacher pay.


What It’s Like to Be a Teacher During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Since March 2020, educators have found themselves in the middle of a public health crisis. Despite teachers' best efforts, most schools, especially public schools, didn’t have roadmaps to deal with all-virtual learning scenarios. In fact, plenty of universities and otherwise privately funded schools with seemingly huge endowments weren’t well-equipped either. Between technological roadblocks and the fact that many students don’t have access to computers, tablets or the internet at home, the novel coronavirus pandemic certainly spotlighted discrepancies and shortcomings when it comes to education in the U.S. That is to say, the system’s cracks are showing — now more than ever.

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Pictured: Gladys Alvarez, a fifth grade teacher at Manchester Ave. Elementary School in South Los Angeles, California, talks to her students over Zoom. Credit: Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

In New York City, for example, the decision to close public schools was a difficult one: On one hand, keeping schools open would’ve been a health risk for students, teachers and their respective households. But, on the other hand, many students rely on their schools for resources or, simply, as places to go when their parents are at work. "Our public education system is a massive hidden child care subsidy," Jon Shelton, a historian of the teaching workforce at the University of Wisconsin, told The New York Times.


That is, for some students, school libraries are the only places they can access online resources, books and other school materials. Perhaps most urgently, many students rely on meals from their schools; parents who can’t afford breakfast and lunch can find a partner in school cafeterias, which often offer meals to low-income and underserved students during the summer as well, even when school is out.

Now, in New York, many schools are doing a mix of in-person and virtual learning to help mitigate the myriad concerns — buses, hallways and classrooms aren’t set up to accommodate social distancing practices for a full cohort of students, but, on the other hand, not every student has access to virtual learning. Needless to say, these exposed cracks reveal complications and contradictions.


Teachers Are Declared “Essential Workers” During the Pandemic

In August 2020, the White House formally declared teachers essential workers, noting that they are "critical infrastructure workers" — or, in other words, critical to the infrastructure of reopening the country and bolstering the economy. However, unlike other essential workers, teachers don’t have the training and background to mitigate all of these public health concerns, nor do they have the funding, in most cases, for PPE and other essential, virus-combating supplies. Despite this, they are being asked to risk their health, their families and their lives.

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Pictured: A teacher wearing a protective mask checks the temperature of a student outside P.S. 15 Roberto Clemente School in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, Sep. 29, 2020. Credit: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg/Getty Images

It’s indisputable that teachers are essential members of our communities, but they are also people who, just like all of us, are navigating the horrors of this pandemic. Often, they go beyond the call of their job descriptions — even outside of the classroom. "My students have lost family members, and there’s a lot of trauma we are not addressing," J​essyca Mathews, an English teacher at Carman-Ainsworth High School in Flint, Michigan, told Time. "When COVID hit, I had kids who were texting me in the middle of the night, and I answered them every single time."


Mathews is not alone in her dedication to her students. "My colleagues and I have been stressed since spring break because we care, and we’re worried and we know the ins and outs of our jobs," Kara Stoltenberg, a language arts teacher at Norman High School in Norman, Oklahoma, told Time. "And we know that what the CDC is recommending for in-person learning just isn’t really feasible, considering the lack of funding that we’ve had for a decade." In states that were more severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers drafted wills and obituaries ahead of the school year.

This is peak dystopian-level disturbing, but, what’s perhaps most disturbing of all is that none of these issues — from teacher pay to how we value teachers’ lives and health — are new. Instead, the pandemic has revealed every fault line, casting a harsh light on everything that’s broken and on how the U.S. values teachers and, in turn, education.