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Teacher salary benefits report

An Inside Peek at Teacher Salaries and Perks Across the U.S.

by Erin MacPherson

While nearly three out of four teachers say they are satisfied with their career choice, only one-third would choose the education profession again, according to research conducted by WeAreTeachers, who surveyed more than 1,100 teachers to get the nitty-gritty details on teacher compensation, benefits, teacher salary, working conditions and job satisfaction.

The stark reality of teacher pay, and its perception among educators, won’t surprise many. One teacher respondent to our survey said, "My salary has almost become a joke amongst my friends.  We go out to dinner and everyone takes turns paying, but when it's my turn, someone always says, ‘Let me get that, you're a teacher.’"

However, as the old adage says, money isn't everything.  And while teacher salaries are often splashed across headlines or shared on district websites, our survey revealed hidden nuances of overall teacher compensation that present a more comprehensive picture of the pros and cons of an educator’s career. Read the highlights below or download our infographic to see the full report.

WeAreTeachers Salary Survey Infographic

piggy bank with money

Perks Over Pay 

According to the NEA, teacher salaries range from $35,304 to $67,776 with the nationwide average coming in at $55,418.  Interestingly, the average salary of people who hold a bachelor's degree, according to payscale.com, is $52,200, which is actually a bit lower than the average teacher’s salary.  But the stats can be misleading because many teachers hold higher degrees.  Additionally, according to our survey, more than 80% of teachers are paid using a step-and-ladder scale, meaning higher salary levels aren't often reached until late in a teacher's career. 

The good news is that most teachers reported great benefits and perks that at least somewhat compensated for low salaries.  One teacher respondent said, "I may have a smaller paycheck, but the fact that I don't have to worry about insane copays or deductibles at the doctor's office relieves a lot of stress.  I am so grateful my district provides great health insurance at no cost to me!"

More than 99% of teachers are offered health insurance by their district and 78% are offered life insurance.  More than two-thirds of teachers receive perks such as retirement plans, pensions, Social Security, or 403b benefits.  Additionally, some teachers reported bonus perks like discounted car insurance, special loan rates, gym memberships, and even discounts at restaurants or on cell phone plans.  Score!

Plus, when it comes to paid time off, being a teacher can't be beat.  In addition to summer and holiday breaks, 97% of teachers get paid sick and personal days and 38% get paid maternity leave. (Let’s be clear, though; many teachers are busy with prep, planning, and other job-related duties during their time off.)

The Downside 

Of course, there are plenty of downsides to any job, and the results of our survey showed some disturbing trends in the field of education. 

Fewer than 1 in 5 respondents said they felt like their university program prepared them for the financial realities of becoming a teacher.  They graduated with an understanding of the nuances of the teaching profession and even the education system, but they felt totally shocked by their long-term salary prognosis.  No wonder the majority (70%) of teachers say they are paid unfairly! 

Additionally, in spite of low salaries, most teachers report working much longer-than-average hours.  While the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a nationwide average workweek of 40.8 hours, 98% of teachers report working more than that.  Most educators work more than 50 hours, with a whopping 43% of teachers reporting a workweek longer than 60 hours.

As if 60-hour workweeks weren't enough, we were shocked to learn that more than one-quarter of teachers reported having to work a second job in order to feel financially stable.  That's a lot of work time, if you ask us. 

Earning More

Although most teachers are on salary, and thus not paid overtime, the majority of teachers report that they are able to earn additional cash for performing extra duties or receiving extra training. 

School districts really do value teachers who are well-trained and on top of current education trends, as evidenced by the fact that 81% of teachers earn more money if they have a master's degree and 66% can earn still more for a doctorate.  Additionally, more than 78% of teachers reported that they get paid time off to attend conferences and training or to take continuing education courses.

In addition to extra pay for education, more than 70% of teachers report the ability to earn more money for taking on extra duties like coaching or sponsoring a club or special event.  While these activities require extra time, they can also greatly increase a salary.  One respondent told us that he earns almost $20,000 every year in addition to his regular salary for coaching sports and sponsoring the school's debate club.  Extra duty pay can really add up!

teacher sitting on desk

Merit Pay

We were a bit surprised to discover that only a small number (13%) of teachers can earn additional compensation based on student test scores and student performance.  The idea of merit pay has been such a hot issue in news stories recently that we felt certain most districts would be hopping onto the merit-pay bandwagon.

But after reading the comments from teachers, we realized that merit pay is a really complex issue.  Proponents of merit pay say that it encourages teachers to strive for high academic achievement—and then rewards teachers for doing just that.  One teacher—whose district offers a $1500 bonus for every teacher who works in a school that meets Adequate Yearly Progress—told us that because of the merit bonuses her entire team rallied around their school-wide goal last year.  "The teachers worked so hard to make sure students got the support they needed,” she said, “And then, when they succeeded, the entire staff was able to celebrate with a big boost to their checking accounts."

The flip side is that may teachers commented that merit pay can be unfair, especially to teachers who choose to work in struggling schools.  One teacher told us that he works at a Title I school that struggles to meet state standards on testing:  "The students at my school desperately need passionate and dedicated teachers to rally around them and support them, but instead, it seems like only teachers who can't get jobs elsewhere are willing to go to that school.  Teachers at high-performing schools can earn up to $2,500 in bonus money when their kids pass standardized testing.  Why work triple as hard when the extra money is a given at a different school?"

Opponents also say that merit pay rewards teachers for “teaching to the test” instead of teaching students the skills they need to thrive in a world where critical thinking is key.  One respondent told us, "I could probably make sure my kids all passed the Statewide Math Exam this year if I drilled and killed certain math problems all year long.  But we'd have to sacrifice science and history to do it, plus a huge dose of critical thinking to make it happen.  Which leads me to ask:  Do we really want our teachers focusing on one single test in order to earn personal money when there is so much more for students to learn?"

We'll answer that question for him:  Of course not.

So is there a middle ground?  And what is it?  We're anxious to see what comes out of the whole merit pay debate this year as unions, school districts, and schools adjust to the Common Core and consider this issue more.

The Future of Teacher Salaries

So where will teacher salaries go from here?  A recent report by Princeton University's The Future of Children blog suggested that by raising teacher salaries, the quality of our education system could be greatly improved.  And, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went as far to suggest that low teacher salaries actually cause some of the top students to choose other professions.  He feels that higher compensation would result in the top minds choosing the education profession.  Go Secretary Duncan!

After analyzing the results to our survey, we have to agree that more compensation for teachers would certainly benefit our kids, especially considering the sheer number of hours that teachers have to work to do their jobs, not to mention the dedication they show to on-going education.   But we also understand the budget crisis in our education system and are interested to see how school districts will balance their budgets to assure that teachers earn what they deserve without sacrificing the quality of education or the availability of resources. 

We don't know what's going to happen in the next few years, but we do know that we will be watching closely as school districts and unions work to solve the merit pay dilemma and to get teachers the resources and compensation they deserve.  If it were up to us, we'd give teachers more of everything—more money, more benefits, more resources, more education, more perks.  We think you deserve it all. 

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