The Truth About Teacher Salaries

I want to prepare you for an unfortunate inevitability:  One of these days you're going to read the last Radical post. 

It's not that I don't want to keep writing.  I love the intellectual community that we've gotten started here.  And it SURE isn't because I've run out of things to say. 


It's simply because one afternoon as I drive home listening to the local right-wing radio hack spouting the party line about "the exorbitant salaries" that teachers are paid, my head is going to explode. 


What makes me so frustrated is that 98% of the facts that he spews just aren't true.  He talks about the fully paid state pensions that we receive without ever mentioning that teachers contribute nearly half of the funds in our own retirement accounts.

He claims that teachers in North Carolina are treated better than other workers without ever mentioning the fact that we rank somewhere near 45th in teacher pay nationally. 

He argues that teachers need to "feel the pain that people in the private sector" are feeling without ever mentioning that we haven't seen an increase in our salaries in three years.


Now don't get me wrong:  I'm remarkably thankful just to have a job in such a difficult economy.  As I watch friends and family members struggle to just hold on to their positions in a sluggish corporate workplace, I realize that the stability that comes along with a career in the classroom is pretty darn rewarding.


And I get it.  The way that we pay teachers has got to change. 

For starters, we're just plain crazy to think that teachers working in affluent suburban communities should earn the same salaries as teachers working in communities that are plagued by poverty. 

A quick glance at the differences between the qualifications of teachers working in the 'burbs and teachers working in the inner city can probably explain the high dropout rates that has our nation's educational leaders so darn perplexed. 

But how surprised can we REALLY be that accomplished teachers are taking their skills to the suburbs.  If you were asked to do a much harder job for the same salary that you're currently making, would you take it?


What's more, we've got to rethink the strategies that we DO use to differentiate pay for teachers.  I mean, the State of North Carolina has been paying me a 10 percent stipend every year for the past 15 years because I earned a Master's Degree in—get this—Advanced Teaching back in 1997. 

Stew in that for a minute, would ya?

What are the chances that the techniques that I picked up in my "advanced teaching" classes back in '97 are still relevant today?   

Yet every year, I "earn" an extra $5K because I sat through those classes.  If nothing changes, I'll make almost $120,000 in additional compensation for that degree before I retire. 

As a teacher struggling to make ends meet, I'm thankful for the money. 

As a taxpayer, I'm pissed.


Finally, we've GOT to find a way to reward our best teachers for making a difference in the lives of kids. 

Everyone—from the teachers in our workrooms, to the parents in our communities, to the policymakers who are butchering our schools with poor decisions making underinformed choices with little first-hand experience—-knows that some teachers are "worth more" than others.

Ignoring that reality is intellectually dishonest.  It cheapens our profession in the eyes of the people who pay our salaries. 

But let's get something straight:  Rewarding our "best teachers" has to begin with communities coming together to develop shared definitions of what good teaching looks like. 

Are we satisfied with the teacher who is inspiring and memorable but can't produce meaningful learning results in their students?

More importantly, do we really want to define the success or the failure of teachers by the numbers that their students earn on one test covering one part of one curriculum that is given on one day at the end of the school year?


In the end, I'm completely open to conversations about changing the way that teachers are paid.  I'm just fed up with the suggestion that we're useless overpaid leetches that are bleeding communities dry. 

Not only are those conversations untrue, they're unhealthy.  Demonizing an entire profession with well-orchestrated half-truths and outright lies ain't likely to lead to long-term solutions, y'all. 



Related Reads:

Where Gates Gets It Right on Education

Merit Pay for Teachers a Poor Idea

The Wrongheaded Quest for Cheap and Easy

Staffing High Needs Schools



12 thoughts on “The Truth About Teacher Salaries

  1. Jason

    Teacher salaries are always going to be debated. The districts and communities will always shape the school in one way or another.

  2. Bill Ferriter

    I love it, Dave….
    Whats crazy is that even with the cash that Bam and Arne and Michelle and Bill are willing to throw at teachers, wed still make far less than a third of what theyre making in any given year.
    Giving me an extra grand isnt an incentive. Its an insult. It shows a fundamental lack of understanding about just how hard my work really is—-and a fundamental inability to value the best and the brightest teachers.
    As a taxpayer, Ive already come to the understanding that we just dont have enough money to truly incentivize teaching. And as a teacher, I know that there are TONS of practical changes that could keep accomplished people in our schools for longer periods of time.
    Ive gotta blog this. Its really coming together in my mind right now.
    Thanks for the nudge,

  3. RR

    Agreed; the teacher pay structure needs to be revamped (although IMHO the current merit pay movement is severely flawed). In the spirit of being radical, I’ll throw one out there– teacher pay should be trimmed. Full disclosure: I am a private school teacher who makes $20K less than my counterparts at the local public school.
    Now, let me also say that I think that there is no higher calling than teaching. We have many problems in education, including teachers who need to retire/be fired/cut. Districts are pretty hamstrung in getting rid of poor teachers (who often carry tenure/large salaries). A lower pay scale will be a natural filter for people who truly care more about money than teaching. I know this will cause some people to howl. But we live in a rich country, where we have confused our needs with our wants, and have a voracious appetite for more. Sadly, many people equate $$ with true worth. Even on my meager salary, we survive. Do we struggle at times– sure!! Do I have everything I want? Not at all. Would I like to be paid more— absolutely. Would I like teachers to be held in high esteem in our society? YES!! But demanding or legislating respect never makes it happen. Good teachers are servants at heart, and that selflessness sometimes needs to be shown. As teachers, we need to have enough strength to believe in ourselves and what is right no matter what the prevailing outside attitude toward educators happens to be. Our system is in need of major reform, and until we fix it ourselves, we will continue to have radio hosts, politicians, etc trying to fix it from the outside.
    Just one man’s humble opinion.

  4. Dave Orphal

    When I got into teaching 15 years ago, it was for the money. The fame was nice too, but mostly it was for the money.
    Back then, when I was making a six-figure salary ($ 038,000) I knew that I needed to hold a little something back. Sure, I was making great benefits. I could go to the dentists, I had a gym and a cafeteria on my work site (nods to John Stewart)…. But working 180 days a year is a lot to ask a person… I mean it’s nearly 1/2 the year! It’s like having to work 3 days a week, every week, with no weekends! So I held a little back…
    You see, I knew, way back then I knew, that someday my political and punditry overlords were going to wake up to the fact that I’ve got to be bribed to do my best. They must have asked my Mom how to motivate me to do something I don’t want to do. “We used to pay him a dollar to eat all of his vegetables,” she replied. Aww, Mom… you know me so well!
    So like I’ve said, I’ve been holding back. I’ve been working about 75% of my awesome-capacity. I mean seriously, 75% of awesome is still a “C” Right?
    You might think that I’m ready to go all-in, now that Bill, Michelle and Arnie have put some more benjamins on the table. Man, are they wrong. I’m telling you, if they are going to put some more money in my pocket, then I’ll give them a little taste. Say bump it up to 78%, you know, like a C+. They are going to be fist-bumping and high-fiving each other silly over their “success.”
    But I’m telling you, in a few months, that high is going to wear off, and who do you think they are going to come see? How many benjamins do you think they are going be slapping down? They’re going to be all over me going, like, “Please, Mr. Teacher, sir. Give us a little more! We’re jonezing for just a little more. Please! Take all our money, just give us a little more.”
    That me, brother. Straight up gangster teaching. Suckers better have my money!

  5. Bill Ferriter

    Actually I think youve missed my point, Jan.
    What Im saying is that teachers in high poverty schools deserve to be paid more than teachers in affluent suburbs.
    Thats a message that Ive echoed here on the Radical for years. Check out my posts on the topic here:
    Doing so would reward the handfuls of highly accomplished teachers who have chosen to work in the most challenging communities. Doing so might also keep those teachers in the most challenging schools for more than a few years. Doing so might also recruit additional accomplished teachers to challenging buildings.
    The fact of the matter is that our choice to pay all teachers equally regardless of the building that theyre teaching in has led to a disparity in the qualifications of teachers in high needs schools and schools of wealth.
    There are fewer teachers with National Board Certification in high needs schools. There are more teachers with emergency credentials in high needs schools. There are more teachers working out of their content areas in high needs schools. There are more teachers with alternative certifications in high needs schools. There are higher rates of teacher turnover in high needs schools.
    Those disparities have a direct impact on the success of students living in poverty—-and addressing those disparities should begin with a simple step: We need to pay teachers more for working in high needs schools than we pay teachers for working in the suburbs.
    Im sorry my point wasnt clear to you considering how hard Ive worked to raise awareness about the need to treat teachers in high poverty schools better.
    Its a passion of mine.

  6. Susanna Livingston

    I totally agree with you on this topic- it is VERY Frustrating- especially when you go to bed at 2 am because you’ve spent the night responding to parent emails and have to wake up at 5 am to make it to work on time… People uneducated about the “Education World” should spend at least a week in a classroom before they make such ridiculous statements!! I can barely make it by with my salary and I’ve been teaching for 13 years, have a M.Ed and a National Board Certification…and I make less than $45,000. What “exorbitant salaries” are they speaking about… I’d like to give that guy and those who think so a piece of my mind!!!

  7. Jan Parker

    “A quick glance at the differences between the qualifications of teachers working in the ‘burbs and teachers working in the inner city can probably explain the high dropout rates that has our nation’s educational leaders so darn perplexed.”
    So…you’re saying that it’s the teacher’s fault there are so many dropouts in the inner city schools? Let me guess – you teach in a suburb.

  8. Michael Oakwood

    As a secondary education major, I know I will never make a million dollars in education. I am not entering education for the money. I just want an fair salary for my services to the children. I do not know if teachers have ever been “fairly” paid, or if they ever will. Yes, the way teachers are paid needs to change. With teachers being forced to pay more toward their health insurance and retirement, teachers are actually getting their pay reduced. Please do not let the right-wingers rhetoric get the best of you. The education system needs teachers like you.

  9. TeachMoore

    Thank you for this Bill. I’ve been hearing many of these so-called news reports and op-eds that irresponsibly omit many of the facts you mention, especially that we pay into our own pensions and that we are taxpayers. Keep speaking truth to power.

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