Adjusted for awesome.



The paycheck has come and gone. There is food in the fridge. The repo man is held at bay for another 30 days, and all is well. For now. To me, July 1 is my official first day of summer break, where I am under no contractual time to do or think for anyone but myself and my family. It takes me awhile to settle into the new routines and freedom. But having time to write and drink coffee –what a gift. And teaching is a life ‘gift,’ no question.

My dear friend gave me a lot to think about as we were pulling up to the Denver airport yesterday, and we continued to talk  long past our time at the drop-off curb. (I was sharing with students a few months ago that she and I would talk for hours on the phone, and I couldn’t remember what we talked about. Now I know; anything and everything.)

Let me see if I can frame this correctly, her pondering– and in no way is this question meant to put any educator on the defensive or start to link Taylor Mali videos about What Do Teachers Make.  (There, see, I did it for you.) The essence of the question is what is a reasonable salary for teachers? And, truth, I couldn’t answer that simply. Not sure I’ll be able to here, either, but the thinking is what’s important because effecting policy change feels impossible. It’s not my question to answer: there are too many factors that affect a teacher’s salary, and the waters are intractably muddy.

However, similar to musing what I would do if I won the lottery, asking ‘what would be a comfortable salary for me’ is a fun exercise.

Some perimeters to the game:

  • Cost of living –adjust for lifestyle and long-term goals
  • Assume a master’s degree and five years of experience
  • Assume the discrepancy between the highest paid employee in a district and the lowest teacher salary are within range of similar benefits packages, PTO, and contractual responsibilities. (In other words, let’s pretend we’re Ben & Jerry’s or Costco.)
  •  There is such a wide discrepancy around the globe it’s difficult to gauge or have some kind of real ‘teacher currency exchange rate’ understanding.

And these numbers are based on if I were single and childless. All working persons deserve to earn a salary compensate with education, ambition, and to save for a retirement that allows for comfort and protections. We have a minimum of those protections and social services in our nation now because that’s not our culture or our values. We shout down those who try to make those changes with a lot of excuses.

But let’s pretend.

Say I wanted to live in the house I live in now, and though my current mortgage payment is not this, if I was buying my house today, this is what it would be.

  • Mortgage: $2500
  • Car: $650
  • Food/Gas $700
  • Clothing: $150
  • Student Loan: $450 (to be paid off when I’m 82)
  • Credit Cards/Debt: $300
  • Utilities/cell: $1000

So far we’re at $5,750. That doesn’t include professional development costs, the occasional soft-serve yogurt, or retirement savings or emergencies. That doesn’t include my two sons. (Sorry kids!)

I would need to make $69,000 net. That would be simplistically $86,250 gross. I don’t make that, even with my Board’s stipend (which, incidentally, also varies state to state and school to school.)

All right.

Now I know some would argue that I don’t deserve to live in a house. Therefore, with my Masters +90 level education, that means I am removed from any equity that home would offer. Remember, I didn’t budget in savings, retirement savings, or investments. Some would say I should use public transportation. Sure: but there is none between my house and my job. So there’s that. And, get rid of my cell phone. Sure. You do that too: let’s all pitch them into the metaphorical sea.

Her other question or wondering came in the form of how teachers should work — I’m not saying this right — let me try again: if teachers were salaried employees and worked 12 months out of the year, instead of the contracted ten months, what would that look like? Well, as we all know, our bills and rent don’t get summer breaks, so let’s continue with the legitimate demands of 12 months of bills/expenses, but also be realistic. Teachers are under contract. In Washington State, it’s an 180, plus in-service days, 7.5 hours per day. No teacher worth his salt works those contract hours solely. (Teacher geek alert! Salt gave us the word ‘salary’.) According to US News, 2014 numbers come in at a high of $68,400 to low of $43,470.

Almost two years ago I wrote a post about teacher pay, Show Me the Money, so this is something sitting on my mind for a while. But my friend made me think about it differently. If I didn’t pursue other avenues for income, what would be acceptable and reasonable for a teacher to make as a public service employee? We don’t produce or manufacture anything tangible; we are in essence a social service. We provide education and knowledge-building skills for our children. We produce ideas. We create. Our metrics and rewards come back in the form of former students who, when they can, tell us how important we were and are to them. Another dear friend recently posted an encounter with a former student, now a high school graduate, both apologizing for his 8th-grade behavior and thanking her for all she did for him. She also tagged other teachers and me, because he mentioned us, too. You’re welcome, young squire.

And I LOVE these stories. But damn my practical side–they don’t tip the milkman. If you want to discuss pure, hard numbers, EducationWeek posted, (very timely, thank you very much!) this article by Walt Gardner, The Truth About Teacher Pay.

My apologies for posting the entire article, but I think some folks don’t have access to this publication.

With schools closed for the summer, the debate about teachers’ salaries always arises.  Critics argue that no other field provides so many weeks of vacation for so much pay.  There is some truth to that claim, but I believe that a better way of addressing the issue is by comparing teacher salaries in the U.S. with those in the countries we compete with (“Teacher pay around the world,” Brookings, Jun. 20).  That’s because tests of international competition are closely watched as evidence of teacher effectiveness.

Other developed countries that we compete against pay their teachers much higher salaries than we do. The size of the gap depends on which countries we look at.  Finland is the usual benchmark because of the quality of its schools.  According to Brookings, we would have to give a 10 percent raise to our elementary school teachers, an 18 percent raise to lower secondary teachers, and a 28 percent raise to upper secondary teachers to be even minimally competitive.

I know the argument against boosting salaries. Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine are among the most vociferous in claiming that public school teachers are actually overpaid (“Public School Teachers Aren’t Underpaid,” The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 8, 2011).  “In short, combining salaries, fringe benefits and job security, we have concluded that public school teachers receive around 52 percent more in average compensation than they could earn in the private sector.”  The only caveat, they stress, is that this premium is stated in terms of averages.  The best teachers in science and math are likely underpaid compared to their counterparts in the private sector.

Since the entire argument is stated in economic terms, I’d like to ask Biggs and Richwine a question:  If public school teachers’ salaries already contain a premium for the weeks worked, then why isn’t there a flood of college graduates making public school teaching a lifelong career?  After all, economists always cite the law of supply and demand.  Why doesn’t it apply to public school teachers?  The fact is that teaching today is far harder than they can possibly understand.  I maintain that if salaries were to rise even 20 percent, there would still be too few college graduates opting for a career in the classroom.  Yes, higher salaries might be enough to recruit them, but higher salaries would not be enough to retain them.

So rather than envy teachers for having most of the summer off, let’s admit that they deserve every day to recuperate.  I urge skeptics to try teaching for a semester to understand why.


Clearly, Biggs and Richwine are no friends of teachers. As my mother says, “they don’t buy me any ice cream.” Not even Ben & Jerry’s. Heck, ESPECIALLY not Ben & Jerry’s!

It does seem uniquely American to pay teachers for martyrdom and nobility of character versus a middle-class income. And I mean a real middle-class income (see my bullet points above). This would take a wholesale restructuring of district budgets, demanding an accounting of administrative versus teacher salaries, and wading in that murky, murky mess of suits v. laborers we can’t seem to let go of. I do have a lot of ideas of how teachers can earn the salaries they need if they wish. Yes, I used “need” and “wish” in the same sentence. If a teacher wishes to work a contract day, is not interested in further out of pocket professional development, or other credentials that result in stipends, so be it. But access to those opportunities should be plentiful and available. Biggs and Richwine strike me as unimaginative kumquats. And good teachers have imagination and problem-solving skills in abundance. Let’s talk, and see what we can come up with.

PS And dang, doesn’t “Biggs and Richwine” sound like some evil Dickensian characters?


2 thoughts on “Adjusted for awesome.

  1. I can’t even buy a house. I could get a loan for the money, but even the very least expensive of houses in this area is beyond my ability to pay for, monthly. There are things I could do to have more disposable income per month, but one of them would be to stop paying so much into my retirement account. Do I rob Peter to pay Paul? Do I rob my future self so my present day self can invest in a home? I am investing, either way, but I can’t afford to invest in the stocks and bonds that will pay for my retirement while at the same time investing in real estate that might, theoretically, house me during my retirement. Being single, without even a part time double income, means that I have no wiggle room at all. Not for big things. Could I live more frugally and save more money? Sure. But sometimes a couple extra Starbucks visits is all that stands between me and oblivion.


  2. Apartment rent for a moderate living space in Denver is around $2000/month. This provides no equity. This is more than a mortgage payment, but teachers are stuck because they can’t get to that place. Why not put that “job security” those “gentlemen” so graciously discussed and levy that into “this woman will have job security so SHE CAN MAKE HER DAMN MORTGAGE PAYMENTS! Being creative, frugal, resourceful, etc. takes so much physical and psychological energy, can we all just imagine for one moment how much stronger and more effective educators we would be if we knew our futures and our present were liveable? How much of that energy could go into helping students?

    Baffling and infuriating.


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