Teaching is meaningful work, but it’s notoriously known for being underfunded and undervalued. Despite the low pay, the teaching profession is always in demand (especially right now with so many pandemic-related teacher shortages) and offers rewarding work with good benefits.
Having the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of young people and receiving a generous benefits package are all great perks of the job. But is the salary enough to afford the student loan debt for teachers that’s required to complete their education or move up the pay scale?
It takes someone with resiliency and drive to look past this challenge. Here’s what you need to know if you’re currently in, or are considering, this profession and how to make your passion for teaching financially possible with student loan debt.
Teachers make lesson plans and share their knowledge, but they also give back to their communities in more ways than one. A passion for helping others, education and the future of our communities is a must for teachers.
If this speaks to you, at minimum you must receive a state certification and a bachelor’s degree to start teaching. Your teacher salary is state specific and is based on your level of education and years of experience.
To complete a teaching certificate in any state, you must complete student teaching in each level and area of study. This is typically when future teachers gain debt. Working can be too much while trying to teach a classroom and finish up school.
Also, current teachers take on student loan debt to complete a higher degree, like a master’s or doctorate. According to our data, teachers who’ve done graduate programs in high-cost cities have as much as $103,000 in student loan debt.
Leaving college with student debt is a common issue. The salary you’re going to have once out of school is essential to understand for debt pay off.
The structure of teacher salaries
The national average teacher salary for 2018 to 2019 was $61,730, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). This is the average, and the fact is that teacher salaries can have a wide range. The state of Mississippi is on the low end, paying an average teacher salary of $45,574. States with a higher cost of living offer higher wages. For example, a New York teacher salary pays an average of $85,889 and California-based teachers earn an average of $82,282.
Several factors go into determining what your teaching salary is, including:
- Grade level taught
- Level of education with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certification
- Years of experience
In some areas, factors like standardized test scores are also taken into account for teacher pay. However, the Institute of Education Sciences found that teaching bonuses based on test scores have mixed results.
How grade level affects teacher salary
The grade level you choose to teach also determines your salary. An elementary school teacher salary is lower than a secondary education teacher salary. This is because elementary school teachers need fewer endorsements. They also have fewer teaching days required by the state.
Secondary school teachers can be hired with a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s with endorsements in specific subject areas is preferred. Thus they start out with a higher salary.
Teacher salaries by state and level
As mentioned above, states differ drastically in what they pay teachers. Alaska teacher salaries and New York teacher salaries are consistently high for all teachers. California tops the list for high school teacher salary while states like Mississippi, West Virginia, and New Mexico, have the lowest teacher salaries.
Step and lane system for teacher salaries
Each school district has varying pay scales that operate on the “step and lane” system. Each step is the number of years worked. The lane is the degree earned plus any credits. The credits must be full college credits.
Here’s an example of a step and lane schedule that each district publishes for its teachers. The distributions differ based on state funding and district allocation of funds. Districts make their own pay scales.
Higher pay and extended benefits are used to attract and keep highly-qualified educators. Highly-qualified educators demonstrate competence in specific subjects. Competence is defined by states but typically includes a rigorous test or endorsement in subject areas. National Evaluation Series (NES) tests are an example of this.
The pay scale gives a clear path for increasing your income. For most schools, your education and experience (years taught) allow you to move up the pay scale.
How to advance on the teaching pay scale
The quickest way to increase your income is to continue your education as a teacher. This means pursuing a master’s degree, doctorate or an additional certification.
Even if you entered teaching with a master’s degree, an MA+90 credits lane on the pay scale example above can be a huge difference in financial security for families.
Some districts offer professional development funds to further your education. The amount is rarely enough to cover your entire program, however. So you’ll typically need to rely on student loans or your paycheck to move up the pay scale.
While you may have spent four to six years in college, your teacher salary will only increase if you continue to pursue education while teaching. Thankfully, most teachers are lifelong learners.
Frozen teacher salaries and stagnant wages
It would be unfair to discuss teaching salaries and not mention frozen salaries and stagnant wages. Teacher pay is a chronic concern but so is keeping highly qualified teachers in the professions. This coupled with the rising cost of a college education means getting your degree or continuing your education shouldn’t be taken lightly.
When the state can’t properly fund education, teacher salaries are frozen. This means you can’t move up a lane on the pay scale. State funding for education has many factors, but it could be something as simple as a new bond or levy not passing.
Stagnant wages are another factor to consider in teacher salaries. Teacher salaries have increased by 11.2% since 2008-09, according to the NEA. However, once adjusted for inflation, teacher salaries have decreased by 4% from 2008-09 to 2017-18. Adjustments to the pay scale are rare, and it can remain the same for years.
Some states prioritize education and funding or are required to by law, which means teacher salaries are a livable wage. A recent example of this is the McCleary Decision affecting Washington State. The supreme court ruled that Washington State wasn’t properly funding public education in 2012. The McCleary decision set a series of rollouts for improving funding each year.
June of 2018 is when $2 billion dollars was awarded by the state for teacher salary increases. Districts didn’t comply, and Washington entered a statewide teacher strike to ask for salary increases. Negotiations led to increases of up to 24.4% in teacher salaries.
Finding a state that’s proactive and supportive of our school systems will be crucial to receiving a teacher salary you can live on and pay back your student debt with.
Common myths about teacher salaries
There are several myths regarding teacher compensation. They’re often a way to justify lower pay. Addressed below are the common misconceptions around teacher salaries and the truths behind each one.
Teachers are well paid because they have summers and holiday break off.
Teachers are only paid for the days they’re contracted to work — typically a full school year of 180 days. The teacher schedule is ideal when you have a family or want to travel in the summer. But teachers will spend part of their summers working a second job or continuing their education to advance in the pay lanes.
Teachers work seven to eight hour days.
While this is the contracted work day for most schools, teachers work well beyond contracted hours. The time in the contract is the time in the classroom with students. Once the final bell rings, students head home, and teachers begin a series of meetings, start grading papers or work on revising their lesson plans for the next day.
The health benefits make up for the lost pay.
Teachers are public employees and receive medical benefits, including dental and vision. The benefits aren’t free, and a portion is taken out of your check each month like in most careers. The average employee contribution for family coverage in 2017 was $533.48, according to the National Compensation Survey. The health insurance premiums paid by a family is about 33%. The benefit is that most schools offer many health insurance plans to choose from. Coverage is good, but you’re paying for it.
Every public school teacher will have a guaranteed pension and funded retirement.
If you stay in teaching long-term, over 20 years, the retirement benefits provided by most schools are sufficient. Teachers are offered a retirement benefits package that both the employer and employee make contributions to.
Be on the lookout for state pension plans that are underfunded. A push has been made to increase the employee-required contribution amount. In some cases, the responsibility for investment is placed on the teacher. If this is the case, it’ll change your overall take-home pay.
Teachers salaries aren’t below the poverty line. The extra hours worked need to be regulated by setting boundaries for yourself so you can enjoy teaching and living your life. The benefits are reliable, and the pension is a huge bonus if you stay in the profession long term. Balancing a lower teacher salary and quality of life is possible. Just don’t fall for these myths as a way to validate choosing a lower salary.
Is the average student loan debt for teachers manageable?
Teachers are paid less than other highly-qualified professionals. According to a 2020 study by Economic Policy Institute (EPI), teachers are paid an average of 20% less than similary-educated professionals.
For this reason, you need to be strategic about where and what you choose to teach in order to make sure you can afford to pay off your student loan debt. Teaching is truly a passion, but pursuing the higher teaching salary will keep the stress that comes with student loan debts at bay.
As a teacher, you have the benefit of multiple state and federal forgiveness programs, which can help you pay off your student loans over time.
Federal student loan repayment options for teachers
Depending on the amount of debt you’ve accumulated or will accumulate, you can tackle your federal student loans from multiple angles.
Look into an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan right away. This will ensure you’re not paying half your paycheck into student loans and can still build wealth and care for your family. The following are the IDR payment plans:
- Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (REPAYE)
- Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (PAYE)
- Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR)
- Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR)
The benefit is that you must be on an IDR plan in order to be eligible for the federal forgiveness programs offered to teachers.
Federal loan forgiveness programs for teachers
Thankfully, federal student loans have borrower protections. One option is to take part in a student loan forgiveness program. Teachers can look into these loan forgiveness options if they have federal loans.
- Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) is one of the most beneficial programs for teachers. It offers complete student loan debt payoff after 10 years. And, unlike the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program, you don’t have to work for 10 consecutive years to earn forgiveness. Only Direct Loans qualify for PSLF. However, PLUS Loans, FFEL Loans, and Perkins Loans can be eligible if they’re consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan.
- Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program is best for qualified full-time educators who need to pay off a smaller amount of student loan debt. This program offers forgiveness of up to $17,500 for mathematics teachers, science teachers, or special education teachers (other teachers who serve low-income families can receive up to $5,000). To qualify, teachers must work five consecutive academic years at an eligible low-income school or educational service agency.
- State-based student loan forgiveness should always be investigated. Many states, like Texas, offer forgiveness programs to encourage highly qualified teachers to stay. Eligibility requirements will vary.
- Income-driven repayment forgiveness is a great option if you work at a private school or for-profit school. Under these programs, your monthly payment is lower, but you’ll pay more in interest over a longer period of time.
If you have federal student loans, you have solid options for repayment. Your monthly payments are controlled and don’t exceed 10% of your discretionary income. In most cases, the ten-year PSLF program is worth pursuing in order to afford student loan debt for teachers.
Repayment options for private student loans
As a private student loan borrower, you have fewer options for payment plans. It’s all dependent on the lender you have. Refinancing your private student loans could be a good option for you, especially if you need to lower your monthly payments.
Teachers can have a student loan debt payoff plan
Teachers can find a way to pay back their student loans despite lower salaries. If you have a career in education, you likely didn’t take the job for the money. But you can harness what you do make as well as forgiveness programs available to create financial security.
Your options for student loan debt payoff are plentiful, and it can be helpful to seek an expert to create a personalized debt payoff plan. The team here at Student Loan Planner® is ready to help! Choose a consultant who works best for your situation and find out how you can manage your student loan debt on a teacher’s salary.