The Stigma of Teacher Pay: Coming to Terms with Naming Your Number

Money is a weird thing for me. I left the classroom in the fall of 2016 to work at a tech start-up. It’s been a long journey and I often feel scummy when dollars come up. I want to share this experience with others because I always felt limited by what I knew was possible. This isn’t a 1969 moon landing with all of America watching, but knowing what is possible will help everyone be the best version of themselves. So in this, I hope to provide a bit of my experience for any teacher who is struggling to figure out what to do next.

The first time I got a bi-monthly paycheck that was equivalent to my entire yearly teacher salary, I just stared at the computer screen and felt an overwhelming sense of pride. It was extremely difficult to pivot careers and to make this type of thing possible. My wife and I would often take walks with our dogs and talk about what we’d do when our careers “took off”. Mine had officially taken off. I had been out of the classroom two years and six months. The second time it happened, I was already planning about how to make it happen for a third. The scale changes very quickly.

The desire to get out of teaching almost always includes some financial motivation. Even a 10% increase from a teacher salary can be life changing, much less doubling or tripling that salary. Knowing your worth and leaning into this aspect of the transition out of teaching is mandatory and being naive can only cause damage.

When I first started to get curious about moving outside of the classroom I reached out to everyone I knew that could possibly know something I didn’t. This was a high number of people. I reached out to my college friend, Dane, who had become quite well connected in the tech start-up world. He was the first person I had ever heard of going to an “incubator” in California. At age 24 he moved from Texas to San Francisco and got a rent controlled apartment in The Mission and now flies back and forth between NYC and California as a VP at a SaaS (Software as a Service) tech company. His world was mind boggling and intimidating to me. I had imposter syndrome just asking him for help. At the time, I was making $45,000 as a teacher in one of the most expensive cities in America. The previous year, I became a homeowner. I got my property tax statement around the same time as I got my raise for the next school year. My home would cost me $960 more per year in taxes but my raise was $500 to get me to $45,500. I was effectively net negative $460. I drove Lyft and Uber for 6 months to make up for my extra expenses and I felt like I was wasting my time. All of a sudden, in that moment, I became a grouchy old man complaining about taxes. Ironically those property taxes fund the schools and thus pay the teachers so this scenario was quite painful. 

During one of our conversations he asked me how much I wanted to make. I had thought very hard about the number I needed to feel really great about a transition. I thought to myself what extra work I’d be doing without summers off and what that would equate to. I thought about my property taxes. I thought about how I wanted to get married and possibly start a family. All of these numbers swirled around my head and like a mathematical savant, I leaned back in my chair, crossed my arms, and confidently stated $60,000 as if I were negotiating a massive merger between two railroad companies. Dane paused. He then said, “You should aim higher.” I found myself sinking in my chair a little bit. I couldn’t tell if my goal salary was just based on lack of data points or if it was a reflection of what I viewed as my worth. Either way I realized that I had to come to terms with money in a way that was previously never an option. 

“You should aim higher.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for 2018, the median annual wage for high school teachers was $60,320. The range for teachers is vast. Not only does it depend on years in seat, type of advanced degree, or subject area that causes these changes but the geographic location greatly inflates the median numbers. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $39,740, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $97,500. The median for Texas is $57,800. The median for New York is at the top of America’s list at $81,290 whereas Oklahoma, who popped up on the national news cycle with their teacher strike, came in at $41,280. What is even more critical to understand is where do these wages fall in line with the wages of the country. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) calculates that the preliminary average starting salary for graduates from the class of 2018 is about $50,004. There is an inherent disconnect when the median salary of a group of dedicated, hard working, well educated professionals with upwards of 20 years experience is not far off from the salaries of the students they taught just a few years prior. 

I recently had this same conversation with my friend, Jeremy. He was in the middle of an interview process and we met up over a drink to walk through his situation. I asked him the same question that Dane asked me. He said he did the math. As a teacher in a very demanding charter school, his salary was higher than average at near $53,000. He figured that he worked 10 months out of the year and if he took that rate and came up with a yearly salary to make it worth it, his ideal minimum number was $64,000. What he really hoped for was a salary of $70,000. The sales job he was applying for had a base salary of $42,000 and if he performed at quota, his yearly salary would be $65,000. And the job came with uncapped commissions which meant that if he worked smarter and harder, he could make even more money. Teachers are always trying to work smarter and harder. 

The day after my conversation with Jeremy I had another meeting with a current teacher. When I asked him this question he simple exhaled a breath of frustration and just said “more”. I encourage anyone looking to pivot careers to really examine how much they need, how much they want, and cross reference that number to the career options. No one wants to hire a desperate burnt out teacher. Know your number and make it happen. 

The idea that the only way to give back to the world is to also be poorly paid is false. Most teachers I meet with have a martyrdom complex that still personally comes knocking for me. These types of deep, emotional feelings often keep us locked in place. We often convince ourselves that our low pay makes sense. We get summers off. We get nice holiday breaks. Sometimes our work hours are shortened. But we know, the summers are shorter than the parents realize. Our holiday breaks are wonderful but if you can’t afford to travel then a staycation it is. The time perks are not a perk. It’s borderline mandatory to get that time away from the classroom to refresh yourself. Bottomline is, and this is obvious, but teachers are severely underpaid, under-appreciated, and misunderstood. However, this is about how you can transition into your future. Part of that is accepting how things will be different and shifting expectations to match a future reality. 

So when Dane told me to aim higher, I thought, “$70,000!” He kind of laughed at me again and said, “Shoot for $80K”. $80K. I thought, “Wow! That’s more money than I’ll ever need.” My first job offer was a pre-sales job that required me to book meetings for the sales team. My base salary was negotiated to be equal to my teacher salary and if I hit quota my total yearly salary would be $80,000. I didn’t know if it would be easy to hit quota but once I realized that the harder I worked the more I could get paid, I made sure that every month I was making more than I was as a teacher. At that time, my wife decided to pivot herself and go back to school full time. With the help of small loans and big grants to cover tuition, I was able to float the household needs because of my new job. Two years of this and my wife worked hard to became a college graduate and now has an amazing career of her own. This would not have been possible without our decision to pivot my career change. This is what makes a life trajectory different. People talk about the pay and as a consumerist society we think the pay increase will lead to the newest electronics or an upgrade in vehicle, but what we don’t talk about, and we should, is the amount of pride and accomplishment I felt that I could take 100% ownership of the household finances while my wife took two years to better her own life. Our life trajectory is different because I left the classroom.

I would always try to figure out the best path for my students and give them life advice that provided them with the optimum trajectory. It just so happened that for me to take my own advice, I’d have to metaphorically find a new classroom.

You’ve Been on Your Soapbox About the Importance of Teaching and Now You’re a Capitalist Pig: How to Come to Terms with this Change and How to Navigate Conversations with Friends and Family. 

When I announced to my classrooms that I was leaving for a career in software sales, a few of the students were really perplexed. It honestly did make me feel like I was choosing to abandon my kids. I didn’t know how they’d react. In one of my sections a girl said “ughhh why are you leaving?!” It was said in somewhat of a playful understanding tone, but a sad tone nonetheless. I didn’t know how to respond. Fortunately a boy in the back did it for me. 

“Mr. Frasier just needs to chase the cheddar!”

I had literally never heard someone say that phrase before but I immediately knew what he meant. He gave me an approving head nod that I found comforting. I didn’t know I needed my 17 year old class clown to tell me it was OK. I did. But in the moment I was able to somewhat break down why I wanted to leave and now 3 years later I’ve been able to synthesize a bit on the wording of why I went from a passion profession to one that is not associated with public good. This comes in handy often. 

I was just at a wedding for a family member. My cousin came up to me and said “Are you still teaching?” It’s been almost three years. This identity permanence is one of the hardest things about the transition out. I have developed a lot of talk tracks around these conversations. Here are the highlights. 

  1. On why I left the classroom– I spent years telling my students to reach for the stars. I told them I believed in them. And it was true. Anytime I had my students not realize their full potential a part of me was sad and I put even more energy behind getting the students where they should be. Even after their graduation, I would find myself in mentor roles. I wanted them to live their best life and find the limits of their capabilities. I realized that for me, my  professional and personal growth rate had slowed down in the classroom and I wanted to have the same hopes for myself as I do my students. The last sentence is now my answer on why people ask why I left. And it feels more true now than it did 3 years ago.

  2. So do you miss teaching? I get asked this all the time. I honestly never ask my friends if they miss their old job. It wouldn’t make sense. It’s a harmless question but I hate it. It encapsulates our views on teachers being monolithic entities, forever wiping down dry erase boards until we go to old folks homes for teachers where we talk about how good freshly printed tests smell. The answer to the original question changes. Sometimes I say yes. When I say yes, I have to clarify what I miss. In the classroom I felt totally in control. Every day’s lesson was up to me. That might not be every teaching situation but there are elements of every day where you are in charge. I feel more beholden to something else now and sometimes that’s stressful in a new way. Sometimes I do miss interacting with young people. I quickly became out of the loop of the younger generation. Like many millenials, I don’t have regular tv. I don’t see commercials. I don’t listen to radio. Every piece of content I consume is curated by algorithms to reflect back new things that already fit my preference. Students keep you young and knowledgeable. At one point it was so bad that when someone was talking about knowing how to floss I legit thought we were talking about dental hygiene. I miss being in the loop of stupid trends. Sometimes I miss feeling like I’m truly changing a life. But now my answer flows mostly like this: So it turns out the thing I loved the most about teaching wasn’t math or working with young people, it was the feeling of helping someone change for the better. Luckily, I still get that feeling a lot from my job. It turns out I can get that same feeling from helping adults as well.

  3. So how does it feel being a corporate sell out? This is a very personal section and I hope that the reader is patient as I wrestle the conflicting thoughts. I was never too far entrenched in leftist politics but I do own more than one book on anarchist philosophy and I hold a few radical thoughts on how to correct the wage gap between workers and their CEOs. Many of my journalings in college and early teaching days were focused on my rejection of societal expectations. While my engineering school classmates were daydreaming up what cars they would buy someday, I decided to not even bother with our engineering exit exam that would allow me to work in the industry. I chose a life of service and financial constraint in order to adhere to my value system. This has honestly been the hardest part of the conversations with friends and family. I know what the lives of my students look like when they don’t have food beyond what the schools provide to them and, therefore, the idea of people throwing $80K at a Tesla doesn’t sit well with me. What would happen if that $80K was put into a program that helps young folks get their foot into the community college and into a life that changes everything? Even when people say “But the person with the Tesla worked hard to get the money for that car and it’s their right to do whatever they want with it.” I have a hard time reconciling what I would do in that situation. So while I personally struggle on how to strike a balance between the selfless service of teaching and now earning more, I’m reaching to audit all the things I can do in my life now that are more meaningful because of my career change. It all boils down to one thing: family. Around the time I was planning on leaving the classroom I was also planning a wedding. My wife wanted to go back to college. I had a car with 150,000 miles on it. I own a home in an up and coming part of town but there have been two incidents of drunk drivers hitting parked cars within 100 yards of my house this month. There was a shooting 3 months ago. Kids aren’t found running freely around my streets. There are big life things that are different now that I’m a sell out but I also feel a sense of pride that I’m able to do things for my family. But I go back to response in section two. I’m not doing this 100% because of the pay. I’m doing this for personal and professional growth and it just happens to pay more. 

The most frustrating thing about this is that teaching is one of the only professions that struggles with this. If you’re leaving a non-profit, you may experience a bit of this struggle but people change jobs all the time. People leave companies to take promotions elsewhere. People work in industries that don’t contribute to any social good but the career allows them to provide for their family or provide them with time and energy to give back to the community. No one really questions these things for other professions. And, it’s really possible no one else is questioning these things for me. Maybe teachers are doing this to themselves. But if you decide to leave, these are things you will come across. Whether it is self inflicted or societally imparted, there will be fleeting moments of identity struggles.

The best thing we can do for ourselves is to create situations where we can maximize our own good, our family happiness, and our impact on the world. Sometimes you can do those things and your career is irrelevant, for once.