Teachers have long been underpaid — and just how much was underscored in a recent study which found that the difference between what teachers and comparable public workers earn is larger than ever. Among the key findings:

  • Average weekly wages (inflation adjusted) of public-sector teachers decreased $30 per week from 1996 to 2015, from $1,122 to $1,092 (in 2015 dollars). In contrast, weekly wages of all college graduates rose from $1,292 to $1,416 over this period.
  • For all public-sector teachers, the relative wage gap (regression adjusted for education, experience, and other factors) has grown substantially since the mid-1990s: It was ‑1.8 percent in 1994 and grew to a record ‑17.0 percent in 2015.

Here is a personal story of one teacher and how she and her family are affected by her profession’s low salary base. She is Rachel Wiley, a high school teacher in Washington state and a member of Teachers United, an organization of teachers in Washington state. This appeared on the organization’s website of Teachers United and I was given permission to republish it.

By Rachel Wiley

I am 29 years old. I have two children, ages 10 and 8. Anyone with a decent grip on basic math can figure out that means I was a teen mom.

When I was 18 years old, I learned that I was pregnant with my first child. I was a new college student, had a part-time job at a local retail store, and was scared to death. How would I support a child? Would I end up on welfare? Was I destined to become another statistic? I was faced with a choice: should I leave school and get a full-time job, or should I continue in school, knowing that a degree would ultimately (I thought) mean higher wages and better quality of life.

I decided that there was no way I was going to allow my circumstances to determine my fate. Despite the grim outlook for teen moms, I determined that I was going to be different. I wanted my kids to look up to me, to see that if you work hard and stay focused, you can achieve your goals.

I stayed in school, eventually graduating with my AA. I transferred to the University of Washington at Tacoma and earned a bachelor’s degree. Then, I decided to become a teacher. My heart told me that in spite of the low wages and the astronomical costs of a graduate degree, that teaching was my calling, and it would all work out somehow.

Making ends meet

Fast forward six years. Never for one moment do I regret my decision to become an educator. It feels to me as though this work is the most important work I could ever do. I love my students, I love my job, and I feel fulfilled. But I’m broke.

I am lucky compared to some. I make enough that I was able to buy my own home. I can afford groceries each week. I have running water, electricity, and both my husband and I have working (ish) vehicles. We make it. But just barely. Each month, as I sit down to budget, I am discouraged. I feel as though I have failed in some ways.

I do all I can to save money: I find coupons, discounts, rewards cards, and garage sales. I go without so that I can provide for my kids. I decline invites to parties because I know it will mean purchasing gifts, and that’s just not in the budget. I struggle with the realization that after all of my hard work, I still can’t get ahead. I have nothing in savings. My husband’s car is in need of serious repairs and breaks down on a regular basis, but we can’t afford to take it in to get fixed. My student loan debt is increasing exponentially because of interest, and it’s all I can do to make my minimum monthly payment.

Why wanting increased compensation isn’t whining

Is it whining, or complaining, to say that after six years in college I deserve more? I don’t think so.

I work more than my contracted school hours every week. I grade papers nightly, I lesson plan, I provide feedback, I track student data. I do all of this on my own time. My district does provide TRI money (locally funded, capped amount of money for work beyond the contract hours), but it’s just not enough to cover the hours I put in outside of the school day.

I know that it was my choice to become a teacher. I could have earned my master’s degree in just about anything else and would be making much more. This is an increasingly popular choice for most young professionals, and a contributing factor to the teacher shortage we are currently experiencing. The answer shouldn’t be to tell those who love their career and love their students to leave for a higher-paying job or shut up about it already.

Why can’t we be compensated fairly? According to a recent study conducted by the Economic Policy Institute, “The teacher pay penalty is bigger than ever. In 2015, public school teachers’ weekly wages were 17 percent lower than those of comparable workers — compared with just 1.8 percent lower in 1994 (Allegretto and Mishel 2016). This is a reality we face as educators.

Many people say that we should just find a different job if we want to make more money. But at what real cost? Some things are about more than money. If effective educators leave to find better paying jobs, the real loss is for our students. Standards are more rigorous than ever, and students need high-quality teachers to support their learning and ability to meet these standards.

The answer can’t be to desert the profession and abandon our students. We need to pay more to recruit and keep effective teachers in public education. It’s not even about what we owe to our teachers, it’s about what we owe to our students. It’s about investing in the future of our diverse democratic society, of which we want our students to be thoughtful and productive members.

How much is that worth?

Clarification: The introduction in an earlier version said the organization is backed by the Gates Foundation. Teachers United has received grants from the foundation in past years but no longer.