How We Created the Teacher Pay Gap

The world has changed but teacher pay hasn’t. We need to fix it.

Vanessa Torre
Oct 20 · 5 min read
Photo by Barry Zhou via Unsplash

There is no denying that teaching is one of the lowest paying, least respected jobs that requires a four year degree. Teachers are fleeing the profession at a high rate, leaving behind a shortage that isn’t helping the youth of America.

The teacher pay gap is incredibly real. Based on a study done in 2018 by the Economic Policy Institute, teachers make an average of $350 less a week than comparable workers with similar educations. That equates to a 23% difference in pay.

How did we get here?

To understand the teacher pay gap, we need to understand the history of teaching in our country.

Back in the early 1800s, most teachers were men. This was caused by the fact that women had little education and little opportunity for work outside of the home. Still, teaching for these young men was never meant to be a career. It was never to be sustainable. It was a stepping stone until they found something else.

When that something else came along, schools ran out of a pool of teachers and started to recruit women. You think the gender pay gap is bad now, imagine what it was like 200 years ago.

“God seems to have made woman peculiarly suited to guide and develop the infant mind, and it seems…very poor policy to pay a man 20 or 22 dollars a month, for teaching children the ABCs, when a female could do the work more successfully at one third of the price.” — Littleton School Committee, Littleton, Massachusetts, 1849

Women were cheap labor. Enter a serious 67% gender pay gap.

We also have to consider societal norms 200 years ago. Women made one third what men did as teachers because they didn’t “need” the money. Women fell into one of two camps: 1) They were unmarried and therefore lived with family who provided for them. 2) If even allowed to be, they were married and were provided for by their husbands. That’s not the case anymore

Most of these teachers were exceptionally young, even as young as 14–15 years old. So, teaching 200 years ago was not unlike having a minimum wage job. Not much schooling was required. You merely had to have the basic understanding of what you were teaching and the ability to control a classroom.

Simply, the teacher pay gap remains because the world we live in has completely changed but teacher pay never caught up.

We fixed one pay gap but not another.

As our county evolved, education was faced with a whole myriad of issues we needed to address: the women’s pay gap, racial segregation, the need for credentialing educators.

Photo by Markus Spiske via Pexels

In 1906 in New York, Grace Strachan and the Interborough Association of Women Teachers fought for Equal Pay for Equal Work. It was a radical request as men still contended that women didn’t need equal pay as they were never responsible for supporting a household. Female teachers eventually won their rights to equal pay.

It wasn’t enough though. Teaching still wasn’t a viable long term career designed to support a family. The education system didn’t place much importance on changing that. Unions, however, did.

These unions fought for better pay and better benefits. But it also came with expense. As these Unions won battles to improve teacher pay, along with it came more and more requirements for qualifications. That became the hoop for teachers to jump through in order to earn that higher pay. So now we have teachers making more money but have to shell out their own money in order to get it. That hoop has grown exponentially in size in the last century.

Lack of respect for teachers affects pay.

A huge obstacle we have to get past is the lack of respect for classroom teachers. As a former educator, I can tell you a big part of this stems from serious lack of understanding of what teachers actually do and how they spend their time.

Many parents, legislators and community members who are in a position to vote for propositions and bills that could increase teacher pay have serious misconceptions about what it’s like to be a teacher.

Many people still believe that teachers come in at 7:30am and leave at 3pm. They get several weeks off during the year and ten whole weeks in the summer. Why should teachers be paid for 52 weeks of work when they only work 38?

This lack of understanding of the time needed to attend parent meetings, grade papers, communicate with parents and spend those ten summer weeks planning lessons is stunting growth in salaries as teachers’ time is not seen as valuable but, instead, as infinitely available.

How do we actually fix this?

The most important way to fix this is the simplest. We vote. We pass propositions. We elect legislators that support teachers and education. We demand state resources go to classroom teachers.

We also learn to respect teachers. Teachers are not babysitters. Babysitters, ironically, make much more an hour than teachers if you consider the sheer number of kids in a classroom to be attended to.

We learn to understand the fact that teachers’ salaries should have made a huge jump in pay when it became understood that families would need to live off that salary. You can’t keep paying teachers a non-livable wage because 200 years ago no one needed to live off that wage. It doesn’t work that way.

Inflation has increased costs and salary growth for other jobs requiring four year degrees has increase well beyond what teacher salaries have.

If we don’t want to leave the education of our children behind in the dirt, we have to pull teacher pay out of that same dirt.

*24 years ago I stepped into a classroom for the first time. Four years later, I left. Here’s the reality of that decision:

Vanessa Torre

Written by

Going through life like a flaming pinball. Nerd, music lover, horrible violin player. No, I won’t stop taking pictures of my drinks. vanessaltorre@gmail.com

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