Chances are you’ve witnessed a teacher at work. They taught you in your childhood and adolescence; they graded your tests and essays. Perhaps they also served as your high school soccer coach or drove the bus you took to school each day. They may now be shepherding your children through the same educational system, helping them strengthen basic skills and uncover their passions.
But as a student — or even a parent — you’ve probably only observed the basics. “People think they know what it’s about because they went to school,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union that represents more than 1 million teachers nationwide. “But going to school and being a school teacher are the difference of night and day.”
Over the last year, educators in a number of states have launched protests, strikes, and walkouts to draw attention to what they say is unfair pay and work conditions. Teachers have detailed the financial difficulties that come as the result of years-long pay freezes and growing pensions that dig deeper into their paychecks. Many of them work second or third jobs to make ends meet and pick up extra responsibilities in the school district for extra cash.
And that long-sought-after summer break, which corporate employees can only dream of? A lot of educators work then, too — teaching summer school, picking up more restaurant shifts than during the school year, or spending weeks in training and preparing new lessons plans.
Teaching in America now appears to have reached a tipping point. Low wages have driven some teachers out of the profession entirely, and fewer people want to become educators — heightening a teacher shortage crisis as class sizes grow larger and educators take on extra roles. Educators who spoke with MONEY believe they are undervalued, underpaid and underappreciated. They cited countless stories of peers who denigrated their careers and friends who misunderstood all that it takes to be a teacher.
“It’s an extreme amount of pressure. It’s like running a sprint that’s the length of a marathon; it’s just constant,” says Emily James, a high school English teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y. “You can’t mess up because you have kids right in front of you. You can’t mess up because they’ll break down. You have to be there physically, emotionally and academically at all times.”
MONEY asked more than 10 current and former teachers from around the country what they wished Americans understood about their jobs, their work conditions, and their pay. Here’s what we learned.
Teachers make less even than workers with similar qualifications.
Teachers have faced stifled wages and pay freezes for years. And a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning organization, found that public school teachers earn on average hundreds of dollars less a week — about 18.7% less — than other college graduates with full-time jobs, as MONEY detailed earlier this month.
Even when teachers’ better benefits are factored in, there’s an 11.1% compensation discrepancy, the study found. “We get paid less for similar skills and take on more and more stress than most people who are working in America,” says Weingarten, the union president.
“For the level of education we’re required to have, we’re not compensated,” adds Laura Lomayesva, an Arizona teacher who used to work in the corporate field.
Teachers will be the first to tell you they never got into the profession for the money. But decades of battling for higher wages has made it more difficult to stay in the profession for some. Suzanne Evans, who has taught middle school just outside of Oakland, Calif., for 16 years, says her union has struggled to guarantee substantial raises, despite the Bay Area’s escalating cost of living — and that continuing to battle each year has been exhausting.
“After 16 years, I’m just getting fed up of fighting for pennies,” Evans says.
Some teachers don’t get paid during the summer.
One reason the Economic Policy Institute study focused on weekly pay, rather than annual: Many teachers do not receive paychecks during the summer. Some school districts offer teachers a 12-month paycheck schedule, but many don’t.
That makes summertime less like a paid vacation, and more like an unpaid furlough.
“We don’t get paid for any time we’re not in contact with students,” says Kendra Gish, who has been teaching for 16 years in Doubles County, Colorado. “That’s one of the biggest misconceptions that people feel about teaching.”
Even during the year, many teachers work extra jobs …
Of course, educators say they often pick up other jobs or extra hours during the summer months. That’s made easier by the fact that many are already holding down second or even third jobs o help make ends meet. These supplemental professions — ranging from roles in gig economy, like renting their homes out on Airbnb, to truck driving to tutoring — are often vital for some teachers to stay afloat.
Evans, the middle school teacher from California, works part-time as a police dispatcher to afford her medical benefits for her daughter. “I don’t have a choice,” she says. “The medical benefits through the district are so expensive. I have to have a supplemental income.”
Other teachers tell MONEY stories of driving straight from school to a bartending gig, working after hours at school sporting events, picking up tutoring gigs and selling golf merchandise on the side. Teachers are 30% more likely to have second or third jobs than those aren’t educators, according to recent research from the Brookings Institution.
… Even while devoting night and weekend hours to teaching work.
One year when Walt DelGirono, a retired special education teacher in Delaware, was still working, he decided to map out how many hours he logged for the full year. He included after-hour time during the week, as well as hours spent during weekends, holidays, breaks, and summer vacation.
When he added it all up, it came out to about 2,000 hours over the course of the year: 50 weeks, and 40 hours per week. “That sounds like a full time job to me,” DelGirono, told MONEY via email.
That’s a sharp contrast with the popular notion of teaching: days that starting at 7:30 a.m. and end by 3 p.m., with all the same vacations and holidays you might remember from childhood. But teachers often find themselves grading papers late into the evenings, for hours on weekends, and throughout their school-sanctioned breaks. That has become particularly challenging in recent years, educators say, as some classroom sizes have grown to upward of 40 students, with teachers covering four or five periods per day.
That notion of short school days and lengthy breaks simply doesn’t reflect reality, educators say. As Lomayesva, the special education teacher from Arizona, puts it: “That’s really not how things work.”
Almost all teachers spend their own money on supplies.
Of the money teachers do make, a portion of it is spent back on the classroom. A recent Department of Education survey found that, between 2014 and 2015, a startling 94% of public school teachers paid for school supplies without reimbursement from their school districts. Many school districts have stipends for teachers to use on providing supplies, decorating their classrooms and more — but that cash doesn’t last long, teachers tell MONEY.
In Brooklyn, James receives a $250 budget each year for school supplies. “But I end up spending that before class even starts,” she says. Before the 2018-19 school year, James returned to find a mess left behind by summer school classes; she says she spent $500 of her own money on cleaning supplies, organizational supplies, shelving and other materials to get her classroom cleaned up and organized.
Teaching can exact a stiff emotional toll.
In addition to out-of-pocket costs, educators say they often face a heavy emotional outlay.
“We’re not expected to deliver just an academic curriculum,” says James, the English teacher from Brooklyn. “We’re emotional educators for kids as well. I teach them English, but 50% of my job is teaching English and the other 50% is teaching them how to be students, and how to be teenagers.”
Brianne Solomon, an art teacher from West Virginia, says she feels like a surrogate parent or sibling to her more than 180 students. Each of them have her phone number, so she often serves as a resource even when she’s not in the classroom. “So many of our students come from broken homes, and you have to pick up the slack. You have to combat all of that,” Solomon says. “These kids don’t come to school to learn. They come to be loved.”
Of course, for many of the educators who spoke with MONEY, these emotional connections are exactly what keep them in the profession. Even so, however, balancing it all can be exhausting. “It’s an incredible amount of work,” says John Troutman McCrann, a high school math teacher based in New York City. That work, he says, can be “life-altering” — but also “incredibly draining.”
Teachers feel undervalued, misunderstood, and disrespected.
It’s hard to say exactly how, or when, the public’s view of teaching diverged from reality. But the upshot, say teachers, is a sense that they are undervalued and misunderstood.
When educators walked out of schools around the country earlier this year to demand higher wages, better benefits and improved working conditions, some state legislatures responded with extra funding. But teachers note that for many state governments, funding public education is not a top priority.
It’s mystifying, says McCrann, the math teacher from New York: Wouldn’t an taxpayer or state lawmaker want their children to have the best-equipped teachers possible?
“People need to think about what kind of experience they want the person who’s leading the learning of their child to have,” he says. “Do I want them sleeping four hours a night? No one in their right mind would choose that for their own kids.”
Indeed, many teachers did not go into the profession for its wages and hours. Many come into the field to help children develop and learn — and to make a difference in their lives. But teachers feel like they aren’t seen this way — and they want that to change.
“We’re not babysitting,” says Gish, the teacher from Colorado. “We are molding the future.”