Are Teachers Worth Their Pay – You Decide

Are Teachers Worth Their Pay – You Decide

The average teacher makes around $52,000 per year

Whether teachers are underpaid, overpaid, or paid a fair salary is a hotly-debated issue in the public discourse. A lot of teachers and their unions have been under fire in recent years because of underperforming schools, districts, and our country’s generally poor academic standing when compared with other countries around the world. Even though we spend the most money per student on education of any country in the world (double what countries like Germany, Japan and South Korea spend), we have been consistently dropping in the international rankings in virtually every subject area and are barely hanging on to a Top 20 spot overall.

Studies have shown that the most important in-school factor in determining a child’s academic success is the quality of the teacher. I will discuss both in-school and out-of-school factors much more in future posts, but I think we can agree for the time being that a good teacher can make a huge difference in a child’s life and it’s important that we have the highest-quality teachers possible staffing our classrooms.

Pay teachers more

One of the most common arguments about how to funnel more high-quality teachers into our schools is to pay them more. Many people say that teachers are underpaid for how important and stressful their jobs are. On the other side of the fence people argue that teachers are overpaid because school days are short and teachers only have to work 9 months of the year.

In an attempt to address this debate I am going to approach the teaching profession as objectively as possible, since science is my background. My goal for this article is not to give you my opinion about teachers’ salary, but to provide you with an objective look at what teachers make, discuss what their duties are, and then let you decide for yourself if they are valued appropriately. I will give you the numbers and let you digest them. If you feel I have misstated information or not provided enough insight, I am happy to listen to you so please comment on the article at the end. Unlike a lot of bloggers, if I discover new information or realize I have not given something its due diligence I will go back, edit and update posts.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor1 the average teacher makes around $52,000 per year. Here is a breakdown of different teachers and other school professional staff and their average annual salaries:

Pre-school = $25,700
Kindergarten = $48,800
Elementary = $51,660
Middle School = $51,960
High School = $53,230
Special Ed = $53,220

Other School Professional Staff
Principals = $86,970
School and Career Counselors = $53,380
Instructional Coordinators = $58,830
Librarians = $54,500

Keep in mind that these are just national averages for all teachers; Starting teacher salary is often much lower than the average teaching salary, the highest paid teachers in a district can make much more than average teachers, and teaching salaries vary drastically by region. For example, in South Dakota the average starting teacher salary is $32,180 and average teacher salary is $39,850, which is much lower than in California where starting salary is $56,950 and average salary is $67,871. The difference in annual salary between new teachers and experienced teachers can be as high as $25,000.

So how much work do teachers have to do to earn their salary? This can be a very subjective question since there is a vast range of how many hours various teachers work. If you are a new teacher, just starting out, developing and testing your curriculum, you might be spending significantly more time preparing lectures and grading assignments than a seasoned professional. But again, fort the sake of being as objective as possible, I will report raw average data and let you make your own conclusions.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)2, the average teacher in the United States clocks about 1060 hours of actual teaching time in the classroom every year. By their definition, this only includes time spent teaching students, nothing else. So how many hours per day are teachers actually teaching in the classroom? If you divide the 1060 hours by the average number of school days, 180, this comes to about 6 hours per day.

Empty classroom

As I stated, this number only includes actual teaching time and not time spent to prepare lessons, grade homework or exams, correspond with students and parents, help students before school, at lunch, or after school, staff meetings, teacher workshop days, parent/teacher conferences, etc. A lot of a teacher’s work happens after the last bell of the day has rung, when the classroom is empty. If you include all of this time, according to the OECD, the average teacher in the US spends around 1930 hours performing teaching-related activities (The OECD report didn’t explicitly state this number, but I calculated it by dividing the “teaching hours” by the “percentage of teacher’s working time spent teaching”, which was approximately 55%). These 1930 hours annually come to about 10.7 hours per day spent teaching and performing teaching-related tasks, or about 53 hours per week. Further corroboration of this number can be found in the Bill and Melinda Gates publication of Primary Sources3, an annual survey of over 10,000 teachers, finding that the average teacher reported 10 hours and 40 minutes of teaching and teaching-related activities per day, or 53 hours per week.

So what do all of these numbers and hours mean Joe the Tutor? I’m starting to get tired of trying to grade your essay! Too many words! Well, this is a simple as a calculation gets: take the average teacher salary ($52,000) and divide it by the number of hours the average teacher works per year (1930 hours) and it comes out to $26.94/hour. Some teachers make more, some teacher make less, but this is what the average teacher makes.

What are the responsibilities of a teacher? I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here because everyone has their own opinions about the responsibilities and importance of teachers from their own personal experience, but objectively, teachers do play one of the most critical roles in our society; they must educate, mentor and prepare our children to be successful adults who will contribute to our society. Everyone has a story about a good teacher who shaped their thinking, and perhaps even their career path. And everyone has a story about a bad teacher who may have left them discouraged or even caused them to hate a particular subject. For good or bad, these teachers can dramatically shape an individual’s perspectives and future success.

How many students is each teacher responsible for educating, mentoring and preparing for the future? According to the Department of Education4, the average student/teacher ratio is 15.8. However, this number is technically not an accurate representation of class size because included in the ratio are special education teachers and other professional staff who may only work with a small number of students. The typical secondary classroom teacher has an average class size of 23.4 students, and teachers are usually responsible for teaching anywhere between 4 and 6 classes per day, which means an average of 93-140 students. *And here’s where I could use the help of my readers to locate a more precise metric: I was unable to find a reliable source for the number of total students a teacher is responsible for. If you find a reliable source, please add it to the comments and I will update this post.*

I know there are also many other stresses and responsibilities teachers take on including disciplining students, meeting national and state curricula and testing requirements, etc., but I’m not going to discuss them here.

As I said before, my goal was not to convince you or tell you my opinion about whether teachers’ wages are less than adequate, more than adequate, or perfectly adequate compensation. I will let you arrive at your own conclusion, I just broke down the numbers for you. The question you have to answer for yourself is this: Is paying the average teacher $26.94 per hour worth it? Please, feel free to comment below!

So here’s the take-home message:

The average teacher works 1930 hours in a year and makes around $52,000. This comes out to $26.94/hour. Teachers are responsible for educating, mentoring, and preparing an average of 23.4 students per class and see 4-6 classes each day which, means a total of 93-140 students. What do you think?


  1. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor. Occupational Outlook Handbook. 2012-13 Edition. Available at:
  2. OECD. How much time do teachers spend teaching? Education at a Glance 2012: Highlights. Available at:
  3. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Primary Sources 2012. Available at:
  4. U.S. Department of Education. National Center for Education Statistics. Digest of Education Statistics, 2011.

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