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How Much Do Teachers Really Make?

pros and cons of being a teacherIn the personal finance community, view points often lean toward toward self employment, multiple side hustles, and even early retirement. We often pity those who remain in a regular 9-5 job for several decades. “Regular jobs” are often a means to an end, and there is little sense of loyalty. Today, I’ll share a different view point.

What if a person does want a steady job for the long haul that includes benefits, paid time off and the holy grail of retirement, a pension! There are few careers left that offer these terms, but I happen to be in the know about one of them. Teaching is a profession we usually think of as hard work with low pay, and I would have to agree, but  there are some upsides.Let’s look at how much teachers really make.

Aren’t You An Optometrist?

That’s right. I am not a teacher. I have no desire to be a teacher. I’d almost rather be trapped in a room full of spiders than small children, but I have been married to a teacher for the past 12 years. I was with him from his first job on, so I think that gives me insider knowledge that the average optometrist would not have . I would even say that qualifies me as an expert witness to the pros and cons of being a teacher.

How Much is a Teacher’s Salary?

Just like any job, salary varies dramatically depending on location and years of experience. I think it’s fitting for this post that we live in one of the lowest paying school districts in Colorado. Surrounding districts generally pay teachers at least $10,000 more per year. If you can make it on a teacher’s salary here, you can do it just about anywhere. I also have no idea about private schools.  This post is based only on our experience. Other districts may be different.

One good and bad thing about teaching is that your salary is set. If you have x amount of years and x amount of education, you get x amount of dollars. You can view your expected salary and raises on the school’s website for the duration of your career. Salary is often adjusted for cost of living increases, but if you want to plan, it’s pretty easy.

Beginning teachers with a bachelors degree in our school district start at $29,250 per year. As a comparison, managers at Wendy’s make around $35,000. Nurses start at around $40,000. Oil field workers bring home around $60,000.

Teachers top out at $54,337 if they have a master’s degree plus 45 or more extra hours of continuing education credits AND have worked for 25 years. If you never get a master’s, you’ll top out at $36,171.

That Much Education For So Little Pay?

I don’t know of a ton of careers outside of education that require 6 or 7 years of college but top out at such a low point. It almost makes me wonder why anyone goes into teaching, but before we write it off completely, let’s look at other ways teachers are compensated.

Health Care

Teachers have some of the best health insurance, hands down. I often hear teachers complaining about a copay or having to pay something out of pocket, and I want to strangle them. Jim’s health insurance has a $40 copay for doctor visits, plus a $1000 deductible if he has to have surgery or go into the hospital. For generic medicines, the copay is $5, and for brand, the most you’ll pay is $40. All this goodness costs nothing. I’m not sure if all school districts fund insurance entirely, but ours does. If he could even find a plan this good on the exchange, it would probably be at least $600 a month. They also offer vision and dental coverage for reasonable costs. Coming from someone who has an $11,000 deductible before my insurance pays a dime, this seems pretty sweet.

Paid Time Off

Teachers work on a 9 month contract. That’s three months off per year, two weeks at Christmas, a week at both Thanksgiving and spring break, plus a handful of other holidays. When is the last time you had President’s Day or Martin Luther King Day off? If you looked at the entry salary as being paid for 9 months of work, that equates to $3250 per month. It’s just spread into 12 paychecks instead of 9. Those months off in the summer offer an opportunity to work a second job to earn more money if the teacher salary is not enough.

Teachers also get a truckload of sick days. I believe Jim started with 10 per year, plus two personal days. He has never taken that many days off, so it carries over to the next year. I’ve known teachers who have been able to retire a couple of years early because they had so much accumulated sick time.

Job Security

There is a probationary period for new teachers. I believe it was 3 years for Jim. During that time, your contract might not be renewed if you suck at teaching or if the school has to eliminate a position. After that, it’s really hard to get fired outside of doing something illegal. If you get an extended illness or take a year of maternity leave, your job will be waiting when you go back. The bad teachers sometimes get moved to less desirable positions, but they don’t get fired. I’m sure there are exceptions, but this seems to be the case based on what we’ve seen over the years.

What are the Cons?

Teaching is thankless work. You work your butt off every day to try and get through to a room full of children who are often indifferent at best. The respect that teachers received from students and parents back in my school days is long gone. Many parents love to blame all their children’s problems on the teacher.

You are also at the mercy of the state and local governments. The reason our teachers get paid so poorly is that the community will not support a tax increase to raise teacher salaries. The state has also cut the education budget tremendously since 2008. From 2008 to 2012, teachers here did not get their annual raises and had to take furlough days. That adds four extra years before hitting the top salary and being able to retire on schedule.

Teachers in Colorado do not pay into social security, so if you quit before retirement age and have not saved independently, you’ll get nothing in retirement.


Perhaps the best reason to go into teaching is the retirement benefits. Yes, the state could go broke or Armageddon could occur, but even during the worst of the last recession, retired teachers still got their pension checks. Retirement depends on the age when you start teaching, but you can generally retire if you are over 50 and have put in 25 years. Annual pension amount is based on the average of your three highest salary years throughout your career, and there is a calculator online to figure out what you can expect. For that topped out teacher with the master’s, the annual pension is $33,960 with a 2% cost of living increase each year.

If you worked in a traditional job, you’d have to invest around $825,000 to withdraw that much annually. That’s a pretty good reason to stick with it for 25 years!

The Real Reason People Teach

If you’ve heard the saying that people do not go into teaching for the money, it’s 100% correct. I’ve never heard one teacher say they signed up for the retirement and health insurance. You go into it hoping that you can educate and help children move into the world of being productive adults.

There are tons of examples of where it does not work out, but for those times when it does all fall into place and you can influence a young mind in a positive way, it’s worth all the money in the world. Do you remember a favorite teacher who believed in you? I have one in mind who always pushed and believed in me more than I believed in myself sometimes. Making that connection is truly priceless.

Would you work in a low paying job for 25 years if it meant a steady retirement?  Did you have a teacher who made an impact on you?



About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.


  1. I personally like the idea of having summer off. Wouldn’t that be great? Good health insurance would be a big bonus too. I wouldn’t mind being a teacher as long as my husband made plenty of money =)

    • I would absolutely love to take the whole summer off, but that’s one of the busiest times for eye exams. I’m a little nervous about taking 3 weeks next summer, but sometimes you just have to live on the edge!

  2. My youngest brother is actually in his second year of being a teacher in Kansas. He’s making in the low to mid 30’s which is ok in that area, but not stellar by any means. He enjoys it, but has found dealing with the politics to be the real hassle. He’s the only one doing what he is in his area and the state is doing all they can to derail the school system and wasn’t prepared, on some levels, for that. That said, he enjoys it, and has some pretty awesome benefits so I guess it’s not all bad.

    • It is hard to get past all the red tape. We’ve seen the district adopt new programs, train everyone, do press to get the community on board, then dump the whole thing the next year. It’s exhausting.

  3. My hubby is a teacher; however, he has taught for 15 years between 4 different schools, and two of them were private, so retirement benefits are not his end game. Actually, he makes $30,000 less per year in NY teaching at a private school vs. public but that’s because the private school has afforded him the flexibility to teach his subject (physics) the way he wants to teach it. They even use the e-text he wrote. For him, it’s not about the money or time off, it truly is about changing lives. When he has a student “get it” he says it’s like the best kind of drug there is. I wish teachers made more in general because they do change lives everyday and they take care of our most precious commodities, our children, on a regular basis. I feel like there is no good enough price tag for that.

    • I always assumed private school paid more. We have some teacher friends who moved to South Korea to teach in a very elite private school. Tuition is something like $30k per year for students. They get paid really well and are very respected. It’s sad you have to move overseas to find that. Physics was one of my worst subjects. I would have flunked lab in college if a very nice TA hadn’t taken pity and helped me out.

  4. I’ve always considered teaching to be a part time job which pays pretty darn good. They only worked 9 months out of the year, had a shorter workday than most, had a nice Christmas vacation as well as several holidays each year. In my school district new teachers start out close to $40K so when you count the hours actually worked it is a pretty nice gig. Several teachers I know drive Cadillacs, Jeep Grand Cherokees, Beemers etc and my closest friend (now retired) always took 1 or 2 cruises or European vacations each year. So when I hear about teachers wanting more money, I admit to being pretty skeptical about the need.

    • I can see it both ways. As a beginning teacher, it’s pretty lean, but if you can hang in there, I think it can be worthwhile. I also know many teachers who take extended vacations in the summer. It always made me jealous, but now I’ve arranged to take more time off, so I’m not envious anymore.

    • The hours are longer than you think. “Contract time” is time on contract that teachers are actually paid for – 7:20 am to 4:00 pm on days that school is in session, plus about two weeks total of professional development and “in-service” days when students are not present. Now, the days school is in session, you need to realize that you will be teaching “bell-to-bell” – you’ll probably have 50 minute classes with a five-minute turnaround in between to set up presentations and handouts for the next round. You may not leave the room at all to leave the class unsupervised, so your first restroom break will be around 11:30 am so you’ll want to restrict fluids. You’ll then get a 50 minute conference period to make parent calls, pray the copy machine is working and the line is short, put grades in the grade book, etc. Then you’ll get a 25 minute lunch (that you will probably eat at your desk while you answer emails and fill out IEP papers). Then it’s back to 50 minute classes with 5 minutes between for the afternoon. Then the bell rings and your contract time is up, but you’re not done. You have an hour of tutorials. Then you’ll get tomorrow’s presentations, handouts, quizzes, etc. ready. Then at about 5:30 you’ll take your marking home with you, because it’s going to take about three hours to finish it. By the way, the summers are not paid time off – contracts are for days worked, only. The district withholds a portion of your salary every month, though, and gives it back to you over the summer months. If you still think teaching is a fun little well-paid part-time job, there’s something seriously wrong with you.

  5. I suppose I would if I truly felt it was my calling. I think it would be tough as hell to live off that in LA or other expensive cities though, so I’d more than likely have to live somewhere else and be a teacher. I do enjoy teaching to some degree, which is why I sometimes coach. I think it satisfies that need for me as a side hustle.

    • I’m sure bigger cities pay more, but you still can’t afford the cost of living in many places. I know in Telluride, teachers get a higher salary relative to much of the state, but it’s still never enough to afford a house there. I guess it would be a trade off.

  6. Wow, those are really low salaries, but definitely sweet benefits. A friend of mine worked at a charter school in Brooklyn and made 70k, but she said the grueling schedule wan’t worth it- in fact, she quit and spent a year working retail at lululemon just to reset. She recently moved to Denver to be a consultant for teachers and is making over 70k now with more flexibility- I think I could get on board with that gig.

    • Consulting is like the holy grail in education. I really hope Jim will lean that way at some point. He has the skills and is making the connections right now.

  7. It’s definitely a field of work that people because they feel called to it. I couldn’t hack it personally but I have the highest degree of respect for those who are teachers. They are sorely underpaid and not valued near enough in my opinion!

  8. My wife works in a school district as a Speech Language Pathologist in Wisconsin. Wisconsin is the first (I believe) to pretty much make union irrelevant so it has been interesting to see the changes. Her district has been one of the first districts to implement pay for performance which brings it more into line to operate like a private business. While they are still working out the kinks, it shows great potential to reward the good teachers while recognizing the poor teachers and potentially letting them go. And even though teachers now have to pay a portion of their benefits, they still are extremely good.

    This has obviously been a very hot topic item in the state but I do think there is great potential here. Reward those who are doing well and evaluate those that aren’t meeting standards.

    • We followed Wisconsin a bit during all those strikes. Jim (my husband) spent last year developing a peer coaching and teacher evaluation system only to have the state throw out the program altogether. The union still has tons of pull here. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. We have so many students in poverty that that’s a huge issue. Kids can’t do well in school if they are not safe at home or hungry. That is out of the control of the teacher and I don’t think they should be penalized if kids don’t show up or aren’t prepared. At the same time, you should not be able to keep showing up and doing a halfway job just to get to retirement age.

  9. My parents are/were both elementary school teachers. My dad taught 36 years and my mom will retire this year after 22 years. I believe my dad topped out at $72k and my mom is around $58k, both with their masters. My dad was offered college jobs all the time and to be a principal but turned it down because he wanted to be a teacher, not an administrator or lecturer. I’ve been on TV for over a decade as a reporter, but I am better known as my father’s son because he taught so many people for so long. He made a big difference. The pay wasn’t amazing but they paid off their house in 18 years and now my dad makes more being retired than he did working. It’s hard, unappreciated work, but you can make a big difference.

    • That is so cool that your parents made a difference in so many lives. It sounds like they ended up with decent income, but it sounds like that wasn’t their motivation.

  10. My sister worked as a teacher for a year or so when she got out of college, and actually quit it altogether at that point. She’s moved into admin work and would like to pivot off that into some other business-related job (she works at one of the big corporations here in Minnesota so she’s in a good spot to do that). The issue is that teachers get paid so little, as you pointed out. She was putting in a ton of hours and barely making anything. She was also spending a lot of her own money on supplies.

    The three months off is a big benefit imo. Instead of taking that time off I would try to launch startups each Summer until one “stuck” and hopefully build that into my full-time job. I can’t stand kids, though, and being a teacher sounds like torture so I never even considered going that route.

    • I guess I could probably teach college kids who maybe want to be there, but younger than that, no way. Teachers do end up putting in more hours than is in their contracts and have to buy their own supplies if there is a project for the class or for those kids who just come to school unprepared. There is actually an educator tax credit for that exact purpose. It’s only $150 a year though.

  11. ” I’d almost rather be trapped in a room full of spiders than small children” HAHAH! Me too! I think health care being included in the compensation package is standard, at least in Illinois and Missouri – and it is for librarians too, as weird as that sounds! I really don’t like taxes, but I will say teachers are one thing I don’t mind paying them for!

  12. To answer your question: I’d love to do a low paying job forever. But, only if it was a job I really loved.

  13. My younger sister was an elementary school teacher and she loved it, but every year she was at risk of having her teaching position eliminated. She was always able to find a position, but it was stressful for her and family. A couple years ago after her position was once again eliminated during cutbacks, she went into the private sector. It was a really hard decision for her because she loved teaching but her family needed the financial stability. The benefits are great but I wonder how many burn out before they can every really reap the full rewards of them. A great teacher can make a huge difference in a child’s life.

    • Was she in California? I’ve heard they eliminated lots of teaching positions during the recession. I don’t believe anyone got eliminated here that wasn’t on probation, but lots of people did have to shift into something else.

  14. I think the salary and benefits differ a lot throughout the country, as does the job stability these days. I feel like I lucked out that I had some of the last generation of brilliant female teachers who couldn’t work in industry because they didn’t have a Y chromosome. Instead, they were got to choose between secretarial work, SAHM, and teaching… so they taught, despite the crappy pay. Today, the brilliant aren’t restricted by their chromosomes in the same way (which is a good thing, overall… just not for the education profession) and the crappy pay is no longer enough incentive to put up with BS bureaucracy and to get nearly the number of brilliant minds that are needed in the classrooms.

    • If I had a math or science interest, there is no way on earth I’d go into education, no matter what the retirement benefits were. It’s really sad that education can’t compete with some of the higher paying professions.

  15. I’m one of those guys that loves my 9-5. I remember my Jr. High counselor (during our career unit) saying that you choose the career you love, and the money will come. I’m not sure if that’s always true, but I don’t think doing a job you hate for a lot of money is any better than doing a job you love for not enough money. What I do know is that in the whole grand scheme of things, Teachers are underpaid for the impact they have on the future of our country.

    • So true. I almost think doing a job you hate for money is worse. I guess it’s better than doing a job you hate for little pay. That’s awesome that you love your 9-5, but you do seem to have a positive attitude in general, so that helps with everything. I’m curious, did you love you job as much when you were in debt or was everything more stressful then? I’ve found that I like my job much more now that I’m not counting the days until I get paid.

  16. My hats off to teachers. I could never do it but yet I fondly remember some teachers that had a big impact on my self confidence and post secondary education and career choices. If you’re good, you really do mold and change lives. I’ve seen some great teachers (and some not so great) in my kids lives too!

    • You could always tell the teachers who were really into their craft vs the ones who were phoning it home. I really hope as my daughter progresses through school that we continue to have good teachers. I do worry that the really good ones will move on to a better paying school district.

  17. Putting aside the $800K for retirement is like saving $30K a year, so the $30K salary doesn’t seem so bad, but you really have to be sure you’ll stay the 25 years. I love teaching but have always done it privately, for way more money. My mother is a primary school teacher and yes she gets a ton of holidays but most nights after school she is grading papers, preparing lessons or having teacher meetings, I’d say she works at least a couple extra hours after school every day. It may not seem much but it is an extra 5 days a month. Over 9 months that’s 45 days, it puts your summer holidays in perspective, even though it is nice to work more and have time to travel and work on personal projects.

  18. American teachers really do get a short stick when it comes to remuneration. If you feel like relocating to canada, the situation is very, very different! One of my cousins is a dual citizen and probably going to stay in the US as a teacher; her parents are a bit stressed out about the salaries. To put it in perspective, the topped out teacher you referenced would be right around the 100k mark in my province.

  19. I think it’s awesome that your husband is in a career he loves and that provides such a valuable public service! My brother-in-law is a teacher and, while he didn’t do it for the money or benefits, he does enjoy the summers and holidays off. It’s been a very sustainable and enjoyable career path for him and he’s got a great work-life balance.

  20. My sis in law is an AWESOME teacher. Luckily, teachers get paid pretty well here (she has her masters) but I do know too that she puts in way more than 40 hrs a week. But like you said, the retirement plan is good, and if you’re doing it b/c you love teaching kids, it’s all good. Seems to me like Jim really has a heart for helping teach and train kids, so this is a great career path for him. Is he liking being a principal now?

  21. Our benefits are good but we definitely pay for them! I suppose what the district pays would pay for most of his health insurance but add the family on and we paid over $1,000 out of our paycheck for healthcare. Where we live, city workers and firefighters have much better benefits. As an administrator, the hubster has vacation days and he can take them over Christmas break, summer break, etc. Otherwise those breaks are work days for him. It is a higher salary per year but not so much per hour simply because he works so much more now.

    • That is exactly why we are not on the family plan the school district offers. I agree that admin works almost 24/7. There is always a fire to put out.

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