When you choose a field like education, becoming a high earner can feel impossible. Nationwide, the average pay for a public school teacher was $58,353 in 2016. When I started teaching ten years ago, my salary was around $36,000. Now I make more than twice that much, but it took a big investment in time and continuing education to get there.
To make ends meet, one out of every five teachers works at least one other gig. This is sad, but it isn’t surprising. In recent years, we’ve heard the grim reality of teacher pay amid news of strikes and walkouts and huge teacher shortages. While I’m not worried about making ends meet now, because of the added expenses of starting a family and other financial obligations and goals, my husband (who is also a teacher) and I still side hustle. He coaches on the side while I do freelance writing.
If you think that teaching can only be a labor of love, think again. Sure I love what I do—as a middle school English teacher I help kids better express themselves and connect with the world—but I expect to be paid well too. Today I earn more than the state average of $65,721 in Illinois, where I teach middle school English. It didn’t happen overnight; instead here’s how I more than doubled my salary in a decade.
I went back to school
To make more money, I knew I had to spend it. Namely, I had to go back to school. While some school districts used to subsidize the cost, most teachers are on their own when it comes to continuing education now. That was certainly the case for me.
In order to max my salary schedule, I ended up completing 99 additional credit hours:
- Spanish endorsement (12 hours - $4,000)
- Master’s degree in Reading (36 hours - $11,000)
- English as a Second Language program (18 hours - $6,000)
- Master’s degree in Curriculum & Instruction (33 hours - $13,000)
Tuition combined for all these programs cost $34,000. Never mind other costs like textbooks and the colossal time commitment. As a result, I started this slow climb to better pay a decade ago, which allowed me to cash flow tuition as I went thanks to support from my husband, sticking to a tight budget, and side hustling the whole way.
If I was going to bear the costs of time and money, I wanted to make sure I optimized my plan. While I had a limited number of approved universities where I could complete my coursework, I comparison shopped costs and timeframes. I also made sure that each class I took and each program I completed addressed a real need in my profession.
By focusing my efforts on learning a second language and deepening my understanding of how to support non-native speakers, I started to develop a skill set that would serve both my specific school population and society as a whole. Additionally, my first master’s was a K-12 program, which partly overlapped with my undergraduate degree, but also unlocked opportunities at other levels. As I finished each program, I was approved for a salary lane change. Little by little, I worked my way over to the highest-paid lane.
By strategically planning my graduate work, I not only qualified for salary increases, but I learned how to better serve my students. This coursework will also offer me a competitive edge if I ever decide to pursue other employment avenues.
I took a (temporary) pay cut
In addition to shelling out a ton of money on continuing education, I also took a pay cut of over $10,000 when I switched schools. I made the decision for two reasons: I had been laid off two years in a row in what’s known as a “reduction in force” and I was thinking long term.
There’s this misconception that no one gets fired in teaching. As someone who was released twice, I can assure you that isn’t true. Even as more teachers leave the profession, there are still gaping holes in school budgets. Reducing staffing and increasing class sizes is one of the easiest—and most problematic—ways to cut costs.
My first school district was floundering financially, and they had implemented a reduction in force two years running. Though I had eventually been recalled and rehired both years, I made the decision to leave. I was young and I loved my coworkers and my students, but I could read the writing on the wall. I sensed things were going to get worse financially in that district before they truly got better.
Still, it was hard and uncertain. It is very easy to tell people to think long term. It is another thing entirely to do it yourself—especially when you are in the middle of a $11,000 graduate program. I still miss that school almost daily all these years later, but I know that I made the right decision for me.
I’m dedicated to the job
Over the past decade, I have absolutely thought long and hard about my salary. But in the end, I’m in it for my students. I make dozens of commitments—from running school-wide SEL programs to hosting holiday events for the community—that come with no pay. I continually put my students first regardless of money.
Staying dedicated keeps me in the classroom. I love the challenges that come from shaping young minds. I get to infuse technology with teaching as I put together lessons that keep kids engaged in literature, writing, and the world around them. No two students are the same, and no two days the same. The exhilaration that comes from this awesome responsibility is constant.
When I give my students my best, I get their best in return. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t days that seem impossible. But it does mean that in a field that is becoming notorious for burnout and turnovers, I can stay strong.