Teacher salaries - what to expect

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"I became a teacher for the money," said no one ever, Just because your motivation for teaching isn't all about the dollars doesn't mean that salary doesn't matter. Read on to learn more about how teachers are paid, what kind of salaries you can expect, and some tips on what to look for as you think about your own potential salary as a teacher.

The teacher salary schedule

Unlike a typical private sector job, teachers are usually paid in a uniform manner based on specific qualifications. This type of structure is known as a salary schedule. Traditionally, teacher salary schedules are based on levels of experience and education, frequently referred to as the "step and lane" schedule. All teachers with the same level of experience and education are paid the same amount. Teachers move up a "step" for each year of teaching and move over a "lane" as they gain more educational credits.

For example, using the schedule below you can see that all teachers starting their fifth year of teaching who have a master's degree earn a salary of $46,082.

Sample salary schedule

Of course, not all districts use a traditional salary schedule. More and more districts are offering teachers the opportunity to receive raises based on their performance. Many districts also offer an increase in base pay or a bonus to teachers who work in hard-to-staff subjects (typically math, science, and special education) or in high-needs schools.

What can I expect to make at the beginning of my career?

Across the largest school districts in the country, starting salaries for new teachers with a Bachelor's degree and no experience vary significantly. In 2014-2015, some districts had starting salaries in the low $30,000s, such as West Ada School District in Boise, ID ($31,750) and Albuquerque Public Schools ($32,000). Meanwhile, new teachers in the District of Columbia started out with a $51,539 salary along with several other large districts like Long Beach Unified School District, Boston Public Schools, and Chicago Public Schools, all of which offer more than $50,000 to those starting their careers.

What about later on in my career?

As is the case with starting salaries, how much teachers make throughout their career varies significantly from district to district. While there are some large districts where teachers can make more than $100,000 per year, like the District of Columbia Public Schools or Boston Public Schools, other districts' salary schedules top out at less than $60,000.

When it comes to considering salary later in your career, how quickly your salary increases is more important than just the late-career dollar amount alone. Let's take a look at four districts that have very different starting and ending salaries. The graph below shows the salary trajectories for a teacher in four districts: Boston, where teachers have some of the highest earning potential; Albuquerque, where teachers earn the least; Northside (TX), a district with a high starting salary; and Portland (ME), a district that offers a low starting salary, but a high lifetime earning potential.

Although neither Boston nor Portland offer the highest starting salaries in this comparison, both districts offer higher potential lifetime earnings, thanks to a relatively steep climb in salary. In contrast, Northside offers the highest starting salary, but due to a relatively long, flat salary progression, teachers in Northside actually have much lower lifetime earnings potential.  

So, what should I be looking for?

It's important to remember that salaries are more than just a dollar amount. The cost of living where you teach and how you earn money over time are both important factors to look for; $30,000 in Albuquerque buys a lot more than $30,000 in Los Angeles! Check out this interactive map that compares salaries across the largest districts in the country after adjusting for cost of living.

Visit the interactive version of this map for more details.

To sum it all up, you should consider more than just the starting salary when you're making a decision about to where to teach. Remember to ask about opportunities to earn additional pay or bonuses based on your performance or teaching in high-needs subjects and schools. When comparing potential salaries in different areas, consider how the cost of living might change. If you plan to teach in the same district for an extended period of time, consider how your compensation stacks up as you gain more experience.

How can I learn more?

Check out NCTQ's Teacher Contract Database to learn more about teacher salaries and many other topics in over 140 districts across the country. Have a specific district in mind? You should be able to find the salary schedule by searching the district's website. Try starting with the human resources page.

Get more details about how important salary over time can be for your lifetime earning potential in Smart Money: What teachers make, how long it takes and what it buys them.