How Should Teachers Talk About Their Incomes?

Brown illustration

Only a few days away from a senior trip a few years ago, my inquisitive and rather nosy seniors began asking me about lifestyle affordability as a teacher: “Why did you go into teaching if you knew your salary would be this low?” “Why do you work a second job?” and, of course, “What do you make?” While sidestepping concrete numbers, I walked them through my thoughts.

That conversation sticks out not because of how personal the questions were; seniors are always curious. Rather, I remember it particularly because one of those seniors had confessed to me earlier in the year that he, too, wanted to be a teacher. As I answered questions about why I chose education as a career path, I could see him quietly watching how his peers reacted to my comments. His face vacillated between despondent and assured. I must have said the right things, because on a visit a year later he was still committed to becoming a teacher. Phew. 

Encouraging Students

That conversation made me think carefully about how teachers talk about money and their incomes inside the classroom. These conversations can mean a great deal to students. Teachers who talk constructively about the meaning in their careers might spark a lifelong interest in their student. Or a discouraging impression might just snuff it out. 

Literature on how students choose their career fields suggests that students are in the “exploration stages” during adolescence. Students ask themselves fundamental questions about potential careers: Is this a job that I think I will like? Do I have role models in this career? Donald Super, author of The Psychology of Careers, found that high school students search for reasons to explore or reject certain career fields and adult role models. Our own classrooms—not undergraduate programs, not new teacher mentorships—are the first stops in the next generation pipeline of teachers.

If we are honest and passionate about our life choices with our students, we may just plant the right seed for a new crop of teachers a decade later. However, if we are despairing or displeased about our lifestyles in front of students (conversations I have certainly overheard), how can we hope to raise the next generation of committed teachers? 

As Dan Lortie’s Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study found, most teachers are driven by a belief that “teaching is a special mission.” Service comes before salary in their hierarchy of needs. Indeed, an international review of 41 studies focusing on teacher career motivations by Irish researcher Manuela Heinz suggests that altruism, service-oriented goals and other intrinsic motivators were the primary drivers for teachers. This comes as no surprise. Teachers are comfortable sharing these ideas with their students. Students, likewise, understand that this is one of the key “perks” of teaching.

The Heinz review found that teachers think of extrinsic motivators beyond salary, of course. When asked to articulate important benefits of teaching, teachers cite family time, job security, benefits, and religious or spiritual motivations as factors in their career calculus. How might we change the perception of teaching as a fulfilling career? Emphasize the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Seems simple enough, yet a deep dive into these motivators uncovers complex societal dynamics.

Why Teachers Downplay Their Profession

Lortie suggests that teachers often minimize these extrinsic factors because “many people both inside and outside teaching believe that teachers are not supposed to consider money, prestige, and security as major inducements.” In other words, society has pressured teachers to articulate the intrinsic—not extrinsic—upsides of their jobs; best to emphasize the selflessness and not the summer vacations. 

This pressure contributes to a need to complain to non-educators about the extrinsic downsides of teaching. “If I complain about my salary,” a teacher might say to herself, “I am really showing how inherently important teaching is to me.” Or, “If I tell students that teaching doesn’t pay,” the thinking might go, “I am emphasizing how selfless and altruistic I am!” This is, perhaps, an uncharitable characterization of how teachers might talk about salaries. Yet this thought process is documented by Harvard researchers in “Barely Breaking Even: Incentives, Rewards, and the High Cost of Choosing to Teach.” Teachers spoke self-deprecatingly about their incomes to highlight the perception of teachers as service-oriented. They recast their low incomes as a price to pay—the opportunity cost—to work with students. 

Interestingly, this Harvard research also suggests that self-deprecating talk might be motivated not only to shape outside perceptions of teachers as selfless, but to shape teachers’ personal conceptions of self. This talk can be used to reassure teachers of the suitability of their career choices. Teachers who complain about their salaries may be assuring themselves of their own self-worth and respectable life choices. “It’s not about the income, it’s about the outcome,” they might say to themselves (and their classrooms). “I made the right choice to be a teacher and I don’t really care about the salary.” 

These sentiments resonate deeply with teachers, and many research studies on teacher career choices have uncovered these same patterns of thinking. Many of these issues, of course, are addressing the perennial and valid issue of low teacher pay. The problem is the way these sentiments may be perceived by impressionable students who might write off this career as even a remote possibility because of what they heard from their teachers. 

I have observed teachers speak about their salaries (in broad terms) in front of classes or in less formal settings on a few occasions. I cannot speak to the teachers’ state of mind when they articulated many of the above ideas. However, I couldn’t help but cringe at some of the self-deprecation and even self-pity. I have no doubt that the high schoolers sitting in those classrooms picked up on those feelings as well. 

Instead of emphasizing the important balance of interpersonal, altruistic and extrinsic benefits to teaching, one teacher made an off-handed comment about their inability to afford a new car. Rather than articulating the trade-offs and personal commitment to teaching, I heard a teacher say that he could make more money “working in a fast-food restaurant. And I wouldn’t have to deal with all your drama.” Ouch.  

Changing the Message

How, then, should teachers talk about their incomes? Teacher pay is an existential issue for the longevity of the field. But the research collated by Heinz and others we have seen suggests that teachers find fulfillment in their careers because of a variety of factors, with income and affordability as just one of the factors. Therefore, teachers could answer this question by reframing the question. Instead of emphasizing income, teachers might instead shift the conversation to the variety of factors that led them to this career and sustain them in this work.

Teachers might share with students the thrill of engagement with generations of students and centuries of ideas. They could talk about the centrality of education within Judaism and how they help continue these grand conversations. They might talk about working daily within a community of learners. They might speak about changing the educational trajectories of individual students. They might emphasize the yearly cycle of teaching: summers to recharge, September chaggim to renew and refresh, Purim mesibot (parties), May tekasim (ceremonies), to remind us of our communal priorities. 

For some educators, these values were put into sharp focus only after leaving the classroom. Last year, I had the chance to interview several experienced teachers from Jewish schools who had left the field during the so-called “great resignation.” As part of those conversations, I asked these teachers what, if anything, they missed from their classroom days. Their answers helped me understand what makes this career unique as compared to other work, and why they were driven to this work in the first place. Some of these ex-teachers were making more money. The majority had a more forgiving schedule. Yet they all felt something was still missing. 

The elementary teacher from the New Jersey area, now working remote in HR, felt her days were “far too quiet.” “It was nice at the beginning, but now I feel a little lonely.” She liked feeling the energy of young students, especially “tefillah and Friday Shabbat programs.” A teacher and junior administrator who now works for a Jewish nonprofit, said she felt disconnected: “My impact is one step removed from the action.” One high school teacher, now working in real estate in Florida, said he still missed the connection to students and the thrill of teaching new material. In fact, he was looking free up some time in his schedule to possibly teach next year.

At a time when our students—and sadly, our teachers—are increasingly looking or being pushed toward high-paying careers given the pressure of our community, educators might offer an honest and well-rounded articulation of their personal values vis-à-vis their career choices. When we find ourselves in these conversations—in bus rides, in the classroom, on a senior retreat—we might have a future educator listening.

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HaYidion Fall 2022 Affordability
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