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Could one make a decent living being a high school teacher?

  1. Jan 20, 2012 #1

    I've spent the past year or two doing a lot of "soul searching" (if there is such a thing, *laughs*) and along the way, I learned a lot about science education and employment in general. What I've learned is a lot of who I've been through most of my life was predetermined before I was even conceived (thanks twofish) - for instance, me doing well in school has more to do with my brother doing much worse than he should have and the chances my mother couldn't or didn't take when she was younger, than with myself. I've also learned that what I like is of greater importance than what others would like for me, even if they think they have my best interests in mind. My brother would be thrilled if I wanted to get into a start up (or set up my own), my parents could have a heart-attack if I were to announce that I wanted to be a doctor.

    Both my parents are teachers and from what I've seen of their work - I know all about the internal politics that can go on in schools - and I think I would actually enjoy the work. I haven't formally taught any class but I tend to teach friends things quite often (anything I've read or learned about as well as things that's related to our school work, if we're working together) and I enjoyed the process. It also gives me a very solid reason to stay on top of my game at all times. I am also very interested in the "counselling" part of the job, which I was fortunate enough to receive from 2-3 teachers. Teens often find themselves lost in very dark places and I've seen - heck, I have first hand experience of that - how bad it can get and it's a really nice feeling to have someone get down there with you with a pocket torch and some cookies or something! I will also look into trying to get an "internship" of sorts at my former high school and see if I can shadow my physics and math teachers and perhaps even teach a class.

    I've come to the conclusion that while I am capable of doing the things that are expected of me or the things that I expected myself to do, I think I would be much happier if I was in a somewhat "slower" lifestyle, where I could happily indulge in other activities I like, including but not limited to: writing, literature, history, music (all kinds!), economics, most forms of science and hopefully some kind of sport. Who knows, maybe when I get older, when Friday afternoon swings by, I'd like to get the pirogue out and go fishing! Or rock climbing! And cooking!

    Now comes the tricky part. Many of you, I suppose, would like to live in a tropical island by the beach (I'm a ~45 minute ride from 3-4 different beaches) or live in a place where you could get to just about anywhere within a 1-2 hour drive, but I don't. I'd like to travel a lot and work in different places. (various parts of Europe, the States, Asia and probably Australia as well - I guess that's just about everywhere but Africa? :S) How should one go about that? Is there some kind of "teacher training/certification" that I could get that would be recognised in all of these places? The UK has the PGCE and if I'm not mistaken, so does Australia. Is such a thing possible? I do realise that I might not be able to work in all those places but I would definitely settle for any two of those. Also, after ~10 years of teaching, would being funded for graduate school (PhD) still be a possibility? I understand that this would have to be in an area related to my line work, which would almost immediately rule out the "hard sciences" but would include education. But what else? International development?

    I'm also not certain if I'd like to teach math/science or humanities/social sciences but for what it's worth, I will most definitely be keeping the other as a hobby. I'm more tilting towards math though. I'm not so certain as to how I came to this decision but I'm sure it's a combination of various thoughts and experiences I've had. At any rate, what's left for me to say is that I feel good about myself after a very long time.

    Help and/or insights from teachers working in those countries would be highly appreciated.

  2. jcsd
  3. Jan 22, 2012 #2


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    Hey Mepris.

    I was going to become a math teacher in high school but I've changed my mind after doing a practicum. It's not for me, but it may well be for you and since you know in the ins and outs you probably have a very good idea of what is really involved.

    As for living close to the beach, I am in very close proximity to the ocean as I live in a Coastal town, and Australia has quite a few of these.

    With regards to areas of employment and prospects, chances are if you are a math teacher or a science teacher you'll find a job straight away. To give you a bit of insight into the situation, there were about 30 students doing the math and science pathway for teaching at my uni while there were between 200 and 300 students just doing primary teaching alone. Also you should note that more universities offer primary over math/science teaching. Statistics is even worse (in one subject I was the only one doing it at my uni and it was distance based), although there are a lot more positions for teachers than for statisticians.

    What I've noticed about teachers is that usually you start off in a crappy school, do your rounds get some experience under your belt and then after a while you move to a better location with a better school.

    This might entail starting out in the middle of nowhere, or in a public school with a bad reputation. Because of the issue with math/science teacher numbers, you can be more picky but probably not picky enough to get a job at a selective school in a good neighbourhood in a coastal town.

    I am aware that there is some standardized accreditation for multiple countries and I definitely know that if you are licensed teacher in Australia, then you can automatically teach in the UK. In fact we get bombarded with ads for teaching in the UK if you ever visit a job searching site with all the usual "great money in a great private school" yada yada yada, so if you can automatically teach in the UK, then chances are you can do the same here although I would advise to double check for yourself.

    Also with regards to time off, teachers have it but what I noticed when I did my prac at a selective public school, was that the senior guys did a lot of work outside of the classroom with the kids that wasn't completely related to things like in-school extra-curriculurs like sporting comps or camps. One of them did work with kids from other schools that were disadvantaged like running math camps. Even if you didn't do that initially, you would probably be spending very long hours learning curriculums and preparing everything. Having said this math teaching is probably the easiest in terms of preparations because a) most of the material stays the same year to year unlike english b) Things are really easy to mark in terms of tests and exams (i.e. true/false) and c) You can get a textbook out and say "ok class do pages 250-253 and if you don't finish in class do it for homework" and if the class is well run, you can just sit at your desk and read the paper (seriously).

    If you choose teaching then I applaud you. Most of them cop so much crap, are unappreciated, and don't get really get paid much in comparison to other professions like say engineering (but then again, most people that deserve admiration and respect don't get it while people that don't deserve admiration and respect often do: it's a weird world out there!).
  4. Jan 22, 2012 #3
    Teachers make far more than engineers on an adjusted lifetime basis.

    Engineers don't have meaningful pensions. Teachers retire at a large fraction of their salary until they die.

    Engineers have to pay social security taxes. Teachers dont.

    Considering that today you retire at 65 and live to 85, teachers make far more than engineers.
  5. Jan 22, 2012 #4
    This seems highly unlikely. Why don't you run the numbers for us?

    The teachers who don't pay social security taxes also don't get social security benefits.
  6. Jan 22, 2012 #5


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    This is country-dependent. And remember that for all public-sector employees (including teachers) "paying taxes" is just an accounting trick. It's simpler for the state to give you some money and make you to give some back as "tax", than to treat you as a special case and pay you a smaller tax-free amount.

    Sorry, but it's the tax on my private-sector pension that will be helping to pay for the public-sector parasites in a few years from now.
  7. Jan 22, 2012 #6


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    I assume you're referring to the situation in the US. There's been a lot of ruckus lately about defined-benefit pensions for public-sector employees (e.g. teachers, police, firefighters) causing serious problems for state and local government budgets. I'd expect many of those pension plans to be scaled back in the near future, or converted to 401k-type defined-contribution retirement plans.
  8. Jan 22, 2012 #7


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    To answer the title question, teachers don't make a "lot" of money, but (depending on location) it tends to be a unionized job that's relatively stable. Both of my in-laws are retired teachers. They have thus far lived well within their means and have retired well, having saved wisely.

    Teaching is a demanding profession. It's not the kind of job that ends when five o'clock comes - you probably know this being the child of teachers. There are long hours of marking, lesson planning, and you are expected to put in volunteer hours coaching or supevising extra-curricular activities. The other major stress can be dealing with parents - parents who refuse to believe that their childern are anything less than perfect, or parents who don't give a rat's behind about their own kids.

    One big advantage is having the summers off. I've known some teachers who get other jobs for two months, travel, or use the time for other pursuits like writing. So that would likely fit with the lifestyle you're thinking about. Keep in mind though, that many teachers also use this time to prepare lesson plans and fill out report cards, so just like the day not ending at five, they year doens't necessarily end in june.
  9. Jan 23, 2012 #8
    Thank you all for the insight. I really appreciate this. :-)

    I still have a couple of years left to mess around a little before anything's set in stone, so we'll see. As of right now, I'm in talks with an old teacher of mine and our little "math group" and within the coming weeks, we should be able to do some "math talks", where every participant will be able to come up and teach something. :D
  10. Jan 23, 2012 #9
    While I think Antiphon is wrong and would love to see his calculations, I would say that both teachers and the public often underestimate the compensation teachers receive.

    In my State to calculate what a teacher's compensation is one would have to know:

    • Expected age of retirement

    • Their annual salary until retirement

    • Amount of healthcare premium subsidized by gov't (it's HUGE here, and no teacher I've talked to can even tell me what the number is; I have some good but slightly incomplete data on it)

    • Annulized value of their early retiree medical insurance

    • Annulized value of their supplemental medical insurance

    • Annulized value of their pension

    • Cash value of tenure - tough to calculate. You can go a couple of ways; one is to simply see what teachers would require in compensation to give it up. There are other better ones, that no one does.

    The data to calculate a teacher's compensation exactly doesn't exist, but you can get some pretty rough numbers if you know what you're doing. The end result is that teachers make more than most people realize, and I believe are reasonably well compensated for their level of education.

    One important note is that, in my State, a teacher that starts earlier will ultimately make much more than one that starts later. I dislike this type of incentive, but it exists in lots of government compensation plans, including the military.
  11. Jan 23, 2012 #10
    Yea, just about every bit of information and advice in this thread is, so far.

    I tried to scan the OP's wall of text but didn't see a location. Can someone clarify?
  12. Jan 23, 2012 #11
    I can tell you what it was in the district my wife worked for... zero.

    (Trading the healthcare subsidy for a one-time salary bump was *not* one of the union's swiftest moves in this district...)

    But no worries, she took a computer industry job for twice the pay *and* health insurance, so all is right with the world.
  13. Jan 23, 2012 #12
    An unsubsidized healthcare premium for that employee group is roughly $200/month for single and $750/month for a family contract. And that's with weaker benefits than public employees usually get.

    They were seriously sending bills that size to teachers? I mean, as long as the salary bump covered it, then in theory it works out, but I doubt it did over any number of years.
  14. Jan 24, 2012 #13
    I've seen some numbers that try to include several benefits (though I've not seen a calculation including tenure), and teaching still comes out to be fairly low for the level of education required (comparing salary+benefits to other jobs salary+benefits). I'd be curious to see some of your numbers.

    Given the growing cost of healthcare vs. the rate of inflation, it certainly didn't work out well.
  15. Jan 24, 2012 #14
    I don't think it's easy to do. But, just for fun, next time you're talking to a teacher, ask them how much of a raise they'd need to give it up. If they're older it may not be as much, but if they were just tenured the number may be surprising.
  16. Jan 24, 2012 #15
    Its one thing for someone to say "it would take a million dollars for me to give up tenure" as a hypothetical, and quite another turn down a serious offer of a million dollars.

    But, I did ask around after I read your initial post on this. A quick survey of the five highschool teachers I know (all between the ages of 30-35):
    1. would give up 5% of my salary annually for a chance to be tenured (his charter school does not tenure)
    2. 1 million dollars to give up tenure
    3. would give up tenure for $300,000 and a vera wang wedding dress
    4. would give up tenure if the school would guarantee they would cover out-of-pocket expenses for chem and physics labs
    5. would give up tenure for a 20% salary increase + covered expenses for required educational conferences/continuing education programs

    And a response from a former teacher who left before being tenured:
    6. "Most of the people who graduated with me quit teaching within three years. To keep me teaching, you would have had to pay me 2x as much as I was making when I quit. I left for a job that pays sixty percent better than what I made teaching, and it is much easier. Districts should give up tenure and offer much higher salaries."

    The last response is answering a much different question, so I didn't include it with the first 5. But as you can see, the responses are all over the map as I imagine they would be in a more comprehensive survey.

    I think a more systematic way would be to compare teacher pay at private and charter schools that have weaker or no tenure to standard public school districts. Unfortunately, if you do that, you get a negative value for tenure (private and charter teachers make less!). This is probably due to a combination of weaker union position and other unique properties of the private/charter schools. i.e. people will give up a fair amount of salary to teach motivated students. I don't know how to control for this, or if its even possible.
  17. Jan 24, 2012 #16


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    In our last place of residence, our next-door neighbors were both Elementary-School teachers. They made considerably more money than the average people whose taxes paid their salaries. (In 2000, I estimate that as ~%35K each vs ~$20K for the average taxpayer.) They traded vehicles every 3-4 years, and kept upgrading their pickup truck as they bought larger and larger camping trailers. They put all 3 of their children through college and managed to pull off little trips to DC and other places. Still they were able to make home improvements, add a second garage, put new siding on the house, etc. I haven't spoken to them recently, but they are on the verge of retirement and will have their pensions to live on, with taxpayer-paid health care.

    Bear in mind that this relative "wealth" is due in part to economic disparity. Teachers in central Maine are paid on about the same scale as teachers all across the state, even though this is a relatively poor region. Comparatively, they were living quite well, and they got to spend all summer with their kids camping out in their camper, moving from campground to campground when they wanted a change of scenery. My wife and I used to pick up their newspapers and mail when they were gone (which was often) so the place would look "lived in".
    Last edited: Jan 24, 2012
  18. Jan 24, 2012 #17
    A vera wang dress, funny stuff. I've always eased them in with dollar amounts. $500, $1000, $5000, etc and then take note of when it gets hard for them to decide.

    I’ve always thought job security is an important trait that is often ignored when comparing job salaries; a lot of jobs that appear grossly overpriced also have very low long term job security. Sports, sales and some financial jobs come to mind. On the other hand, people with near certain job security, such as tenured teachers, complain about their low pay. But as you point out there’s a lot of other things going on, too.

    I guess that’s my real complaint about the teacher/federal/state worker debate that has gone on recently. Their compensation is so opaque it’s hard to know if they’re paid well or not. I’m constantly beset (this is a big conversation here) by people on one side or the other who don’t know anything, but are certain they’re right. It seems to me teacher pay has all the downsides you get with low pay – difficulty recruiting and retaining, poor morale, etc. But it also has all the downsides from paying someone quite a lot – when you include their healthcare, early retiree medical and pensions, teachers are surprisingly expensive. I personally wish we could do away with most of their benefits and then raise their pay until we fill positions with good applicants. Of course that plan just makes everyone mad.

    That reminds me of another tricky thing about comparing professions like Teacher and Engineer. Engineers have more take home that they can save for retirement, but teacher pensions are also saving. Who does a better job? It’s well known among financial types that engineers, lawyers and similar professionals can be real disasters when it comes to investing; they’re smart and they know it, but they tend to overestimate their own skills and play the market very poorly. On the other hand, pensions are slow moving monsters that can’t take advantage of lots of opportunities smaller investors can.

    You also have to decide on discount rates, which vary by individual, financial status and demographics.

    I used to create excel spreadsheets that tried to calculate the NPV of different professions. Questions like these really gummed it up.
  19. Jan 24, 2012 #18
    So I finally have decided on my definitive answer to the OP:

    Maybe, but it depends.
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