The Hard Reality of a Teacher Salary With Student Loan Debt

Teaching is meaningful work, but it’s notoriously known for being underfunded and undervalued. Despite the low pay, however, the teaching profession is always in demand and offers rewarding work with good benefits. The big question is, can your teacher salary afford the student loan debt required to complete your education or move up the pay scale?

It takes someone with resiliency and drive to look past this challenge. Here’s what you need to know if you’re currently in, or are considering, this profession and how to make your passion for teaching financially possible with student loan debt.

Teaching requirements

Teachers make lesson plans and share their knowledge, but they also give back to their communities in more ways than one.  A passion for helping others, education and the future of our communities is a must for teachers.

If this speaks to you, at minimum you must receive a state certification and a bachelor’s degree to start teaching. Your teacher salary is state specific and is based on your level of education and years of experience.

To complete a teaching certificate in any state, you must complete student teaching in each level and area of study. This is typically when future teachers gain debt. Working can be too much while trying to teach a classroom and finish up school.

Also, current teachers take on student loan debt to complete a higher degree, like a master’s or doctorate. According to our data, teachers who’ve done graduate programs in high-cost cities have as much as $103,000 in student loan debt.

Leaving college with student debt is a common issue.  The salary you’re going to have once out of school is essential to understand for debt pay off.


The structure of teacher salaries

The national average teacher salary is $60,483, according to the National Education Association (NEA). This is the average, and the fact is that teacher salaries can have a wide range. The state of Oklahoma is on the low end, paying an average teacher salary of $45,292. States with a higher cost of living offer higher wages. For example, a California teacher salary pays an average of $79,128, and New York-based teachers earn an average of $83,360.

Several factors go into determining what your teaching salary is, including:

  • Grade level taught
  • Location
  • Level of education with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certification
  • Years of experience

In some areas, factors like standardized test scores are also taken into account for teacher pay. However, the Institute of Education Sciences found that teaching bonuses based on test scores have mixed results.

How grade level affects teacher salary

The grade level you choose to teach also determines your salary. An elementary school teacher salary is lower than a high school teacher salary. This is because elementary school teachers need fewer endorsements. They also have fewer teaching days required by the state.

High school teachers can be hired with a bachelor’s degree, but a master’s with endorsements in specific subject areas is preferred. Thus they start out with a higher salary.

Teacher salaries by state and level

As mentioned above, states differ drastically in what they pay teachers. Take a look at the data below to see where each one ranks for teacher salaries.

California teacher salaries and New York teacher salaries are consistently high for all teachers. Alaska tops the list for high school teacher salary while states like Oklahoma and Mississippi have the lowest teacher salaries.

Step and lane system for teacher salaries

Each school district has varying pay scales that operates on the “step and lane” system. Each step is the number of years worked. The lane is the degree earned plus any credits. The credits must be full college credits.

Here’s an example of a step and lane schedule that each district publishes for its teachers. The distributions differ based on state funding and district allocation of funds. Districts make their own pay scales.

Higher pay and extended benefits are used to attract and keep highly-qualified educators. Highly-qualified educators demonstrate competence in specific subjects. Competence is defined by states but typically includes a rigorous test or endorsement in subject areas. National Evaluation Series (NES) tests are an example of this.

The pay scale gives a clear path for increasing your income. For most schools, your education and experience (years taught) allow you to move up the pay scale.

How to advance on the teaching pay scale

The quickest way to increase your income is to continue your education as a teacher. This means pursuing a master’s degree, doctorate or an additional certification.

Even if you entered teaching with a master’s degree, an MA+90 credits lane on the pay scale example above can be a huge difference in financial security for families.

Some districts offer professional development funds to further your education. The amount is never enough to cover your entire program, so you will rely on student loans or your paycheck to move up the pay scale.

While you may have spent four to six years in college, your teacher salary will only increase if you continue to pursue education while teaching. Thankfully, most teachers are lifelong learners.

Frozen teacher salaries and stagnant wages

It would be unfair to discuss teaching salaries and not mention frozen salaries and stagnant wages.

Teacher pay is a chronic concern but so is keeping highly qualified teachers in the professions. This coupled with the rising cost of a college education means getting your degree or continuing your education shouldn’t be taken lightly.

When the state can’t properly fund education, teacher salaries are frozen. This means you can’t move up a lane on the pay scale. State funding for education has many factors, but it could be something as simple as a new bond or levy not passing.

Stagnant wages are another factor to consider in teacher salaries. Teacher salaries have increased by 11.2% since 2008-09, according to the NEA. However, once adjusted for inflation, teacher salaries have decreased by 4% from 2008-09 to 2017-18. Adjustments to the pay scale are rare, and it can remain the same for years.

Some states prioritize education and funding or are required to by law, which means teacher salaries are a livable wage. A recent example of this is the McCleary Decision affecting Washington State. The supreme court ruled that Washington State wasn’t properly funding public education in 2012. The McCleary decision set a series of rollouts for improving funding each year.

June of 2018 is when $2 billion dollars was awarded by the state for teacher salary increases. Districts didn’t comply, and Washington entered a statewide teacher strike to ask for salary increases. Negotiations led to increases of up to 24.4% in teacher salaries.

Finding a state that’s proactive and supportive of our school systems will be crucial to receiving a teacher salary you can live on and pay back your student debt with.

Common myths about teacher salaries

There are several myths circling teacher compensation. They’re often a way to justify lower pay. Addressed below are the common misconceptions around teacher salaries and the truths behind each one.

Myth: Teachers are well paid because they have summers and holiday break off.

Fact: Teachers are only paid for the days they’re contracted to work — typically a full school year of 180 days. The teacher schedule is ideal when you have a family or want to travel in the summer. But teachers will spend part of their summers working a second job or continuing their education to advance in the pay lanes.

Myth: Teachers work 7-8 hour days.

Fact: While this is the contracted work day for most schools, teachers work well beyond contracted hours. The time in the contract is the time in the classroom with students. Once the final bell rings, students head home, and teachers begin a series of meetings, start grading papers or work on revising their lesson plans for the next day.

Myth: The health benefits make up for the lost pay.

Fact:  Teachers are public employees and receive medical benefits, including dental and vision. The benefits aren’t free, and a portion is taken out of your check each month like in most careers. The average employee contribution for family coverage in 2017 was $533.48,  according to the National Compensation Survey. The health insurance premium paid by a family is about 33%. The benefits are that most schools offer many health insurance plans to choose from. Coverage is good, but you’re paying for it.

Myth: Every teacher will have a guaranteed pension and funded retirement.

Fact: If you stay in teaching long term, over 20 years, your retirement benefits provided by most schools are sufficient. Teachers are offered a retirement benefits package that both the employer and employee make contributions to.

Be on the lookout for state pension plans that are underfunded. A push has been made to increase the employee-required contribution amount. In some cases, the responsibility for investment is placed on the teacher. If this is the case, it’ll change your overall take-home pay.

Teachers salaries aren’t below the poverty line. The extra hours worked need to be regulated by setting boundaries for yourself so you can enjoy teaching and living your life.  The benefits are reliable, and the pension is a huge bonus if you stay in the profession long term. Balancing a lower teacher salary and quality of life is possible. Just don’t fall for these myths as a way to validate choosing a lower salary.

Can a teacher salary afford to pay back student loans?

Teachers are paid less than other highly-qualified professionals. According to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the teaching wage gap has increased from 4.3% in 1996 to a whopping 18.7% in 2017.

For this reason, you need to be strategic about where and what you choose to teach in order to make sure you can afford to pay off your student loan debt. Teaching is truly a passion, but pursuing the higher teaching salary will keep the stress that comes with student loan debts at bay.

As a teacher, you have the benefit of multiple state and federal forgiveness programs, which can help you pay off your student loans over time.

Federal student loan repayment options for teachers

Depending on the amount of debt you’ve accumulated or will accumulate, you can tackle your federal student loans from multiple angles.

Income-driven repayment

Look into an income driven repayment (IDR) plan right away. This will ensure you’re not paying half your paycheck into student loans and can still build wealth and care for your family. The following are the IDR payment plans:

  • Revised Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (REPAYE)
  • Pay As You Earn Repayment Plan (PAYE)
  • Income-Based Repayment Plan (IBR)
  • Income-Contingent Repayment Plan (ICR)

The benefit is that you must be on an IDR plan in order to be eligible for the federal forgiveness programs offered to teachers.

Federal forgiveness programs for teachers

Thankfully, federal student loans have borrower protections. One option is to take part in a student loan forgiveness program. Teachers can look into these options for student loan repayment.

  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is one of the most beneficial programs for teachers. It offers complete student loan debt payoff after 10 years.
  • Teacher Loan Forgiveness is best for highly-qualified educators who need to pay off a smaller amount of student loan debt. This program offers forgiveness of up to $17,500.
  • State-based student loan forgiveness should always be investigated. Many states, like Texas, offer forgiveness programs to encourage highly qualified teachers to stay.
  • Income-driven repayment forgiveness is a great option if you work at a private school or for-profit school. Under these programs, your monthly payment is lower, but you’ll pay more in interest over a longer period of time.

If you have federal student loans, you have solid options for repayment. Your monthly payments are controlled and don’t exceed 10% of your discretionary income. For most teachers, the ten-year PSLF program is worth pursuing in order to afford student loan debt.

Repayment options for private student loans

As a private student loan borrower, you have fewer options for payment plans. It’s all dependent on the lender you have. Refinancing your private student loans could be a good option for you, especially if you need to lower your monthly payments.

Teachers can have a student loan debt payoff plan

Teachers can find a way to pay back their student loans despite lower salaries. If you have a career in education, you likely didn’t take the job for the money. But you can harness what you do make as well as forgiveness programs available to create financial security.

Your options for student loan debt payoff are plentiful, and it can be helpful to seek an expert to create a personalized debt payoff plan. The team here at Student Loan Planner is ready to help! Choose a consultant who works best for your situation, and find out how you can manage your student loan debt on a teacher’s salary.

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