A guide for teachers: How to get around the low-pay hurdle


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Teachers play a key role in shaping the minds of our youth, but teachers’ salaries still remain low. Over the past decade, the average classroom teacher salary has increased 15.2 percent, according to the National Education Association (NEA). After adjusting for inflation, the average salary has actually decreased by $1,823, or 3 percent.

Brookings reported that the spending power of salaries decreased between 2000 and 2017 by 16 percent in Indiana, 15 percent in Colorado and 12 percent in North Carolina.

“I’ve been teaching for a long time, since 2000, and there’s so much more on our plates now. It’s not just about being a teacher anymore,” says Danny Kofke, special education teacher and author of “The Wealthy Teacher” and four other books.

The NEA reports that despite popular belief, teachers don’t necessarily get an easy summer off, but spend it either teaching summer school, taking classes to advance their careers or working a second job to make ends meet.

There are personal financial tips and solutions to help teachers make the most of their hard-earned dollars, and there are also ways to supplement out-of-pocket costs such as utilizing teacher discounts and using the right credit cards.

Teachers and under-compensation

Despite rising salary statistics for other professions, teachers still face under-compensation due to inflation and regional economic differences. They can also have high student loans with insufficient salaries that cannot balance out their high loan balances. Finally, they frequently have out-of-pocket classroom expenses as well.

The median annual wage for high school teachers was $60,320 in May 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $39,740, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $97,500.

Michigan tops the list of states where teachers can enjoy the highest average salary, adjusted for cost of living. Illinois, Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Ohio round out the top five states. Teacher salaries go the least far in Hawaii, South Dakota and Maine.

See the full map of teacher salaries by state of teachers, adjusted for inflation:

How to get the most out of your classroom spending

The National Center of Education Statistics (NCES) reported that 94 percent of public school teachers frequently spend out-of-pocket money to fund classroom expenses such as classroom supplies, books and more.

In fact, teachers on average spend $530 of their own money during the school year to pay for supplies, snacks for students and other classroom items, according to a Scholastic study.

Kofke says there are ways around dipping into your own pockets for classroom supplies. “By my fourth year of teaching, I had enough glue sticks to last me for a while. Check your inventory and see what you need,” he suggests.

Grants and funding options for teachers

In many states, teachers qualify for public benefits. Consider doing some research for both federal and private grants.

Federal grants

Federal grants are economic aid issued by the U.S. government. One of the best ways to start your research is to go to Grants.gov and choose “education” grants.

Private grants

Private grants are not funded by federal, state or any other public agency. Instead, they’re funded privately based on an organization’s mission. Here’s a short list of several private grants you can look into:

Teacher discounts

Many stores not only offer discounts for teachers in general, but for classroom supplies as well. Check out some of these popular stores’ offerings:

The Staples Teacher Rewards Program allows you to earn rewards for classroom purchases and more, including up to five percent back in rewards on everything and ten percent back on teaching and art supplies.

Discount School Supply has lots of deals for teaching supplies, from classroom essentials to curriculum materials. Be sure to check out the clearance section for special offers.

At Target, you can get ten percent off your entire purchase if you have an International Teacher ID Card (ITIC).

The Scholastic Teacher Store offers lots of sales and deals. Scholastic also hosts some book fairs and warehouse sales so teachers can purchase items at marked-down prices.

The Apple Store allows teachers to receive discounts on purchases, and most Best Buy stores will price-match Apple’s discounts.

Check with your local store to see if discounts apply. If you’re a college student who is studying to be a teacher, you can also find deals.

Best credit cards and rewards cards

Teachers overwhelmingly prefer electronic payment methods, such as debit cards and credit cards, and do a lot of their shopping online, according to a Simmons National Consumer study from fall 2014. Forty-seven percent of teachers say they shop online now more than at any other time in the past.

With this trend in mind, shopping online not only saves a physical trip to the store but is a great tool for racking up rewards. Check out Bankrate’s list of the best credit cards to figure out if you’d prefer a rewards card, cash back or 0% interest card for your teacher-related purchases.

It’s important to note that if you are struggling with high-interest credit card debt, you can pay it off, interest free, for over a year by transferring existing debt to a balance transfer credit card. This can help buy you time or breathing room if you are faced with an overwhelming financial burden.

Ask for donations

Crowdfunding is a great way to garner funds from people or organizations for your classroom. Crowdfunding (also called crowdsourcing) refers to funding a project or venture by raising individual small amounts of money from a large number of people on an internet platform.

DonorsChoose.org and GoFundMe are two popular choices for teachers, and if you’re from Canada, you can choose a platform called MyClassNeeds. No matter which platform you choose, be sure to describe your project in detail when you ask for donations.

Personal finance tips to up your money power

There are several ways to be smart with your personal finances on a teacher’s salary. Claim your tax deductions, track your monthly expenses, be aware of teacher student loan forgiveness and put your retirement to work for you.

Claim tax deductions

Educators can write off unreimbursed costs for books, supplies, computers and other equipment (including software and services), supplementary materials used in the classroom and professional development programs. You can get a tax deduction of up to $250 for some of those costs as well as continuing education expenses.

The IRS requires that an item purchased for your classroom must be considered ordinary, something that is common and accepted in the education profession.

Track your monthly expenses

Budgeting is a great way to determine whether you’re spending more than you make per month. Start by tracking your spending so you know which bills to reduce and so you know where you can begin saving. There are several budget apps that can get you started, or you can simply pull out a slip of paper and start writing it all down. A few budget apps you could explore include:

Teacher student loan forgiveness

Getting out of student loan debt will increase your buying power and debt-to-income (DTI) ratio. Your DTI ratio refers to the percentage of your gross monthly income that goes to paying your monthly debt payments. The lower your DTI, the better shape you’ll be in if you apply for any loans in the future, such as a mortgage.

Any of the following student loans are eligible for student loan forgiveness:

  • Federal Direct Stafford/Ford loans (Direct subsidized loans)
  • Federal Direct Unsubsidized Stafford/Ford loans (Direct unsubsidized loans)
  • Subsidized Federal Stafford loans
  • Unsubsidized Federal Stafford loans

There are also several other qualifications you must meet in order to qualify for student loan forgiveness:

  • You must teach at a qualified school, including elementary and secondary schools or education service agencies that serve a low socioeconomic area.
  • You cannot have loans that were originated before Oct. 1, 1998.
  • Your loans must not be in default.
  • You have to work full time as a teacher for five consecutive years.
  • You must have state certification or a teaching license.

Saving: Retirement and building up an emergency fund

Kofke says that the pension is what’s worth it for teachers in the long run. “For retirement, few companies really offer a pension. Here in Georgia, if you work 30 years, you’re going to get 60% of your salary. You could retire at 53 if you start at 23, at 60% of your salary,” he says. “If you take a bigger picture view of it, there are financial benefits of being a teacher.”

Building an emergency fund is key, and Kofke recommends that you start by saving one month of expenses in a savings account. “After this is done, I recommend that teachers start investing $10 per month for retirement and then eliminate all debt except the mortgage. Once these steps are completed, I suggest teachers then build their savings up to cover at least three months of expenses,” he says.

Teacher-focused credit unions are a great way to help you with your financial future. They work with the interest of teachers in mind and have intimate knowledge of teacher needs because they’re owned by their members.

You can find a list of all teacher credit unions at the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA).

Push your career further

You might also consider continuing your education to get a higher-paying job in the education field, such as in administration (such as a principal or superintendent). Learn more about programs for leadership or education administration, or if you want to go into higher education, a Master of Education (MEd) degree in higher education administration could fit the bill. A majority of mid-level roles require or prefer candidates with a graduate degree.

The National Board Certification involves standards created to represent a consensus among educators about what teachers should know and be able to do. Certification is based on 25 certificate areas on the Five Core Propositions and most teachers earn more money and respect for having a national board certification. More than 118,000 U.S. teachers have achieved Board certification.

Another way to push your career is to consider teaching overseas. Kofke and his wife both taught overseas for two years. “We taught in a country that was the cost of living was much lower than and we got paid in American dollars,” he says. He added that it was also a great start because he easily got a job when he returned to the U.S. “You’ve got to have a sense of adventure. It was well worth it for the life experience and for the money as well.”

Other ways to supplement your income

According to “Education Week,” teachers are about 30 percent more likely than non-teachers to work a second job, and in some states, one-quarter of teachers work second jobs.

Kofke offers some suggestions for teachers to ramp up their income: tutoring, teaching in an after-school program and teaching summer school. Kofke even taught a student at home who was too sick to come to school, which was an option for special education students in his district.

You might also consider putting your original work on the website Teachers Pay Teachers, an online marketplace in which teachers buy and sell original educational materials such as lesson plans, worksheets, activities, literacy center ideas, etc.

Other ways to help your income (which have nothing to do with teaching) include getting a second job, develop a side gig and looking for a temp job during the summer.

The bottom line

Kofke says it’s a good idea to look at the big picture — and examine where there are lots of benefits to being a teacher.

“The pension system that most teachers have in place is wonderful. If you look down the road and you’re able to stay in the profession, you’re able to collect a pension and that’s where you’ll reap the benefits,” he says.