Making a Living as a Teacher – the Good the Bad and the Ugly

Teaching is one of the world’s most rewarding professions. It’s a way to impart knowledge and foster the success of the next generation. At its best, teaching is an intellectually stimulating profession and an integral part of the “affective economy.” In other words, it’s about ideas, knowledge and caring.

Whether you choose to pursue teaching as a career, however, depends a great deal on your priorities and aptitudes.  After all, few teaching jobs will make you rich.  If joining the 1% is your goal, then, teaching may not be the best option. Moreover, teaching, regardless of the subject matter, is a social profession—you need to have excellent interpersonal skills and a high degree of patience and empathy. If you’re frustrated by people who don’t appear share your opinions, competencies or personal drive, teaching may not be an ideal career path.  For many people, however, teaching is a first not second career option.


At its best, a teaching career—for example, if you are a tenured full professor at Harvard, Princeton or Columbia—will bring in an annual income in excessive of $200,000 and carry generous benefits and ample vacation time. But this is by no means the norm. Most full professors make between $90,000 and $150,000 per year, and only achieve this compensation later in their careers. However, most college and university teaching is now carried out by part-time professors who often teach throughout the year, struggle to make even $30,000 annually from a variety of jobs and usually have no health benefits or retirement contributions from their employers.

Preschool, elementary, middle and high school teachers also report a wide range of salaries and working conditions. In some districts, teachers with seniority and additional qualifications (e.g., a graduate degree) make over $85,000 annually. Most elementary, middle and high school teachers report annual income in the $50,000 to $60,000.  In either case, they typically enjoy health benefits and employer retirement contributions. By contrast, many teaching assistants and preschool teachers make far less than the average American, typically declaring between $20,000 and $30,000 per year.

Whether one teaches at the university level or preschool level, however, there is little doubt that becoming a member of the million-dollar club likely will not happen on one’s teaching income alone. At its best, a teaching career can represent a very well compensation position. At its worse, teaching can put one on par with fast food workers.

Health and Retirement Benefits

Most full-time teachers, with the exception of preschool teachers, have some form of health benefits and receive employer contributions to their retirement funds. This holds true for college and university professors and most teachers with full-time jobs in the public school system. Private school teachers may or may not enjoy benefits. Preschool teachers are also less likely to receive benefits are part of their job. Most teaching assistants and supply teachers do not receive benefits of any kind, particularly not if they are employed on a part-time basis.

Current Job Prospects and Projected Growth

Depending on the level and subject, teaching may or may not be a safe career choice to pursue at this time. While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 19% growth rate in postsecondary teachers over the next decade, there is already a surplus of qualified college and university level teachers, particularly in the arts and humanities. Indeed, in some disciplines, such as English, less than half of graduating PhDs are expected to ever obtain full-time teaching appointments at the university level. By contrast, jobs for elementary, middle and high school teachers are somewhat more plentiful and have a projected growth rate that mirrors the national average of 12% over the coming decade.  However, once again, in some metropolitan areas, such as New York City, the surplus of qualified teachers means that certified teachers, even with master’s degrees, often work on a part-time basis or as teaching assistants for many years before finding permanent jobs. As a rule, at both the secondary and postsecondary levels, qualified candidates who are willing to relocate to less desirable locations outside major urban centers (e.g., Anchorage or Omaha), may be more likely to obtain permanent jobs immediately following graduation.

Quality of Life

Measuring one’s quality of life is never a simple task but may consider things such as leisure time, commute time to work, home ownership and the ability to make long term plans (e.g., about retirement). Once again, depending on what type of teaching work one ultimately obtains, one’s quality of life may vary considerably.

If one can find a full-time permanent job, teaching can prove to be one of the most secure jobs available on today’s job market. Once college and university professors receive tenure, they are nearly impossible to fire, even when their behavior suggests this may be necessary. School teachers with many years of seniority often enjoy just as much job security as college and university professors. Until recently, New York City maintained an infamous “rubber room” for teachers who were deemed unfit for the classroom but who had too much seniority to be easily taken off the payroll. But for all the stories about bad teachers with “jobs for life,” in today’s economy, there are also a growing number of great teachers will little or no job security. And whether one owns their own home (or has the potential to eventually do so at some point) or enjoys ample leisure time is typically contingent on whether or not one holds a permanent full-time and temporary or part-time teaching position.

So does teaching offer a high quality of life? At its best, a career in teaching offers a high-level of job security, a decent income, robust benefits and of course, generous vacation time (in some cases, even eligibility to apply for paid leaves).

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