In September, Education Week asked teachers on social media to name the buzzwords they’re most sick of hearing. Coming in at number four was a term that’s uniquely infuriating when uttered by bosses: self-care.
“It’s a joke,” one educator said plainly. Another noted that the emphasis on self-care “demands [that] teachers maintain a healthy balance in their lives without addressing [the] pay, added responsibilities, and poor conditions” that inevitably disrupt that balance. The admonition to “practice self-care” effectively blames teachers for the sky-high stress and burnout they feel. Are you down about the fact that you’ve missed your prep period for two months and your paycheck barely covers rent? You really need to try guided breathing.
The pandemic brought mainstream attention to widespread teacher shortages, turnover, and attrition, but this crisis has been brewing for decades. Former teachers cite all sorts of reasons for leaving the profession, including impossible workloads and management structures that are grossly out of touch with students’ real needs. But perhaps the most glaring reason that people leave teaching jobs (or decide not to enter them) is the high opportunity cost: comparably educated workers can make substantially more money in other fields.
The weekly wage deficit that teachers experience relative to other professionals, known as the teacher pay penalty, has steadily expanded over time. And a report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows that this financial punishment for becoming a teacher reached new heights in 2021.
For nearly twenty years, researchers at EPI have closely studied trends in teacher pay, capturing an increasingly alarming picture. In the latest report, labor economist Sylvia Allegretto shows that while non-teacher college graduates saw their weekly wages rise by $445 (in 2021 dollars) between 1996 and 2021, public school teachers’ inflation-adjusted wages increased by only $29 during that time period.
In 1996, US teachers paid a modest but meaningful price for their altruism, earning about 94 cents on the dollar compared to their peers. In 2021, that number was down to just 76.5 cents. Teacher wage rates vary from region to region, but in twenty-eight states, the pay gap between teachers and similar college graduates exceeds 20 percent, which translates to average earnings of 80 cents on the dollar. In some places the problem is much worse. Colorado teachers, for instance, make about 64 cents on average for each dollar paid to workers with comparable education. It’s no wonder the Rocky Mountain state has been struggling to staff its schools.
Allegretto notes that the gender breakdown in relative pay is particularly revealing. In 1960, teaching jobs made up a high percentage of all professional jobs available to women, and teaching women earned nearly 15 percent more than their peers in other fields. That wage premium dropped to 6.9 percent by 1979, eventually being replaced by a growing wage penalty in the 2000s.
Today, college-educated women can choose from a wide variety of professional careers. Those who nevertheless decide to teach face the reality that they’ll earn over 17 percent less than other women with college degrees. In other words, as Allegretto explains, “Over six decades there has been a 31.8 percentage-point swing for the worse in the relative wage gap for women teachers.” The field is still female-dominated, but the unsustainable student debt-to-earnings ratio restricts which kinds of women can teach, meaning that students are deprived of the significant benefits of learning from a diverse array of educators.
The situation for male teachers is even more extreme. Men, who earn more than women in the general labor market, already faced a high penalty of nearly 18 percent for teaching back in 1979. In 2021, the average pay penalty for male teachers exceeded an eye-popping 35 percent (or 65 cents on the dollar). As Allegretto points out, this goes a long way toward explaining why the profession’s lopsided gender makeup has not improved over time.
The problem cuts all different ways. First, it’s unfair to men who feel called to teach but are repelled by punishing wages. It’s also unfair to students, who, again, benefit from being taught by a heterogeneous mix of people and who lose out on potentially great male teachers. Finally, the cycle of feminization and devaluation afflicting the profession adds more problems for women who teach. Among other things, it’s demoralizing to be part of an almost entirely female rank-and-file workforce, taking orders from bosses who are much more likely than teachers to be men.
Wage penalties discourage college students from entering teacher training programs and make it harder for schools to keep qualified educators in classrooms. The frequent vacancies that result seriously disrupt both student learning and students’ sense of safety and stability, harming poor and minority kids the most. These vacancies are incredibly expensive for school districts and cause negative ripple effects throughout school communities, as workloads and stressors are intensified for remaining staff.
Fixing this problem by offering more attractive teacher salaries would seem to be a no-brainer. But of course, this would require refunding schools at a time when state legislatures have been moving remarkably fast to defund and dismantle public education.
In light of all this, teachers’ frustration at being told by principals, superintendents, and highly paid education consultants to “practice self-care” makes perfect sense. Many teachers don’t have any time to relax, because inadequate compensation forces them to take on other jobs. But even when there’s time, bubble baths and mindfulness apps can’t make up for the systematic denial of life-sustaining wages. For too many educators, real self-care has meant finding a different line of work.