The Great Teacher Dilemma: The Best Paying Jobs Are Often Found in the Most Expensive Places to Live

While good on paper, the best paying states are often the most expensive places for teachers to live. Are the sacrifices teachers are making to teach affecting their ability to educate?

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The District of Columbia pays its teachers better than any district in the country – more than $71,000 a year, on average, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ May 2015 report.

But before you pack your bags for the nation’s capital, consider that D.C. is also a very expensive place to live. Adjust that $71,000 for cost of living, and D.C. teachers make about $48,000 a year, about the same as the average teacher in North Dakota.

Still, the teachers interviewed for this story say that pay is only one factor in their decision making, with some enduring long commutes in order to afford to live near the districts where they want to teach—and where they already have connections.

Teachers' Existing Connections Often Outweigh Starting Over Somewhere New

“It helps to know people, just for those opportunities to open up,” said Sadiyyah Mahdi, a first year teacher in Boston.

“The teaching program I was involved in had us network with different schools,” she said, noting that even with a good connection to with many of her interviewers, she was still only able to find an opening in June of this year—a panic-inducing delay for a new teachers, and a process she's not keen to repeat.

Mahdi said that while she enjoyed teaching in other (cheaper) places to live, like Utica, New York, Boston (which has an average adjusted mean salary of $47,801 from the “on paper” mean of $63,720) feels like her home now.

Ashley Orifice, a teacher in the Fairfax district of Virginia, agreed that teachers have very real ties to districts. “A lot of teachers feel like they do want to stay there, because once you get into a system, you get comfortable. You form relationships with the students and faculty,” she said. Orifice got her current position as a music education teacher through lengthy process like Mahdi’s: long-term substitute teaching position with her district. But there are sacrifices.

Lack of Affordable Housing=Long Commutes

“Fairfax is a commuter area for DC, but teachers can’t afford nice houses out there,” Orifice explained. Her commute is a lengthy one: 40 minutes.

Mahdi too lives far from her school. “I work in Roxbury, but I live in a town called Quincy,” she said. According to Mahdi, the town has public transportation nearby, but it’s only open to that particular community. “There’s a T-stop that’s seven minutes away from me, but there’s a gate,” she said. “So I have to take a bus to another T-stop that’s 25 minutes away.”

Taking this route, Mahdi’s commute is more than an hour, and it barely gets her to her classroom on time. “The earliest bus is at 6 a.m., so even if I took that one, I’d get there at 7:05,” she said. “Class starts at 7:30, so I’d like to get there at 6:30,” she said.

Mahdi, who works in a “turnaround” school that’s receiving extra support to drive student achievement, feels her job is secure, and that her pay schedule is predictable and fair. So does Orifice, whose school, like Mahdi’s, has a generous professional development program that can lead to higher pay. But mere job security isn’t a sign things are working, said Dan Moulthrop, author of “Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers.”

“People like stability, not turnover,” said Moulthrop, “But it’s like golden handcuffs.” 

He credits the unionization of teaching with the field’s lack of mobility, as well as a lack of achievement-based raises.

“I think that that's part of myopia that governs conversation between admin and unions,” Moulthrop said. “This whole idea of seven years of service, that if you leave or come in, you're only credited that seven years… it’s a disincentive to move. But the lack of mobility makes people stale. it prevents innovation and disruption.”

Is a New Pay Structure the Answer to a Better Quality of Life for Teachers?

Moulthrop isn't sure requring more education teachers' promotions are a fair solution to compensation problems. “Most salary schedules and compensation schemes are set up in a way that a teacher is purchasing a raise,” said Moulthrop, who calls the system “perverse.”

“You have to get these credits—you purchase credits to get to the next lane—$500 for a $1500 raise. And this [professional development or higher education] is seldom aligned with what we want them to do in the classroom.”

But Danny Kofke, author of “How to Survive and Thrive on a Teacher’s Salary,” doesn’t see money struggles as a teacher-specific issue. Rather, he sees it as a budgeting one. “Teachers have the same problems as the average American,” he said. He noted additional challenges that teachers face when it comes to financial planning: “We get paid once a month in the summer, and most of us are broke by mid-August from buying school supplies,” he said.

It’s doable, though, Kofke said, and despite the fact that Kofke and his wife were both teachers at the time they switched over to his salary alone, Kofke was able to support his family on a single income with a little planning. “We tracked everything: we set goals,” he said. “We had a goal for tracy to be able to stay home, and we planned ahead on every decision we made to enable us to live off of 40K a year. We bought a smaller home, I rode my bike to work, didn’t eat out a lot. We tracked every single cent,” he said.

 In what other area do we rely on charitable impulses to solve/provide national level? We're relying on irrational behavior, on people who are qualified to do a number of things doing the least well paid things. —Dan Moulthrop

Kofke no longer teaches, having pursued his financial calling by advising teachers on retirement planning, then teaching financial literacy in churches (for which “I took a 25% pay cut,” he said). With that in mind, his greatest piece of advice for teachers, wherever they live, is to take advantage of their district’s retirement planning policy. “A teacher can work here (in Georgia) for 30 years and get 60% of what they make,” he said. “If you save 1% of your income while working, you can make more in your retirement than you did while teaching,” he said.

For teachers who do stay the path, Kofke has a word of advice: “I becomes easy to lose sight of why you became a teacher. And how many lives you’re changing. I was guilty, sometimes I would forget that when it gets hard (nonsense with standardized tests or paper work). You are making a difference in the world. And you can’t put a price on that,” he said.

Moulthrop has other thoughts on that. “In what other area do we rely on charitable impulses to solve/provide national level?” he said. “We're relying on irrational behavior, on people who are qualified to do a number of things doing the least well paid things.”

Beyond more pay, he believes teachers should get more and better resources, too. “If we treated teaching as a true profession, giving it the respect it deserves, each teacher would have a secretary; someone to do the photocopying, give grades, track student attendance, act as a liaison to parents. If you paid (teachers) enough to thrive, they wouldn’t need to take on second jobs. They could spend the time they needed to spend and not make any sacrifices in the classroom,” Moulthrop said.

About the Data:

State compensation data was derived from the Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2015 projections, while Cost of Living data by state was taken from the Council for Community and Economic Research’s 2015 cost of living indexes. Adjusted salaries were calculated by dividing yearly mean incomes by the cost of living indexes and multiplying each by 100.