Welcome to installment three of College Transitions’ “So you want to be a...” series. Designed to help career-minded high school students think intelligently about their postsecondary journeys, these blogs will look at the financial, academic, and personal factors one should consider when exploring various professions.
Does going to a prestigious undergraduate school help?
Breaking into the teaching field is numerically a very different endeavor than landing a job in the highly selective worlds of law, medicine, engineering, etc. There are presently 3.7 million people making their living as primary or secondary school teachers in the United States. Almost 90% of those 3.7 million educators are employed by their respective states in the public system, while the remaining few hundred thousand individuals staff private and parochial schools.
If school districts, even top-notch ones, only accepted candidates from elite colleges and universities, the majority of the country’s classrooms would be left unsupervised. A resume that boasts a prestigious undergraduate school may certainly catch the eye of a hiring official, especially from a desirable suburban district where breaking-in is extremely competitive.
However, even in these districts, a distinguished alma mater is far from a prerequisite. The bulk of faculty members at most of the U.S.’s 132,183 primary and secondary schools graduated from local colleges which run the gamut from non-selective to highly-selective.
The widespread belief that teaching is, across the board, a low-income profession is a bit too broad and is ultimately misleading. In reality, teacher salaries vary greatly by type of school (public vs. private), region of the country, and type of community (urban vs. suburban vs. rural).
The overall average salary for a public school teacher in the U.S. comes in at just over $56,000. In certain geographic pockets such as the Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, and San Diego suburbs, teachers at the top of the pay scale bring in six-figure salaries. Scarsdale School District in New York has the highest median teacher salary in the country at $137,000.
Private school teachers will make significantly less than their public school counterparts. Charter schools, which continue to spring up in urban areas across the U.S., also typically offer lower pay than public schools.
As with salary, benefits bestowed upon teachers have great variability on a state-by-state basis. There are 28 states who currently still offer pension systems to their public school teachers, but with almost all of these systems in financial crisis, it’s hard to imagine they will sustain, at least in their present form, through the next generation of educators.
Gain Experience in the Field
Amazingly, 40% of individuals graduating with a teaching degree never even enter a classroom, instead electing to pursue other fields. Of those who do take over a classroom, 40-50% leave the profession within 5 years.
Too often, students studying education do not enter an actual K-12 classroom of any kind on a regular basis until student teaching, which traditionally occurs during one’s final undergraduate semester. Colleges of Education have been trending toward offering more practicum experience throughout the four years to help give students a more steady diet of actual classroom exposure. But there is no reason not to take matters into your own hands.
One of the beautiful things about gaining experience in the education field is that, wherever you live, a school is never more than a stone’s throw away and most will offer ways to get involved. Many K-12 buildings offer chances for community members to tutor or mentor students, supervise after-school activities, or observe a classroom setting upon request. Even when you are still in high school yourself, ask your teachers, counselor, or principal if you can get involved working with younger students—the insight you gain will go a long way in helping you determine whether pursuing a degree in education is right for you.
Think About a Double Major
Given the alarming retention statistics in the field of education, it is not a bad idea to seek a double-major. Education degrees from most colleges and universities are often viewed as less rigorous and selective as other areas of study. Coupling your education degree with a second area of interest, especially in the subject area where you want to teach, can improve your marketability and leave many options open should you choose to enter another field or pursue an advanced degree in a different discipline.
Plan the Financial End
First year teachers nationwide average $35,000 per year. Because teaching pay scales are almost always on a schedule that accounts for years of service and degree status, even higher paying districts very rarely start teachers above $50,000 and it is typically a 15+ year climb to reach the max salary. Except for a smattering of districts across the country experimenting with merit pay, longevity is the sole pathway to incremental raises, which can be frustrating for young teachers.
Compiling debt prior to entering the teaching field is not recommended if not absolutely necessary. Unless your parents or a substantial merit aid package are covering the entire bill, we recommend being very cost-conscious during the college selection process. Remember, where you go to college will not have a sizable impact on your ability to obtain a teaching job.
If you plan to stay in teaching for the long haul, plan on eventually pursuing a master’s degree. Graduate school is not a barrier to entry in the field of education, but the majority of teachers pursue advanced degrees at some point in their careers. At present, 52% of public school teachers hold at least a master’s degree and if you look only at industry veterans, that number increases substantially. Many schools will pay a portion of their employees’ grad school tuition. In all states, teachers are required to obtain additional credits as part of continuing education programs tied to maintaining a license, making post-baccalaureate study of some variety mandatory.
For some, teaching is a rewarding experience that is more a calling than a job. In the right geographic region, in a public school setting, the combination of solid salary and unmatched retirement benefits can make teaching a more viable living than many commonly believe. Many leave the profession due to stress, parental over-involvement, and lack of academic freedom in the classroom. Yet for those born to be teachers, those obstacles are minor when weighed against the opportunity to help bring learning to life, inspire young people, and play a genuine role in shaping the future. If you feel teaching is something you are interested in, you can start preparing for your career now.