Just how bad are things for teachers?


My wife and I had dinner in a Vineyard restaurant last week. Our waitress, a very pleasant young woman, appeared to be in her mid-20s. In a short conversation as we were finishing up, we discovered that she was a first grade teacher on the Island. That’s her full-time job, but she was also working as a waitress four nights a week (and waitressing full-time during summers). 

For me, this was déjà vu, because nearly 40 years ago, my very first report for the “MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour” introduced viewers to teachers holding down part-time jobs while also teaching full-time. We filmed it in McMinnville, Ore., and I still recall the high school English teacher who worked in a 7-11, where he often encountered his students, now his customers. That was in 1984.

The young woman last night and the man from Oregon are hardly unique. Overall, about 20 percent of teachers hold second jobs during the school year, accounting for roughly 9 percent of their annual income. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teachers are about three times as likely as other U.S. workers to moonlight. (Another study provides a precise number, 17 percent.)

However, if you factor in part-time jobs within the school system, like coaching, teaching evening classes, or even driving a school bus, then an astonishing 59 percent of teachers are working part-time to supplement what they earn as full-time teachers, according to the Economic Policy Institute (EPI). The authors of that article, economists Emma García and Elaine Weiss write, “Moonlighting can increase stress and drive disengagement, as teachers are forced to juggle multiple schedules and have their family and leisure time reduced. And if moonlighting occurs outside the school system, the challenges of juggling the extra work are likely greater.” 

How bad are things for teachers? “In about half of all U.S. states, the average teacher does not even earn a living wage needed to support a family,” according to the National Association of State Boards of Education. 

Garcia and Weiss believe that economic stress is driving teachers out of the field; public awareness of this situation helps explain both the current teacher shortage and also the drop in enrollment in teacher-training programs. 

And it’s not as if teachers have tons of extra time to spend on part-time jobs, because public school teachers also often work more than the average 39.4 hours a week required by their employment contracts. In 2020–21, teachers worked 52 hours a week on average, 25.2 of those hours teaching. (And if you are now thinking that “only” five hours a day teaching children is a walk in the park, you obviously have never been a teacher!)

Teacher salaries have not kept up with inflation. An NEA report released in the spring of 2022 reports that teacher salaries, adjusted for inflation, decreased by around 3.9 percent during the past decade.

And according to the newspaper Education Week, “Teachers are also working under a ‘pay penalty,’ an economic concept meaning they earn lower weekly wages and receive lower overall compensation for their work than similar college-educated peers, according to the Economic Policy Institute. That penalty reached a record high in 2021, with teachers earning 76.5 cents on the dollar compared with their peers.”

Should we have a national minimum teacher salary? Democratic Congresswoman Federica Wilson of Florida believes it’s time. In mid-December she introduced the American Teacher Act, which would provide grants and incentives to increase the minimum K-12 salary to $60,000, with yearly adjustments for inflation. Nationally, the average salary is about $61,000, with many states falling below that dollar amount. But even within a state where the average is above $60,000, the federal law would have a profound impact, because teacher salaries vary widely; for example, here in Massachusetts, the average teacher salary is about $82,000, one of the highest in the nation, but the range is staggering. Ten districts pay more than $100,000, while a few others pay just over $40,000.

Four Island districts are in the top 50: Oak Bluffs (No. 38), $91,687; Tisbury (No. 30), $93,376; Edgartown (No. 8), $100,739; and the M.V. Regional High School District (No. 6), $102,427.

That bill has close to a zero chance of passing the House, now controlled by Republicans, and it’s unclear whether it could pass the Senate. Public education doesn’t have strong and vocal supporters, even though most parents support public schools.

What we are experiencing is the slow death of public education. And should the system die, the autopsy will not say “accidental death,” because the attacks on public education are deliberate. One strategy is to stave the system by cutting spending and diverting dollars to vouchers, private schools, online academies, and for-profit charter schools. The right-wing takeover of local school boards is another piece of this concerted attack.

The unrelenting attacks have taken a toll. In 1999, only 13 percent of adults were “completely dissatisfied” with public schools; today it’s 23 percent. In 2022, only 42 percent of adults said they were either “completely satisfied” or “satisfied” with public schools, a large drop from nearly 50 percent in 2001.

So do we wring our hands, or do we fight back? If you want to fight back, support changes that improve the lives of teachers (and students), by limiting standardized testing and giving teachers more of a say in the curriculum. It’s time to make teaching a true profession, which I have written about on my website, bit.ly/tmerrow.


John Merrow is a former correspondent for “PBS NewsHour” and NPR. He is president and founder of Learning Matters. 


  1. Teachers salaries are a function of supply and demand. When we run out of teachers to meet demand, salaries will go up. Simple.

    • Teacher’s salaries are like everything else, the good ones cost more.
      The Island’s school teachers starting salary is on par with a GED/ESL landscape crew foreman.
      We will never run out of teachers, we will just lower the standards.

  2. Wow, there’s a lot to unpack here as far as it’s relevance to the island. Working two jobs is by no means an anomaly on the island however working only 37 weeks a year for $102K sure is! What is also highly unusual is a job that includes a pension. Yes teachers will pay into a pension but on average what they pay in accounts for a fraction of the number of years they will draw from it. Lets not forget the excellent health and dental benefits and the very generous sick/personal time off. The total compensation including salary, stipends, hours worked , benefits and pension must be included in any review of how well they are paid. Should teachers be paid more? Yes the good ones should yet we don’t really measure that in an effective way. Any parent with children in our school system knows there are excellent teachers who are probably underpaid and some who are woefully overpaid. The first step would be to eliminate the teachers union. Why would someone with a Master’s degree not be smart enough to negotiate their own wage? If they’re not smart enough to do that are they really smart enough to be teaching our children?

    • Teaching sounds like a great gig.
      What kept you from going into the profession?
      Your qualifications?
      You can’t deal with 20 kids at once?

      • I didn’t get into the profession mostly because of the teacher’s union. I have more than enough education to qualify however I believe one should be compensated based upon their performance and their ability to negotiate a salary for themselves neither of which happens in a public school. I can certainly deal with 20 kids at once but if you had children in the schools you would realize it’s a rare occurrence to have more than 15 or 16.

    • Any parent with a kid in the schools knows who the good and bad teachers are.
      Just ask around, there will be plenty of divergent opinions.
      Should teachers be retained based on their popularity with parents?

  3. Happy to see you posted the huge pay the teachers get on the island. Now adjust that number for the 3 months off they get. Unions have done more to give teachers a bad rap than anything else. Try to fire a bad teacher even one who has hit a child. The only teachers not getting enough pay on the island are pre school teachers all others as you have pointed out get a nice paycheck.

  4. Facts dont matter. Teachers are underpaid and overworked and we will repeat this over and over with the help of unions and finally it will stick or else.

    • Andrew the fashionable word for what goes on with teachers is Gaslighting but this is not something new the Unions have been doing this for years.

    • Maybe we should get rid of unions, laws governing workplace safety, overtime, social security, and child labor. Then we can send those pesky school kids back to work and improve productivity!

      I am kidding of course – my step grandma & her family immigrated from Ukraine at age 4. By age 6 she went to work in the textile mills of Manchester, NH. Never learned to read or write – except her own signature. I know this because I met her in 1972, when she was retired, and I saw her sign the pension and social security checks that allowed her a modest but dignified level of independence in her old age. THAT is what unions do!

      • Oh yes, Unions give workers fat pensions, we all know that, but they have outlived their usefulness. Do you wonder why unions are only 12 percent of the labor force and were 38 percent in early 60;s? They did protect some workers from some problems early on but later private employees caught up. And the Ukrainian grandmother sure did better than staying in Ukraine.

  5. 1. Preschool teachers on the island are on the same pay scale as the High School.
    2. If the cost of housing wasn’t so very high, many professionals across the island wouldn’t need a second job.
    3.Teachers on the island seem to have
    lots of freedom with regards to teaching methods, as long as the Mass. standards are met. (Mass. Standards are equal or above in quality to all of the top ranked states in education.)
    4. This article seems to be more appropriate for a national paper or a paper in a town, county, or state with poor salaries for teachers, or in locations with limited, inappropriate standards, or in states with educational commissions lead by people without educational backgrounds and with political motivations.
    5. I would LOVE to see this author write about and rally for affordable housing on MV rather than stir the pot for MV schools that pay their teachers well.
    6. Housing is the problem. We are going to see a significant teacher shortage in the next decade because even though we are in the top ranking for teacher salaries, new teachers at our entrance level, top ranking pay scales will NOT be able to afford housing.
    PS. Thank you Union.

    • You need to be fact checked on Pre School teachers pay and just because you write it does not mean it is true. They are not even close to getting paid what a high school teacher is paid just ask any teacher at Community Services and you will find out.

  6. Some here make it sound like no one else who works for the town or state gets any benefits.
    I know some good  teachers at a few of the schools. All of them work at least the 52 hour week mentioned above.
    But let’s compare their careers to say, a plumber.
    So someone graduates from high school and gets a job working for an established plumbing company. They get good pay, benefits, and often a pension, or at the least an employer contribution to a retirement fund.
    They do that for 4 to 10 years while the person on a path to teaching goes to school and runs up significant debt to pay for that education.
    Then lets take a look at that 37 weeks you talk about. Lets say that total compensation– benefits included is about $120,000
    so 37 weeks x 52 hrs a week is 1924 hours, or $62 an hour before taxes.
    Keep in mind, that 1924 hours averages out to about 38.5 hours a week for a 50 week year.

    Honestly, I don’t many plumbers with masters degrees and 10 years of experience that make less than $62 an hour
    Or electricians

    • You don’t spend much time around the schools if you think teachers are there 52 hours a week! There’s be a bunch of cars in the parking lot to 6 o’clock each night. Also did you figure in the 15 sick days and 6 personal days each year? How many plumbers do you know who only work 37 weeks a year potentially minus those 3 weeks and still get full pay?

  7. A person can go to college for 4 years and study feminine studies. Then go 13 months for a teachers certificate and Presto. A plumber needs about 4 years of rigorous work. Not comparable. Masters degrees are a dime a dozen.

    • A person can get an online GED from a for profit “school snd become a cop and make more money than a teacher .
      Cop unions are that strong.

  8. Read my comment. ” 4 to 10years” nice that you agree with me about that !
    An apprentice plumber gets paid from day one for that 4 to 10 years of rigorous work.
    Many plumbers are ,in fact, not licensed.
    You don’t make the 100 K plus benefits that some are whining about with a “teacher’s certificate”, by the way.

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