It’s widely known that teachers are underpaid. At first glance, a teacher’s salary might seem like decent pay, but it isn’t when you consider the amount of training necessary to become a highly educated, certified teacher. By the time I was officially employed as a public school teacher, I had a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, at least two teaching certificates, a minimum of four hundred hours of unpaid labor in the form of field experience and student teaching, and classroom experience as an assistant daycare teacher in a private school. That’s not including any of my experience prior to beginning my college education. Before taxes and insurance were withdrawn, my average pay per hour as a middle school teacher was $16. If it weren’t for that additional degree, I’d have brought home about $14.50 an hour. The living wage for a single person in our county is just under $14. To put this further in perspective, the starting pay for a manager at McDonald’s is about 15 bucks an hour. It is true that managers at McDonald’s don’t get as many days off per year, but they also don’t have to go into thousands of dollars of debt to be qualified for employment. Walmart now offers a minimum wage of $12 an hour for entry-level positions, while their competitors pay $15 per hour. Based on those statistics, a high school student working the check-out counter at Target makes more than I did as a teacher. Some baristas at Starbucks make over $20 an hour. It doesn’t seem reasonable that I spent over six years in school and acquired debt equivalent to the mortgage on a small house to not make a living wage. Once children are involved, the salary I used to earn as a teacher just won’t cut it. With a child, the living wage needed to survive nearly doubles.
I didn’t understand as much about a living wage back when Little Bear was growing inside me and I needed to make some decisions. Then, I was looking at the immediate costs versus my income. Daycare for a baby would average $600 per month. Disposable diapers would run about $70 monthly and formula would be about $200. Legally, I should have been able to pump milk, but I knew that finding time to pump as a teacher was unlikely. After childcare, food, diapering, taxes and insurance were factored in, my average pay per hour dropped to less than $9. When I realized that I could wait tables for more per hour and see my baby more than two hours a day, it wasn’t a terribly hard decision. Slightly over $8 per hour is considered a poverty wage for a working parent with one child. Other than the exceedingly gradual increase in my retirement fund, after welcoming a baby, it almost cost more financially for me to teach than not to, especially considering the frequency teacher pay is frozen. Less than 15% of the U.S. population have master’s degrees and higher. In hindsight, I had a better understanding of what I was worth then than I gave myself credit for at the time.