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Salary Smarts for New Educators

You’ve Been Offered a Teaching Job!


Now, How Will You Be Paid?

By Cindy Long

After years of massive education budget cuts and a blizzard of pink slips and layoffs, finding a job in the classroom is no small feat. But before you pounce on the first position you’re offered, there are a lot of factors to consider, like salary. Will it be enough to cover those student loan payments, your monthly rent, and evenings out with friends?

When looking at a salary offer, it’s important to acknowledge that you and all educators deserve a professional salary.

A professional salary is one that’s comparable to that of other professions requiring a college degree and a similar, complex skill set. In other words, you should earn at least as much as your college roommate who just became a certified public accountant! Good salaries help attract good teachers, and they also help keep them in the profession, which improves teaching and learning.

Any discussion about teacher compensation should always begin with this essential question: Is the compensation system—whether a traditional salary schedule or some alternative to it—actually designed to improve teaching and learning?

Salary Schedules

Most school districts use the traditional salary schedule. Charted in steps and increments, it’s a timetable of when you’ll receive raises. But accurately reading a schedule can be daunting. How do you make sense of all those columns and rows? It’s easier than you may think if you keep a few things in mind.

Number of Steps

A strong salary schedule has the fewest possible steps, which means that you’ll reach the top rate sooner and maximize your career earnings. Take a look at the starting salary and count the number of steps to maximum. If there are more than 10 to 15 steps, the schedule is too long.

Most educators can “master” their jobs in about five to 10 years. More than 10 or 15 steps creates inequity, with unequal pay for equal work. Long schedules can also create tensions at bargaining time, pitting low-seniority teachers against the veterans.

Horizontal Values

The salary schedule will also show you whether there’s an opportunity to earn more with advanced degrees and professional development. Since those values are usually listed horizontally, this is referred to as moving across the salary schedule “lanes.” In Pennsylvania, for example, some of the best schedules have 18 horizontal values, with increases for every six credits earned from a bachelor’s to a doctoral degree.


Politics and economics often impact a school or district salary schedule. In a tough economy, steps might be added, or increments devalued. (An increment is the dollar difference between two consecutive steps on a schedule.) Take a look at the history of the schedule to see how consistent it’s remained through different political climates and economic downturns. Districts shouldn’t decrease the amount of money that comes with movement from one step to the next, and they shouldn’t add more steps to the salary scale.

Also, check to see if increments were uniform throughout the schedule. They should always remain the same from one step to the next. A “bubble” is an oversized increment that destroys the integrity of the schedule.

Alternative Pay

Many local associations are also considering alternative compensation systems that make a positive difference in teaching and learning. For example, teachers might earn extra pay for working in hard-to-staff schools, or for gaining new knowledge and skills such as National Board Certification. There are also locally developed professional growth schedules, such as the Professional-Learning Based Salary Schedule (PLBSS) in Portland, Maine.

The PLBSS is an alternative salary program that awards teachers credit toward salary increases based on various forms of professional development, from college courses and workshops to independent-study programs that educators then apply to their classrooms by researching and designing action plans.

With PLBSS, staff move up based on experience as well as professional learning.  The Portland Education Association and district have worked closely to make sure the program works for everyone and that it’s financially sustainable for the district.

“Salary is important to the district and the union, but the hook is really the job satisfaction and professional development piece,” says Portland Public Schools Superintendent Jim Morse. “Staff participating in their own growth is very important.”

NEA supports systems that create career paths and include teachers as partners in any compensation reform effort, and the Association has developed a framework for a professional growth salary system so other districts can create one similar to Portland’s.

The NEA framework is based on a set of principles that, when implemented correctly, will help recruit talented college graduates to the teaching profession and our nation’s public schools—and help keep them there. Some of the principles include a competitive base salary, educator involvement in the creation of the schedule, flexibility and transparency. To find out more about the framework and its principles, visit

The Whole Package

It’s also important to keep in mind that a salary schedule shouldn’t be your only consideration when evaluating an offer. Look at the whole picture. How is the health insurance? Is there a strong tuition reimbursement program? Does the school have a high level of administrative support and parental involvement? And it is never too early to look at retirement benefits. Will your pension plan allow you to live in dignity after a career in public service?

Money isn’t everything, but understanding your salary and the theory behind it will help you get your career off to a good start.

How Collective Bargaining Boosts Pay

Collective action helps educators secure professional salaries, and research has shown that your salary schedule has a big impact on your long-term earnings. 

But salary isn’t just a financial issue: Salary schedules also affect the classroom environment, according to Carolyn York, NEA’s director of Collective Bargaining. Better pay for educators creates better working and learning conditions in schools, which means salary schedules should “always be given careful consideration, study, and development at the bargaining table,” she says.

The collective bargaining power of your union can help you get the salary you deserve.

Even in non-bargaining states, your union can advocate for better pay by lobbying state legislatures and school boards. And your union can also help ensure that you get the correct salary based on your education and experience. Most importantly, collective bargaining changes the balance of power between you and your boss. A group of voices raised in unison have more strength at the bargaining table, which raises the likelihood of receiving a fair deal. The power available through collective action is just one of the many benefits of belonging to NEA.


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