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Teacher salaries rarely reflect the importance of their job. Why don’t we pay them enough?

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us just how important teachers are. As schools have shuttered, teachers have become a lifeline for students, going to extraordinary lengths to keep their pupils learning. Their job is vital. And with class preparation, homework marking, extra-curricular activities and pastoral care all to do, on top of teaching classes, teachers' workloads can be relentless. But as a recent report from the International Institute for Educational Planning shows, teacher salaries rarely reflect the size and importance of the job. So why don’t we pay them enough?


A salary crisis

In many cases, teachers are paid less now than they were 20 years ago. According to the latest OECD ‘Education at a Glance’ report, teachers’ salaries have decreased (in real terms) in a third of countries since 2000. After the 2009 financial crisis, teachers’ average salaries were either frozen or cut across all countries, only starting to climb again after 2013. Even now, in ostensibly wealthy nations, teachers are underpaid. Take the USA, where data from 2018 show that teachers are paid 22% less than peers who have the same level of college education and a similar number of years’ experience.


Better pay, better teachers

The effects of this pay disparity are serious, and it is quickly developing into a crisis. Low salaries make it harder to attract new teachers and retain those already in the profession. When college graduates see their peers offered better salaries and a better lifestyle in other professions, it can become difficult to convince them to pursue teaching. 

It has been shown that increasing starting salaries would make teaching more appealing, increasing competition for jobs and raising the standard of applicants. As a consequence the social status of teaching as a profession would rise, boosting teacher motivation.

As for retention, it’s often the best teachers – those who work the hardest and go above-and-beyond for their students – that become disillusioned when their efforts go unrecognised. Eventually, many are driven to seek a better lifestyle in another line of work. 


Better teachers, better societies

Investing to attract better teachers yields both short and long-term benefits for students and for society as a whole. Research shows a direct correlation between teacher pay and student performance – a 10% pay increase is likely to lead to a 5-10% increase in student performance. 

What should not be overlooked are the long-term benefits of good teaching. Better-performing students are more likely to go on to further studies and earn more. They are also less likely to fall pregnant at a young age.


What needs to happen

There’s no good argument against raising teachers’ salaries. In times of financial hardship, it can be tempting for governments to see teacher salaries, the single biggest expenditure in education, as an easy target for cuts. That was the attitude in 2008, and now with the pandemic looming that temptation could return. But that would be a short-term fix to society’s long-term detriment -- and teachers won’t stand for it. Around the world, teachers have expressed their dissatisfaction with educational reforms that have shied away from raising salaries. In Ecuador and Ethiopia, reforms to teaching as a career have had little impact on the profession’s appeal, at least while low salaries determine its social status. On the other hand, the government in Thailand transformed teaching’s status as a profession by substantially increasing teacher remuneration in the 2000s. The Thai education system is reaping the benefits now, with more motivated and happy teachers that stay in the job for longer.

Likewise in Nigeria, after teachers protested their low pay and blamed it for the country’s falling education standards, changes have recently been announced to ensure teachers feel more supported and appreciated for their work. President Muhammadu Buhari introduced a raft of improvements, including a new pay-scale for teachers, a special pension, and even the promise of affordable housing for teachers in rural areas. The result is a system that should incentivise the best graduates to become teachers, and improve retention by rewarding those who stay.

The question of whether or not to pay teachers more is ultimately down to priorities. For any country concerned with the long-term health of its economy and society, the evidence is clear: an investment in teachers is one of the best investments a country can make.

Photo credit: Maria Fleischmann / World Bank