Editor’s Picks

Underpaid Teachers Turn to the Gig Economy to Make Ends Meet

By Cait Etherington
March 27, 2018

Like developers, programmers, and designers, teachers are increasingly joining the gig economy. In some cases, teachers turn to platforms like Teach Me Now and Wyzant to find work as an online tutor. Others take on contractual work through an overseas language service or even teach asynchronous online courses, such as those offered via a growing number of online charter schools in the United States. However, unlike their colleagues in tech professions who can often make a decent living on gigs alone, for most American teachers, online gigs are simply a necessary supplement. After all, in many U.S. states, underpaid teachers can’t even meet the basic needs of a family of four on their current salaries.

Teachers’ Salaries Often Fall Below the Living Wage

While full-time K-12 teachers are relatively well-compensated in most parts of the Northeast, in other parts of the United States, teachers salaries often lag well behind the salaries of people in nearly all other professions for which a university degree is a requirement. Consider, for example, the K-12 compensation of elementary teachers in Arizona, Alabama, and South Dakota.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2016, the average mean wage of an elementary teacher in Arizona was $42,730. According to the MIT Cost of Living calculator, a family of two with one adult working would need $53,194 to cover their basic living costs in Arizona. In other words, a teacher supporting a family of four in Arizona would, in fact, find themselves falling nearly $10,000 short of being able to meet their family’s needs on a single salary. In many other U.S. states, the situation is the same. In South Dakota, for example, elementary teachers make $43,180; a family of four would need $48,653 to make ends meet. In Alabama, the average mean wage of an elementary teacher was $49,120 in 2016. However, a family of four with one adult working would need $49,862 to cover their basic living costs, and as a result, any teacher supporting a family would still fall short a few hundred dollars and certainly have nothing left over for the finer things in life.

Bear in mind, of course, that these are average mean wages, which means that some teachers do make more and some teachers, including new teachers, make much less. It is also important to recognize that even teachers who report higher wages can struggle to makes ends meet. For example, in New York City, the average mean wage for an elementary teacher is $99,140. Despite the fact that this is over twice the average mean wage of an elementary teacher living in Arizona, supporting a family of four in New York City on a single salary may still be a stretch. Given the higher taxes (an NYC teacher pays not only higher state taxes than a colleague in Arizona but also some of the highest city taxes in the nation), a teacher making just under $100,000 per year, can expect to take home about $5,000 per month. With two-bedroom rentals running on average well above $4,000 per month, this would still leave a single-income teacher-led family of four struggling to make ends meet in nearly all New York City neighborhoods.

Gigging to Make Ends Meet

Given the current financial situation facing many U.S. teachers, working online as a tutor or course instructor is often the only option. Online tutoring and teaching offer a flexible way to earn additional income even while working full time. Samantha, a fifth-grade teacher in Arizona, is among the many teachers currently “gigging” on the side. She has one child and lives in a single-income household. “I make just over $35,000 annually. It’s a stretch, because I have a $38,000 student loan that I’m paying back, and I’m supporting a five-year-old. I also want to save for our future.” Samantha admits that while the tutoring online helps, it isn’t a long-term solution. “I tutor math and ELA online and charge $25 per hour. I usually try to squeeze in one hour on weeknights and a few hours on the weekend. This helps a lot with food, gas, and other small incidental items, but it’s difficult since I already have over 30 students and lots of course prep and marking.”

Does Samantha regret her decision to become a teacher? “Not really,” she says, but she adds, “My sister who did a computer science degree and makes twice as much as I do. Actually, I’m considering going back to school part-time do another degree, so I can switch fields, but teaching was my dream, but I would like to find a way to make this career work for me.”