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Did you know there is an educator path from entry-level to six figures? Or that a new teacher can 3x their income in five years while still serving kids? Like most professions, education has a career ladder that enables you to grow your income. Also, like most professions, each rung has costs and benefits. Today, we’ll examine the educator career ladder and the options to increase your income while still pursuing your passion.
One of the main reasons I write about financial independence for educators is to counter the societal myth that educators are doomed to poverty. This myth is damaging to individual educators, the profession, and our society. We must be able to attract talented, passionate individuals to educate our children. And, educators must believe they have the ability to control their financial life.
Remember, that being underpaid (and educators absolutely are) based on your level of education and effort is not the same as being poor. The median income for a teacher is equivalent to the US median household income.
Building a path to financial independence is all about spending less than you earn. There are two ways to accelerate: earn more or spend less. It’s obviously most effective to do both, but today is the first post in a series on increasing income as an educator.
The next posts in the series will focus on growing income through:
- Experience, education, and extra duty
- Geoarbitrage (location change)
- Teacher side hustles
The Education Career Ladder
Contrary to what society tells you, educators are not doomed to poverty. In education, as with most professions, there is a progression of positions with increasing income. If income is your sole focus, it is very possible to earn six figures as an educator.
I want to stress that this ladder isn’t about attributing value or worth, but rather focused on the increase in income that comes with each step. I’ve touched every rung on this ladder and there are wonderful people adding value in each job.
The good news is there are shortages of virtually all of these positions in many states. The progressions are based on education and experience, so the barriers are not any more stringent than in most professions. You can make the choice to climb the ladder and have a great shot at success.
I am not encouraging you to climb simply for income. Please choose the optimal point of balance for you. Income is only one factor in deciding if a job is right for you. This is especially true in education where students are literally depending on you to help improve their lives. Choosing to move to a position solely for income is likely to make you miserable and negatively impact students.
If you want to teach and avoid the pain of administration – teach! If you prefer the hourly structure of a paraeducator – enjoy! We need great passionate educators at all levels. This post is all about knowing your options.
The salary and jobs information cited in this article (with the exception of school superintendent) comes from the US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook.
PARAEDUCATORS / TEACHING ASSISTANTS
Do you enjoy working directly with students? Do you want to work in education, or maybe pursue teaching, but don’t yet have the required degree? Or, maybe you appreciate having a shorter, defined day. Paraeducator positions may be perfect for you.
These are often entry-level positions in education, though many people build them into successful careers. Typically, paraeducators provide service directly to students under the direction of a licensed teacher. This service can range from instructional group support to 1:1 assistance for students with physical challenges.
Paraeducator positions are typically considered classified (non-licensed) employees. Other classified positions include school secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, food service, and health assistants. Paraeducators are the largest group of classified employees, which is why I’ve chosen to list the data here. Some highly technical positions can earn considerably more.
Classified positions are often part-time, and may or may not come with benefits. They are typically hourly and subject to overtime law, in contrast to other positions on the career ladder.
For some, this is the optimal position. Many educators build long careers working at the classified level. The positions often come with benefits, and provide a defined work day. In most organizations, there are opportunities to grow income through longevity or skilling up.
Some use a classified position to provide security while using their remaining time to explore their passions or outside income.
Wise educators recognize that schools and school districts would not operate without the classified staff. Some of the best people I’ve ever known work as teaching assistants, school office staff, or school custodians.
Considering The Next Step?
It can be difficult to pursue financial independence on a classified educator income. If you are interested in climbing the career ladder to increase your income, working as a teaching assistant provides a great start. Some of the best teachers, principals, and superintendents I’ve known began their education career at the classified level.
The main barrier to progression will be education requirements. Teaching typically requires a bachelor’s degree at a minimum. In more and more states, the requirement is a master’s degree. The good news is that you can often find support to help pay for those costs. A great career hack for a prospective teacher would be finding a district that pays for teacher development and
In many school districts, classified employees can access professional development funds for continuing education. In some areas, there are programs that allow you to continue working as a teaching assistant while doing your coursework.
There are even options that let you do your student teaching while earning a salary if you’ve been a classified employee in the district. (I’m unsure how common these are, but I can confirm they exist.) It can be an excellent way to gain experience working with students and assistance with education costs.
Read this Educator on FI/RE interview with Joy, who chose to pursue the path to financial independence as a classified employee. She became a multimillionaire without ever making more than $30k/ year from her education job.
Teaching is the job most people think of first when you say “educator.” Teachers have a passion for supporting students in their quest for knowledge. Teaching jobs are salaried positions, and typically take more than 8 hours in a workday to do effectively.
There are variations within the teacher designation, so I’ve listed a variety of data points to illustrate. In most districts, pay is determined by experience and education rather than by “type” of
Teaching probably requires the least description for readers, so I’ll keep it brief. Teachers provide direct instruction to students and work a school year calendar. Contrary to common belief teachers are not “paid for summers off.” Many teachers work over holidays and breaks either out of necessity (particularly newer teachers) or a desire to increase their income without leaving the job they love.
There are sometimes Teacher on Special Assignment positions that work longer school years and may come with additional duties and pay.
Teaching requires continuing education to maintain licensure. Many districts have education benefits as part of their employment that enable teachers to retain certification or additional endorsements. As with classified positions, these benefits can be used to progress to the next step.
Considering the Next Step?
School administration requires additional coursework and licensure. This is typically equivalent to an additional master’s degree worth of coursework. Those considering climbing the entire ladder may want to begin working on a doctorate of education leadership at this point.
To obtain licensure, you generally (with some exceptions) have to demonstrate 3 – 5 years of teaching experience. Your coursework will also include a leadership practicum requiring additional hours or responsibilities.
While entry-level school administration jobs can be highly competitive, the aging workforce transitioning to retirement is creating higher demand that makes it very achievable for any teacher seeking school leadership positions. It is entirely possible to go from a first-year teacher to a school principal in 5 – 7 years. Yes, you can triple your income quickly.
I don’t believe a great teacher automatically makes a great leader, but I absolutely believe that a teacher who has lost passion for the profession will make a bad administrator. If you are simply burned out on teaching, DO NOT pursue administration. You will hate it, and teachers and students deserve better.
If you’re considering school administration, start seeking out leadership opportunities. Use your professional development courses to focus on supervision and school leadership. See if your district has a leadership development option – I was fortunate to have the majority of my administrative coursework paid for while supporting teacher-led school improvement efforts.
Demonstrate a focus on student results and supporting other educators. Mentor newer teachers, serve on decision-making
SCHOOL PRINCIPAL / DISTRICT ADMINISTRATOR
Education administrators can work at both the school and district level. School principals are the most numerous, and the ones working most directly with kids. For those reasons, I’ve included principal data here.
The data groups all levels of principal. In larger schools, you will find assistant principals supporting a single principal. Assistant principal salaries are on the lower end of the scale. The pay for principals often varies based on school size or level. A high school principal typically makes more than an elementary principal, with the middle school principal salary falling in the middle. In most areas, a principal will make a six-figure income.
There are also district-level administrative positions that range from entry-level to district-wide director positions. Pay for these positions scales similarly to the school principals. In large districts, the district-wide position pay can be substantially higher.
In my experience, choosing school administration comes with a significant cost. While all levels of education are challenging, those working directly with students are also very rewarding. As one “climbs” the career ladder, you deal with more of the challenges and get further from direct work with students. You are able to have a large system-wide impact, but the personal interactions can be less fulfilling. This is something to factor into your decision-making.
I believe school principal positions are the optimal balance of income growth and still working with students daily. The most effective principals make daily interaction with students and supporting teachers a priority. This helps balance out the public and bureaucratic pressures one will face. A school administration position can be personally and financially fulfilling.
Considering the Next Step?
Moving from an administrative position to a superintendent position is less cut-and-dried than previous levels. While there are often additional education or licensure requirements, in some states you can become a superintendent with a standard administrative license. Some districts require the superintendent have a doctorate-level degree.
Acquiring a superintendent position is often dependent on navigating the political climate of organizations and communities. To become a superintendent, you will need to demonstrate progressively increasing responsibilities. This can mean progressing through various administrative “levels.” It also often means increasing levels of politics.
Superintendents are hired by school boards based on perceived community selection criteria. This means the necessary preparation can vary widely. If you are considering taking this step, your best option is to work closely with your district superintendent and begin watching superintendent hiring processes in your area. This will give the best idea of any additional preparation you will need.
Be aware that moving into a superintendency significantly changes the work you are doing. The job is highly politically and interacts with the public and board constantly. The best superintendents balance this while keeping the focus on education.
School superintendents are the highest-ranking, and usually highest-paid,
School district superintendent compensation is the highest in the K-12 education profession. Salary generally increases based on the size of the school district. For the range listed above, the median salary for the smallest school districts was ~$95,000 and for the largest $260,000. They ranged from a minimum of $32,710 for a superintendent serving a district of fewer than 300 students to a maximum of $405,000 for a superintendent serving a large
Superintendent salaries are often vilified in the press. However, some of these individuals are responsible for billion dollar district budgets, supervising thousands of employees, and providing education to hundreds of thousands of students. They report to a board of directors, have a
An effective school superintendent has an incredible impact on education. They can provide stability for staff, confidence for the community, and dramatically improve student outcomes. If you appreciate systems-level work and are seeking a high-pressure/high income position, this may be for you.
It’s important to note that this is the only position on the educator ladder where I have witnessed consumption pressure equivalent to other high-income professions. Some superintendents, particularly those serving large urban communities can fall into the trap of “keeping up appearances.” Some superintendents believe that luxury cars and designer suits denote status.
While this may be the pinnacle of the educator career ladder, it definitely is not for everyone. If you are able to balance the pressure and downside, while retaining your passion for education, it can supercharge your income.
Higher Education Note: Higher education has a similar career progression. I’m not as familiar but would love to learn more. Contact me here if you are interested in sharing information. I’d also gladly publish a guest post on the subject.
Interested in pursuing, or continuing, a career in education while dramatically improving your income? The career education ladder provides a method for multiplying your earning potential. If you can maintain your cost-of-living at the previous level, you’ll dramatically accelerate your path to financial independence.
Again – please select the optimal life balance for you. You serve no one well by pursuing income at the cost of happiness. If you are interested in considering any of the steps, feel free to comment below or reach out to me. I’ve worked at each, and enjoy talking through the pluses and minuses.
In the coming posts in the series, we’ll explore other options for educators looking to grow their income:
- Experience, education, and extra duty
- Geoarbitrage (location change)
- Teacher side hustles
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