Underpaid, but Dedicated Teachers

Educators Remain Dedicated Despite Low Salaries


Photo by Annie Eason. Teachers at Robinson are dedicated to their jobs despite their low salary. For the cost of living of two adults and two children, it’s about $117,561 a year, almost twice as high as most teachers’ salaries.

Most people in America and many in the world have had a teacher before- it has been a profession for centuries, and is still a profession that is sought after by some. Yet, when most people think of teachers, many think of not only their dedication, but their status as underpaid, overworked and unappreciated in society.

According to Indeed.com, FCPS teachers are paid an average salary of $66,794 a year, which is actually 44 percent above the national average. The average cost of living for one adult in Fairfax County is $58,035, according to the Economic Policy Institute, but many teachers have children and families. For the cost of living of two adults and two children, it’s about $117,561 a year, almost twice as high as most teachers’ salaries and for just a household with one adult and one child, the cost of living is $85,837 a year. Yet, teachers are still very dedicated to their jobs, as some even stay after school to help their students, even though they don’t get paid. The job can even be dangerous at times as in 2023, a middle school teacher was physically beaten by a student. So why do they teach, even though they’re not being compensated fairly for it? 

Many teachers at Robinson teach simply because they want to help students and see them grow and learn. “I always kind of knew I wanted to be a teacher even when I was in high school. I did a teacher cadet training class where we got to work with preschoolers and elementary schoolers. I always enjoyed working with younger kids and helping them learn things and see that light bulb moment and then through college and grad school, I really solidified that this is what I want to do and [that] I really enjoy teaching. I think there’s very few professions where you get such job satisfaction of getting to work with people and talk to them and help them grow and learn, and it’s fun and especially teaching middle school, we get to kind of play games and do things that make it more engaging for everyone, so I really enjoy my job,” History teacher Shelby Whitwell said, “but there are a lot of things about teaching today that are stressful and make it a little overwhelming and maybe a little taxing on teachers who are starting to kind of come to the end of their bandwidth as far as what they can give to their students and to the community.” A lot of the teachers at Robinson have similar reasoning as to why they’re teachers today. Most really enjoy working with students and love the challenges it brings. Some teachers also like that teaching is a unique experience as every day is different. 

However, teachers do struggle at school sometimes. “This day and age, I feel like there is so much on our plates besides just actually teaching students that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find time to do everything that our job requires of us so often that’s at the expense of things at home,” an anonymous Robinson teacher said.  “Like spending time with my own kids or spending time doing hobbies and things that I enjoy because it requires so much of me to do my teaching job.” Teachers often stay after school to help their students with various things, and grade work that their students do, which can take an enormous amount of time, especially for teachers that may have children at home or other responsibilities. Additionally they may even have to act as counselors or deal with rude students. Teachers may also have to make lessons, projects, slideshows and presentations and things of the sort which can take time, and this labor isn’t paid either. Ms Whitwell said, “Sometimes I feel like my job is not just being a teacher, but it’s also being a guidance counselor or being a mediator or a nurse, or a mom, or trying to provide kids with things that they need beyond just the classroom,” said Whitwell. “I also think just in general there’s a lot being asked of teachers right now and as far as what we’re compensated and how we are kind of viewed in society, that has not changed. So, it’s kind of more and more being put on the plate and less and less being rewarded in return.”

Teachers are also very underpaid. “When I compare what we make to other professions, my answer is no [not compensated fairly],” said an anonymous teacher, “I see people that entered the workforce around the same time that I did 16 years ago, and I look at how far their income has grown in the past 16 years compared to how much mine has grown and it’s nothing close. I feel like for what we do, we don’t get compensated nearly as much as what we could make if we were doing other professions.” Unfortunately, this fact is something that teachers understand when they go into the industry. In order to combat this, teachers may live outside the district they teach in or be reliant on financial assistance from a partner. Teachers may also not feel appreciated in their workforce, partly due to their lack of proper compensation.  “I’d say I have some students who I feel very fortunate to have formed good relationships with and they have shown me appreciation for what I do and for the community we try to build here,” Whitwell said.  “But in general, I would say that students are very unaware, or at least they act unaware of how much their teacher puts into the job, and they have shown disrespect towards their teachers, their classmates, property, the school and that makes it hard to continue wanting to give your all when the students don’t seem to necessarily care. It’s a lot.” She also mentioned, “I maybe had three kids say thank you last week, whereas in years past even it was much more than that so I just think as a society, we’re not valuing our educators, but for me, I still think that the job has value and I still really love what I do, but there are days where it’s harder.” However, a lot of teachers do feel appreciated at their job in Robinson. Some may not feel appreciated from a universal standpoint, as Ms Goble said, “I would say for the most part yes [I feel appreciated].”

The teacher shortage in Fairfax County and nationwide is also partially brought on by these reasons. According to an article in 2022 by Northern Virginia Magazine, the industry faces a massive shortage of teachers because many teachers feel burnt out, overworked, underpaid and people don’t want to enter the workforce because of this. Teachers on average work around 52 to 58 hours a week, which is over 10 hours more than an average 40-hour work week and 17 percent are employed in another job, according to a survey by USA today. Teachers may even have to pair classrooms together when a teacher of the same subject is out, or have another teacher act as a sub when there’s not enough subs to substitute. Chemistry classes at Robinson for example are sometimes paired up when a teacher is out, as FCPS does also face a shortage of high school chemistry teachers and substitutes according to WTOP News. FCPS’ response to the teacher shortage has been through the teacher residency program, according to Northern Virginia Magazine, which allows qualified teachers to fulfill their licensing requirements in a year, starting from their first day employed. Teachers are supervised by an administrator and mentored by a veteran teacher. Even though the teacher residency program may help, wages still discourage people from becoming a teacher. FCPS ranks fifth out of nine school districts in the DMV for total career earnings in 2023, according to WTOP News. FCPS teachers are leaving for Prince William County as well, according to the same article, interviewee school board member Laura Jane Cohen said, “If I am trying to find a job in Fairfax County, I’m looking at these charts, and why would I go somewhere where we’re fifth, ninth, eighth? We’re just going to keep shedding people.” Prince William on the mentioned chart had a midpoint salary of $99,976, while Fairfax had a midpoint of $87,937. 

Collective bargaining in Virginia is also not common, as Virginia is a Right to Work State, meaning that employees don’t have to join a union to be employed. It is also an “At-Will Employment” state, meaning that employees can get fired without any reason or notice with the exception of the presence of an employment contract and the employee can freely quit, strike or stop working. When looking at neighboring Montgomery County in Maryland, which is not a Right to Work state, the Montgomery County Education Association was able to earn higher wages for teachers through collective bargaining, according to WTOP News. Right to Work Laws decrease unionization, wages and union power, as workers under the law are not required to pay union dues but are still able to benefit from unions, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Despite all of these problems, teachers still find enjoyment out of their jobs. “I laugh every day. I have a job that I enjoy coming to,” said an anonymous teacher. “I learn from kids just like they learn from me, so I’m a lifelong learner. I love that… It’s a job that’s fun. This is a place where we can have fun. We can laugh and I appreciate that. Also, every day is different and I’m not sitting behind the desk all day. I’m up, I’m moving, I’m moving around, I’m interacting with people- that gives me [joy].” Many teachers also enjoy, unsurprisingly, teaching and being there for their students, as HS English teacher Ashley Goble said, “I love when I can help somebody to understand something that they didn’t understand before. I like to be a resource for mental health help, you know, for students because life is tough and if I can help, I like to be able to do that. I think there are many, many rewards to what I do.” Some also love being able to simply be a part of their student’s lives, as Whitwell said, “I think when I look at my friends and my colleagues that are my age that have different jobs, it’s just a job [for them]. And I think in teaching, it’s a job, but it’s also so much more than that and I have these wonderful stories and these wonderful relationships with kids and I love being at Robinson because I have known some of you since you were 12 and now kids are graduating and you get to see them grow and develop, and that’s really special and I do feel like I’m maybe contributing to the world helping kids be better versions of themselves and you know, it’s such an important job.”

Many teachers are aware of these problems when they enter the workforce, yet they still desire to teach and help students grow, even if they won’t be compensated fairly for it and have to work longer hours than the average American. However, these problems are not able to be endured by all people, thus leading to a shortage of teachers. People may also not be willing to work in a profession where lockdown drills are required and teach in a potentially unsafe environment. As a community at Robinson, students can advocate for their teachers and just try to make them feel more appreciated and make their jobs easier in a job that’s generally very taxing. 

Some teachers have made some suggestions on how students can make their jobs just a bit easier. “I think it’s about respect- honestly and communication and for everyone to kind of view each other as having the best intention for our kids,” Whitwell said. “I think right now there’s a lot of, like blaming and pointing fingers here and there to parents, to admin, to teachers and I think if the community just kind of came together and had open communication where we had the best intentions at heart and viewed each other in that way, it would make this job easier. I think sometimes right now, everyone wants to blame teachers for things that are going wrong when it really is a team effort and I think just simple things like a thank you or an e-mail of like ‘hey, I enjoyed your class’ or ‘thank you for what you did.’ That goes a really long way and doesn’t cost anything and just on a bigger level, being involved, if there’s things you don’t like happening in education- writing letters, sending emails, doing the research to help change the school, the standards, the direction we’re heading. Even at a national level, I think teachers should be paid more. I think education should be valued higher and the more voices there are, the more likely change is going to occur.“ Interacting in class discussions and in class in general also helps the teacher feel better, as an anonymous teacher said, “There’s nothing better than having a class of students that interacts with you and is engaged in your lesson and puts in their effort and their energy, just like you do and just to say thank you.” They also mentioned that just appreciating them, being kind and following rules goes a long way in making their jobs easier. Goble also said, “I think being understanding when teachers maybe need to take time off is really helpful. Students saying thank you and have a good day and being polite goes a long way. There’s a lot of just little things like if students can just understand how hard their teachers are working to give them a good experience and a good education, I think that goes a long way and I’m sure there’s exceptions to every rule, but every teacher that I know at Robinson is working really, really hard to do right by their students. If we can just understand that and bea little bit appreciative, that goes a long way.”

The Robinson community can not only can, but should try to make their teachers feel more appreciated and make their jobs easier. Teaching is an unappreciated and underpaid profession, which is why students in general should strive to ensure that their teachers feel appreciated. Saying thank you to teachers can go a long way, as well as thank you cards and participating in class. Overall, being nicer to teachers and participating in their classes can go a long way in making them feel better just in general and feel appreciated.