Shouldn’t Teachers Be Paid More?

In episodes of Ancient Jewish Wisdom, you discussed how the money you have is a reflection of how many of God’s people you’ve served. Maybe I am mistaken. The example of a restaurant server was given. It’s in the name of the occupation; server. A server serves God’s children. It makes sense.

A teacher is also serving God’s children but why are servers in America, for example, and teachers in America, some of the lowest paid occupations if they are serving many of God’s children? Is this because there is no room for growth to serve more of God’s children?

Mayra B.

Dear Mayra,

Thank you for giving us the opportunity to expand on our words. One of the themes we emphasize is that money is a result of serving God’s other children. One aspect of that is that the more people you serve, the more financial reward you will see.

There is a corollary to that principle, which is that the fewer people who can serve in the same way as you can, the more valuable is your work. So a neonatal heart surgeon may perform very few operations a year compared to, let’s say, the number of customers a waiter serves. Yet, since he is doing work that very few people can do and that is highly valued, he will receive much greater compensation.

Teaching the next generation is an important responsibility. Unfortunately, the way the profession is set up, at least in the United States of America, does not reflect that. In public education, we have set up systems that reward years at the job and often meaningless accreditation, rather than excellence. We have prioritized external factors over ability. It is almost impossible to reward a great teacher or penalize a poor one.

Even in many private schools, similar scenarios reign. The schools do not pay outstanding teachers more than mediocre ones. Furthermore, schools are in a bind. They cannot announce, “We did not find a third-grade teacher worthy of teaching your children, so we will not be running a third-grade this year.” Too often, the criteria for teaching in some schools is little more than breathing.

Parents’ demand for teaching excellence is sorely missing. For some parents, the child having a place to be during the day is the main role of school. While others are seeking education, including academic, moral, and social, they are not willing to remove their children from classrooms where those goals aren’t achieved.

Teachers actually serve relatively few students each year. In the failing system we have, they are easily replaceable, and either government, union or Board of Director demands do not allow them to be ranked and paid according to merit. While there are outstanding teachers who even buy supplies with money from their own pockets and who selflessly love and teach those in their care, there are other teachers in the same system who should never be let near a child. For many wonderful teachers, the personal satisfaction they get from teaching and their desire to teach is their true payment. All of these factors affect salary.

In 2013, Forbes Magazine ran an article about a tutor in S. Korea who earned the equivalent of four million dollars annually. Even in the United States, the article pointed out, a popular teacher online can make more than she would in a classroom.

All these factors and more play into earning power, Mayra. Our advice to an aspiring teacher who is concerned about remuneration, would be to choose a path that measures and acknowledges talent, effort, and success rather than going along the standard trajectory.

In favor of lifetime learning,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin


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