At Work & Economics 101

A High School Economics Teachers Looks at Salary from a Biblical Perspective

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I’m a public-school teacher in Boise, Idaho and would venture to say that I make a decent living. Around the teachers’ lounge and in conversations outside of school, talk about teacher pay usually goes like this:

Teachers should get paid more.

If we paid teachers more, we would attract higher-quality people to be in education.

Ouch! (By the way, you don’t hear that last one in the teachers’ lounge!)

While I would never turn down a raise and do believe the work of a teacher is vital to economic and societal prosperity, I would challenge the conventional statements above. Of course, figuring out the actual value of a teacher to society is difficult. How much exactly do I add to the well-being of my students and the community? I don’t know and frankly any numbers thrown out would be conjecture.

Lebron James and Mick Jagger make considerably more than I do—there is a high demand and limited supply for the work that they do. Is their compensation fair? Fair is a slippery slope, but my economic mind asks this question: What is the value of their output? It is much easier to assess and quantify worker production in the private sector where market prices exist than in the public sector, where I am.

IFWE economist Anne Bradley agrees that figuring out teacher pay is problematic:

Making education compulsory and free distorts the ability of markets to place a higher value on the work of teachers because we have eliminated markets in the arena of education. We cannot bring together the most willing suppliers and the most willing demanders. Thus, the knowledge problem persists.

Since education is provided by the state without a price, we cannot regulate the quality and quantity like a market would. We cannot reward teachers the way we think they ought to be rewarded for their services. There is no mechanism to do so.

Salary and benefits are still important elements to me, and I must live within this market quandary. However, my perspective is altered as I look at the first labor market on planet Earth—the Garden of Eden.

A Renewed Perspective from the First Labor Market

In the garden, the employer, God, did not negotiate wages with the employee, Adam. He was simply told to “cultivate and keep it” (Gen. 2: 15). So, even before sin entered the world, work was something God gave Adam to do—we have a natural desire to work with a purpose.  Adam named the animals and was to rule over them (which, interestingly enough, included the serpent).

Of course, we all know that the ideal labor arrangement ended with the Fall, and that means that work can often be painful and hard. We face disappointments, frustrations, and can feel unappreciated (could be pay-related) in our work.

Yet, we are made in the image of God (the ultimate model of a worker), and even in this broken world, can find fulfillment in our work.

Finding such fulfillment in whatever job God has put you in requires looking beyond the numbers on a paycheck or health insurance benefits. It starts with having a heart that is aligned with God.

Praying through the Glorious Mess that is Teaching

It also helps me to remind myself that we are operating on cursed ground. When I see a struggling student, I might initially think, “they are just not putting in the work,” or a student that likes to sleep during class or likes to talk to their neighbor too much—I think, “where is the respect? Why is this happening—ugh!”

With the help of the Holy Spirit and his wisdom, I can ask myself some very probing questions:

Am I seeing people with the eyes of Jesus, listening with the ears of Jesus?

More importantly, can others see Jesus in me?

The job of a teacher can be quite exhausting: grading, lesson-planning, meetings, one-on-one instruction, and whole-class instruction. It seems like the plate is always overflowing! I have a note below my computer so that I can pray every day:

God, make me a teacher and coach that puts love above all else.

This prayer helps focus my mind and heart not on the tasks to be completed but on the needs of others. I admit I struggle with this part of work. Looking at the emotional and spiritual needs of others does not come naturally for me. I’m also a running coach and like to come up with mottos. I shared a motto with one of my runners who has a lot of performance anxiety issues—“Only Eternal Matters.” This means that only what is done for Christ lasts. Having that eternal perspective eases my mind when things go awry.

Eternal Benefits Outweigh Earthly Compensation

People often look at compensation in terms of wages and benefits. General opinion is that teachers are “underpaid” and famous people are grossly “overpaid,” but regardless of your station in life, everyone has the opportunity to “let their light shine before others” (Matthew 5: 16).  We have this opportunity every day in the workplace.

Working unto the Lord has benefits that no paycheck or retirement plan could ever hope to match. God has given me this job as a teacher, and I feel extremely blessed and thankful in many ways.

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  • Pete Smith

    I am a part-time high school economics teacher, but I teach at a private Christian school where salaries are much lower than those in the public schools. When thinking about underpaid or overpaid we must ask compared to what? Teachers at my school are underpaid compared to teachers in the public schools, however, we tend to have smaller classes and excellent parent support. Classroom management takes zero time. What is that worth? Teachers generally cram a whole year’s worth of work into 180-190 days. Teaching and preparation can be exhausting, but then summer vacation comes. I appreciate this post. In the future it will be instructive to compare education to health care where markets are also being eliminated. How much should a doctor be paid? Many are refusing to take new medicare patients because the reimbursement is too low, but teachers usually cannot refuse students. At a tuition driven school, students [rather parents] are the bread and butter.

  • Dr. Eric Tangumonkem

    Thank you for bring in the eternal perspective in a meaningful way. If what you are doing is what God wants you to do, then you re in the best place and will be eternally grateful.

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