NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
It's summertime, and the living is easy, especially if you're a schoolteacher.
Most people will find that statement either obvious or obnoxious. Those in the "well, duh" camp might note that teachers get the longest vacations of any workers in America.
Others may be offended, or at least provoked, by the suggestion that an educator's life is carefree.
Teachers work hard, after all, and the pay ranges from skimpy to merely adequate. What about that long summer break? You take it if you're lucky – many teachers must take second jobs to fill in the financial gaps.
So the debate is joined, now pick your side: Do teachers have it easy?
Low salary, short hours, or neither?
"It's an article of faith among many supporters of public education that teachers are underpaid," Ohio University economist Richard Vedder writes in a recent issue of Education Next, a policy journal affiliated with Stanford's Hoover Institution.
Vedder has stirred controversy in educational circles because of his conclusion "that teachers are not underpaid relative to other professionals."
|Occupation ||Mean hourly wage ||Mean annual wage |
|Construction managers ||$24.96 ||$51,920 |
|Finance managers ||$28.56 ||$59,400 |
|Chemical engineers ||$29.44 ||$61,240 |
|Physicists ||$33.23 ||$69,120 |
|Lawyers ||$36.49 ||$75,890 |
|Dentists ||$44.40 ||$92,350 |
| Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics|
Unions challenge that. The American Federation of Teachers recently released a survey of teaching salaries across the nation, showing that the average teacher makes $44,367 a year. In contrast, according to the AFT, a mid-level accountant makes $54,503 and a computer systems analyst averages $74,534.
Vedder's research tells a different story. Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he found that on an hourly basis, teachers actually earn more than accountants, computer programmers, and even mechanical engineers.
Moreover, teachers' contracts often contain economic incentives not measured by straightforward salary surveys.
In California, teachers can get discounted mortgages and car loans, and tuition reimbursement. In Missouri, they can retire at age 55 with a pension paying 84 percent of the last year's income, plus benefits and cost-of-living adjustments.
The average public-school teacher receives fringe benefits equaling 26 percent of his or her salary, according to Vedder, versus about 17 percent in the private sector.
Two jobs better than one
A few years ago (OK, it was 20), a student at Verona High School shirked classroom instruction by pestering his teachers about their lives out of school. What did they do with their time off?
A few, like a history teacher whose spouse was an executive at Citibank, traveled to far-off lands. Others had more pedestrian holidays – you'd see them at the town pool (a jarring display of our common humanity).
Most teachers, like their pupils, held summer jobs. They took a week or two off, then got back to work.
The school district hired some to teach summer classes, or to paint the gym. Others sold real estate or worked at camps. One tended bar, another played guitar in a band.
A handful did well in the off-season, like a chemistry teacher who did research for a drug company. He said he earned three times more in the summer than during the school year.
Today, the song remains the same. "You name the job, and there are teachers doing it," says Janet Bass, a spokeswoman for the AFT.
Doing the math
If teachers are working second and third jobs, is it because their primary job is badly paid or because they have enough spare time to moonlight?
It's a tough question, because neither side can quite agree on how much teachers work.
"Teachers work fewer days, and fewer hours during the day, than other professionals," says David Salisbury, who directs the education project at the Cato Institute, a free-market policy group in Washington.
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Most education contracts call for teachers to be in school about 6 1/2 hours a day. That's not enough to do a proper job, say teachers.
It takes time to draw up lesson plans, prepare materials, grade tests and fill out various forms mandated by school districts. Result: a pile of homework so high it would make a valedictorian swoon.
Indeed, teachers routinely talk of having two or three extra hours of work each day, beyond the strict terms of their employment agreements. Add in unpaid supervision of extracurricular activities, helping troubled students, and a raft of other volunteer tasks, and you get even more time working off the clock.
On the frontlines
To a teacher in the field, all this addition and subtraction is almost beside the point.
A teacher with a full classroom has no breaks. There are few other jobs -- soldiers in battle, day traders -- in which workers must be so continuously plugged in.
"People forget about all the little personal things they do on the job," notes the AFT's Bass.
There's no time to make calls to friends, send e-mail, or take a peek at the news on CNN/Money.com. "Just going to the bathroom is a rigmarole," says one grade-school teacher.
Between classes, even the best-prepared teachers are often scrambling. "Stuff doesn't go up on a chalkboard by itself," says Bass.
Of course, it's not child's play to get a roomful of kids to pay attention, let alone learn. "The little brats never keep still," said one particularly disgruntled ex-teacher. (He lasted only a year.)
So do teachers have it easy? Discuss in the space provided. Extra credit for the correct answer.