It’s no secret that many teachers feel underpaid: a recent study by the National Association of College and Employers showed that the average starting salary for a teacher in the United States was significantly lower than starting salaries for professions such as computer programmer, public accountants, and registered nurses.

This isn’t to say that those jobs are unimportant, but rather to start a discussion on teacher pay. While the average educator in the U.S. makes $39,080 per year, the average engineer makes $60,639. Someone in the business field averages $51,541, and only those in a humanities or social science position average less: $36,824 per year. On the other hand, pay does vary by state, and educators generally receive a strong benefits package.

Knowing how a teacher’s salary is chosen, where teachers are likely to get paid well or poorly in the U.S., and what to expect as you gain experience in the teaching field are all critical points in deciding how to maximize your earnings in education.

Salary Scale: How Does It Work?
For the vast majority of states, education salaries are set on a schedule, similar to the one posted by Washington’s Superintendent of Public Instruction. Washington’s schedule is instructive: while the Y-axis lists years of service, the X –axis lists level of education. As a teacher increases his education (getting graduate credits and/or a Masters degree) and years of service, his salary also increases. Oklahoma’s salary schedule, in a similar format, includes a column for a Doctorate and for National Board Certification, as well.

While the salary schedules in OK and WA can’t represent every state, they are similar to many states’ or districts’ schedule. One of the biggest differences between pay in education and pay in other fields is that teachers are not given raises based on performance: a teacher who puts little effort into classroom instruction receives the same raise, during her 2nd year of teaching, as a teacher who works extraordinarily hard in the classroom and also moves into a 2nd year in education.

Highest and Lowest Salaries, By State
Comparing teaching salaries in different states is a little bit like comparing apples to oranges. While there are hard numbers for minimum and maximum salaries, states often report salary information differently, and benefits can significantly change the actual value of a teaching position. Additionally, the cost-of-living in California is certainly not the same as Nebraska, so getting a lower amount in one state might still translate into more buying power.

That said, it is possible to draw a few conclusions about where you’re likely to get a higher salary. According to the National Education Association, during the 2011-2012 school year, average salaries in Massachusetts and New York were the highest, hovering in the low 70K range, while average salaries in South Dakota and Mississippi were the lowest, at around 40K per year. For a teacher in New York who’s at the top of the salary schedule, meaning he or she has over 22 years of experience, a Masters degree, and 30 additional graduate credits, pay tops out at $100,049.

It’s important to note that the NEA survey differs, in some cases widely, from the NACE survey (cited at the beginning of this article). While the surveys tell a similar story, it goes to show that, as mentioned earlier, salary reporting methods can vary significantly.

Additional Factors to Consider in Education Salaries
As suggested earlier, earning a graduate degree can significantly change your salary: teachers with Masters’ degrees can often “jump” up the salary scale. However, this isn’t the case in every single state. North Carolina recently cut pay increases for teachers with Masters degrees, a move that was decried by many, and Governor Pat McCrory is now moving to reinstate the pay increase.

Additionally, benefits should not be underrated, since having a comprehensive medical, dental, and/or eye insurance package can take care of significant living costs. Checking on a particular district’s package, and whether it includes a 403(b) or 401(k) program or other additional benefits, can go a long way toward revealing the true value of a particular teaching position.

Experimental Programs
The picture for teachers isn’t entirely bleak, even if it sometimes seems that way. There have been several experiments with education salaries in the past few years: in New York, a charter school decided in 2008 to pay its teachers $125,000 per year “in exchange for working longer hours and assuming additional duties.”

In Washington D.C., on the other hand, teachers were given the choice to enroll in a merit-based pay program. A teacher who was rated as “highly effective” could earn up to $40,000 over his or her initial pay rate. However, many states have shied away from merit-based pay, worrying about how to set up an objective system.

Teaching is a calling, and very few who go into the profession enter with the idea that it’s going to be extraordinarily lucrative. Despite this, knowing what benefits to look for, how to move up the salary scale, and what areas of the country may pay more than others can help prospective teachers find a satisfying and secure role in education.