The Perversion of My Math Teaching Salary
A personal math teaching experience in the current economy of the 21st-century. Is it irrationality or is everything according to basic market theory?
When I started out learning about thermodynamics, I was pretty frustrated trying to understand this difficult subject. What soothed my frustration was recalling my professor telling us he had visited the same thermodynamics lecture three times himself when he was a student, because he needed to in order to understand the basics better. And even then, as a renowned professor teaching thermodynamics for decades, he could not be sure whether he really understood his subject matter. And here I was, trying to review the same lecture materials I once used to prepare for the exam of thermodynamics two years earlier because I, my humble self, intended to teach it to somebody else.
Teaching this subject matter with my background was a suboptimal idea. Unsurprisingly, the questions I was asked were exactly the same ones that I struggled myself with when I prepared for the exam. The student who asked me for help was definitely no fool.
Let me note here that the thermodynamics we did was not high-school level material that comes with a handful of straightforward formulas and tailored questions whose answers are crystal clear according to simplified textbook theory. Instead, answering one of the questions in the list the student provided me with, would sometimes take me hours, if not days, as it required me to work up, inter alia, the fundamentals of quantum mechanics.
I was paid approximately $20 per hour (20 Swiss francs to be precise) for on-site teaching, but, of course, I was not paid for preparation time. Therefore, my actual salary was far less than $20 per hour.
If you accounted for the preparation time, my salary would be a mere $1 per hour.
Meanwhile, my sticky notes on the bulletin board in the university foyer started to attract the attention of students with similar needs and similar monetary compensation offers. Frankly speaking, I didn’t care too much about the salary, and I took every offer between $15 to $25 per hour that I could get. After all, teaching others helped me understand the topics better myself, and moreover, I considered it a general kind of “brain exercise” for which I even got paid for. Teaching (or maybe more precisely “helping out”) on university level, was both challenging and fun.
Besides pinning stickers on a foyer bulletin board, I additionally put a digital ad on an internet platform for math teaching on any level (at least up to a level that I would still be able to handle myself). That worked equally well in terms of quantity of responses when compared to to the university foyer, except for the fact that not only university students but also high school and elementary school students were searching for math teachers here.
In most instances, it was high-school students who struggled with mathematics, and often their maths grades put them at risk of dropping out of high school. Some were motivated to search for help by themselves and some were instructed by their parents to do so. In almost all of those instances, the parents supported them financially. They (the parents) paid me typically 30$ per hour, some 35$. Especially when it was urgent (i.e. exam the next day) or critical (i.e. the student was likely to drop out) I could haggle over the salary a bit and get in some cases even up to 40$.
After 2–3 years teaching high schoolers my actual salary was now greater or equal to 30$ per hour.
That was a definitive salary jump from 1$ to 30$ an hour. And the better part was that it didn’t require any preparation time. Mathematics was not as demanding compared to teaching students in academia. It was satisfying, nevertheless, in terms of seeing how the students made progress and how they learned. Most of them were eager to improve themselves and did make progress. I loved this job then, and I still love it now.
As service-providing businesses typically do when having enough interested customers, I kept the most sympathetic and highest paying ones and stopped my teaching service for people who would pay less. (In some extraordinary cases I continued supporting the lower-paying families because I knew the money was not really growing on trees and they needed the help.)
The ability to choose helped me get my salary further up from 30$ an hour up to roughly 40$ an hour.
And of course, I could sometimes get a raise from people with whom I worked longer together, when they were satisfied with my work.
I was now 3–6 years in the spontaneous math teaching business. Sometimes my long-term students graduated high school and therefore didn’t need my support anymore, which is why I kept constantly looking for new customers. I became more selective. I tried to optimize a combo of salary, distance to travel, and sympathy. That’s the reason I gave various people a try even if the salary was not agreed upon on the first test lesson, or other peculiarities. After all I’m a curious person. The good thing is, that turned out to be truly a good idea. I had an appointment for a first test lesson at one of Zurich’s best locations (Züriberg), where mansions stand one after another. An elementary school student whose parents wanted her to enter high school (gymnasium) by all means, was my student. It was simple calculus. I almost slept in when watching her multiplying single-digit numbers, making sure she set the brackets right. I needed coffee after coffee for the sake of staying awake, not because it was exhausting.
I taught now at elementary school level. I got 80$ per hour. Sometimes a bonus when she came home with a good grade.
That was definitely another salary jump. Plus I got bonuses, it felt a bit as if I was working for financial services (hehe). However, besides this extraordinary case, we need to take into consideration that I was still teaching other students for a lower rate, so my average salary was lower than 80$ per hour. Nevertheless, it was a further jump, especially because I could be more selective. My average was now between 60$ — 70$.
Over almost a decade doing this side job I observed a pattern: parents whose children needed to pass the entry hurdle in order to get into high school (gymnasium) paid best. Parents with strong financial backgrounds and whose children should stay in high school (gymnasium) also paid quite well.
The easier the maths, the better the salary. The better the personal relationship and sympathy, the better the salary.
My math skill didn’t matter. What mattered most was how much the student liked me as a teacher, which probably reflects how well I could explain and how patient I was.
These circumstances may not surprise many, although many may not be fully aware of them. These kind of “counter-intuitive” relationships can be observed in the microcosm of math teaching and almost everywhere in our economy. It is important that we come to terms with these facts.
We can probably explain the circumstances observed by using simple market theory (note: as a non-economist, I can only speculate).
There is likely a much higher demand for teaching on a lower maths level than a higher one. And in the higher level segment, people who don’t have money or don’t want to or don’t need to spend that money, they have the ability to solve difficult problems on their own. Furthermore, the market (that time around 2010) was probably not very efficient, as the salary offers exhibited a wide range and, therefore, I could choose and consequentially keep the best paying ones. On top of that is a pedagogical aspect of math teaching that I did not address when talking about “skill” versus “salary” — maybe I got paid so well for the appreciation of a pedagogical skill rather than mathematical acumen?
Whatever the underlying root causes may be, this example shows clearly that salary is not correlated with how hard you work or how skilled you are. A rare, extraordinary skill may not be as demanded by the market as a much simpler skill. Hard, exhaustive work may not pay as well as easy, simple work. But I have to admit that the best memories of math teaching I have are those hours I taught for 0$ per hour: the ones I was doing just for fun, as a hobby. By the way, those were also the most demanding hours for me when, for example, trying to prove the Collatz conjecture.
I hope the reader can discern that a certain irrationality within our socio-economic system can be derived alone from the microcosm of math teaching.
Footnote: I was referencing predominantly a time between 2009 and 2016. And as I remember, at that time, there was no real known internet platform for offering such services in my area. There were some small niche websites, and one of them was where I put my digital ads. Most people who hired a math teacher were probably finding them through social media or a personal network of friends. I don’t know how the market is today, but I assume it’s more commercialized and there is a more transparent market on platforms, with more standardized prices.