To celebrate back-to-school season, we spoke with four teachers — who are also previous Money Diarists — around the country to learn more about their financial lives. Teachers dedicate their lives to their students, so why are they so underappreciated? Once a stable career, teacher pay has declined along with classroom budgets. In 2018, the teachers’ fight for fairness is far from over.
Today, we speak to an English teacher from Rockford, Michigan who makes $43,000 a year. Though she feels fulfilled in her career, she worries about the future and feels she won't be able to afford a big purchase, such as a home, without being in a dual-income household.
When did you start working as a teacher?
I began teaching in 2015. This is my fourth year in the classroom.
Has your attitude toward the job changed since you started? If so, how?
The longer I teach, the more I feel it's my responsibility to inspire my students to become change-makers and empower them to be informed problem-solvers in our community and beyond. So often what happens in a classroom has little context or purpose outside of those four walls. The further I get into my career, the harder I work to connect our learning to global issues and communities outside of our own. I don't want to just teach my students about the world; I want to teach them out to change it.
Is there anything you would do differently in your career?
I feel fortunate saying this, but no, there isn't anything significant I would have done differently. I hit the ground running, so to speak, and tenaciously created many opportunities for myself and my students. For example, I've initiated new field trips and volunteer opportunities in the community, traveled domestically and abroad with students, and participated in teacher fellowships through the National Writing Project and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Each of these things were demanding, but ultimately the most worthwhile moments in my career so far.
In general, how do you feel about teaching as a career?
Who has more fun at their job than a teacher? So much of my day is spent smiling, laughing, and conversing with young people who continually surprise me. Each day, each hour, each student is distinct, and that means my role is never just limited to instruction. Teaching is a daily challenge that tests every part of my skill and emotional stamina. I can't imagine a more fulfilling career, though. I know that what I do makes a difference because I see it in the way my students act and through the decisions they make. Most days I come home feeling proud of what I do. I don't know if that sense of fulfillment is found in many other careers.
Just yesterday I pored over my finances and updated my monthly budget to determine how in the world I could ever afford a down payment on a house.
This country is facing an education crisis and many teachers are leaving the profession for other fields with higher pay. How has this affected you?
The timing of this question is unnerving. Just yesterday I pored over my finances and updated my monthly budget to determine how in the world I could ever afford a down payment on a house. It seems unattainable for me, and I'm someone who is stringent with my spending and generously contributes to my savings. I don't see how I'll ever be able to afford a big purchase like that on my own and that dependency is frustrating. I can't travel more than I do now, upgrade my car, or even purchase a home without being a dual-income household. When I acknowledge that to myself, I feel trapped, like I can't really extend beyond what I already do.
I'm considering getting a graduate degree in a field outside of education to diversify my career opportunities. Out of curiosity, I recently found myself cruising Indeed.com for jobs in the area I'm qualified for outside of education. I wanted to see if anything would pique my interest. I'm relieved nothing did. I don't actually want to leave teaching, but I imagine my relatively stagnant salary will become less tolerable as I continue in my career.
Do you think teachers generally are underpaid or undervalued? Do you think you are?
"Underpaid" and "undervalued" go hand-in-hand. I'd say I feel valued by my community because I'm often sincerely thanked for what I do. I've met many professionals outside of education that speak on the merit of teachers. The people in my life tend to hold teachers in high regard. However, the most meaningful way to show an employee or public servant you value them is to compensate them adequately. Districts can support its teachers, too, and encourage professional growth by funding professional development opportunities and graduate-level courses. My district, for example, used to partially fund courses for teachers pursuing a master's degree or beyond. Over the last few years, though, they've rescinded that offer. So, there's a dissonance between the words I hear and the actions I see.
How do you think being a teacher in your city/school compares to the rest of the country?
I recognize and am grateful for the privileges I'm afforded by the city I work in. Our community consistently supports our schools, often passing millages to fund repairs and improvements to our buildings. Parents are actively involved in their students' education. I'm able to purchase books each year for my classroom library using community-funded grants. My district provides each teacher with an annual allowance to buy supplies for their classrooms so we don't have to pay for materials out of pocket. I know these qualities are considered luxuries to many educators. They shouldn't be, of course; all students and teachers should have access to quality facilities, books, and opportunities to learn outside of the classroom.
Do you feel fulfilled in your career?
Yes — teaching is intellectually stimulating and emotionally invigorating. Teaching has helped me become a inspiring leader, engaging speaker, and stronger writer, all of which give me confidence in the professional world. Being an educator, too, has given me opportunities to travel because I seek out grants and fellowships specifically for teachers. I feel so much love from my students and that motivates me to give 100 percent each day I'm there. The demand for creativity and problem-solving that comes with teaching energizes me, too. There's never a dull moment.
Would you recommend a teaching career to others? Why or why not?
Honestly, I think it takes a certain kind of person to be a successful teacher and flourish long-term in the career. You have to constantly be a bright light in an often-dark world. Teaching demands everything you've got — your time, talents, and emotional fortitude — and the only way to thrive is to learn how to balance those demands and maintain enough for yourself. Nothing about teaching is easy, but it can be endlessly rewarding and inspiring. I'd recommend teaching to someone who fully understands what they are getting into and is not adverse to the challenges. If someone is feeling doubtful about their decision to be a teacher, it isn't for them.
Stay tuned this week to read more about our nation’s teachers.