6 Teachers On What Their Finances Actually Look Like

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I’ve been lucky to have an education punctuated with devoted, brilliant teachers; in particular, a handful of my English and Drama teachers in high school and college went above and beyond the call of duty to enrich my appreciation of literature. At one point, I was so enraptured with Shakespeare (because of my tenth grade teacher’s impassioned lessons on verse, meter, and the philosophical  predicaments of Elizabethan England) that I woke up at 5am to get to school by 6:30 for an hour-long reading group with the teacher and a few other students. We debated the true root of Iago’s villainous machinations in Othello while scarfing our breakfasts. (GEEK MUCH?)

Looking back on that period of life — with an adult understanding of how taxing work obligations can be on personal life, and an insider’s appreciation for how emotionally and intellectually challenging teaching high schoolers can be (man the SAT stirs up a lotta attitude) — I am utterly awestruck by my own teachers’ dedication. Yes, I was crazy-devoted to wake up at 5:30am to go to extra school. But my teacher, a family man with two young kids and a load of other administrative responsibilities in the English Department, was DOUBLE CRAZY-DEDICATED. He started his day at 5:30am, worked throughout, and went home to grade more papers and prep the next day’s lessons. Can’t lie, folks: the thought of it makes me misty-eyed with gratitude.

On a more pragmatic note, I wonder — how were my rockstar, life-changing teachers getting by, financially? How did they manage to provide for themselves, their families, their retirements, their own kids’ educations? Last week, I ran a very thoughtful article that Adrienne S. wrote about what it’s like to teach at a rich-kid school. Her answers were so compelling that I decided to burrow a little farther down the rabbit hole and ask you, dear readers, to write in with your own experiences as teachers. Here are the highlights of the financial takeaways, joys, regrets, and realistic goals of choosing a career in education.

The Salary Haul:

“My official salary is $59,000 a year, and my take-home pay is about $3200/month. I live in Sacramento, California, and that salary affords me a decent one-bedroom apartment (about 25 minutes away from the suburb where I teach, where rent would be considerably more), a car, groceries from fancy farmer’s market with organic vegan food, yoga and spin classes, etc. I am single with no kids, so I have a decent amount of disposable income. I also teach yoga part-time, so that helps me financially. The other interesting financial aspects of being a teacher are only getting paid once a month (it SUCKS) and only getting paid for nine months out of the year (our net salary is evenly divided over 12 months, so we don’t get ‘paid time off’ like everyone assumes).” — Amy E.

“I just left a job at a public charter school in Nashville that paid 45K for a private school position in Portland that pays $33,500 a year, plus full benefits and a  401K matching program. I could have taken a public school position that paid as much as I made last year, but I have taught in the public sector for five years and am ready for a change. I have lived comfortably for the past five years on a teacher salary — I’ve paid off 10K of my student loans, paid off my car loans, traveled around the States and abroad, and kept an emergency fund of at least $1500 at all times.” — Alexandria F.

“As a teacher, I made $46,500 at the end of my second year. I consider this a pretty good salary; I worked in a district that’s known for treating its teachers well. Teachers in the surrounding districts to mine were making considerably less. However, I did earn my master’s degree before entering the teaching profession (education level influences what you make in the field). While my salary didn’t necessarily put me on the poverty line, I had a lot of financial considerations: student loans, zero furniture to my name, and high rent in an urban area. I ended up working three jobs to meet my financial goals. I worked 70-hour weeks between my jobs: a high school English teacher, an ACT/SAT tutor, and a writer for an online publication. Throughout my short career as a teacher, I did not find the salary comfortable or proportionate to the amount of work I had to put in to be a good teacher.” — Kirsten H.

“I was making $60,000 a year. $48,000 came from my teaching salary, and I coached basketball and served on the student council to supplement my income with another $12,000. I lived in Ottumwa, Iowa, where the cost of living is pretty low, and the teacher salaries are among the highest in the state. I was living very comfortably. Now that I’m moving to Kansas City, my salary will be a little different. I attained my Master’s degree over the summer, so I will move up on the district’s pay scale, but that still only brings me to $42,000 a year. I am coaching volleyball, which will add about $4,000, making my total income $46,000 (less than my teaching salary alone, in Iowa). However, retirement matching and the health benefits at my new job far exceed the benefits of my old job.” — Allison N.

“I graduated with two Masters degrees in May 2016, one in Elementary Education and one in Special Education. According to the D.C. Public Schools’ pay scale, that slots me to make $56,242 before taxes and around $42,000 after taxes for this upcoming school year. I won’t start to earn that salary until August 1st. Last year, when I was a graduate student and full-time teacher, I was making $51,500 (about $38,000, after taxes). The lifestyle that I lived this past year was comfortable. My rent was under $1,000 (including utilities, which, for the District, is relatively cheap). However, I live with four other people and share a bathroom with one roommate. That being said, my salary doesn’t allow me that much leeway; I still live paycheck to paycheck. There are costs associated with teaching that you can’t anticipate until you have your own classroom; some of these costs are tax deductible, but not all. I provide all “free choice” reading books for my students, crayons, paper, pencils, and any additional materials they might need. We are given five reams of paper at the beginning of the school year, in August, and are not given more until January (a teacher can go through one entire ream of paper in a single day when required to make homework copies and activities for the school day). I teach all subjects (because I’m an elementary-level teacher), so I have to buy my own reams of paper, which is extremely costly.” — Rachel O.

“Currently, I work as a 7th grade Social Studies teacher in a regional, public school district. From a financial standpoint, teaching has allowed me to enjoy a fairly comfortable lifestyle. I make a point to live within my means and my spending splurges are rare, but I’m not living paycheck to paycheck; I am able to save for my future goals. Before I had a master’s degree, I was making $46,000. Going into this year with that degree, I will be making roughly $65,000. People who are going into the teaching profession should keep in mind that, depending on the district, your contract will dictate when you reach your next salary increase. Your level of education is also important and can bump up your salary. I supplement my income by taking on advisory roles in clubs (I run the Newspaper Club and co-advise the Speech and Debate team), teaching summer school, and taking on leadership roles like Department Chair and Curriculum Coordinator.” — John L.

The Joys & Regrets:

“I have wanted to be a teacher since I was eight years old, and I love it. I teach 8th grade English, and middle schoolers are a delight. Financially, it can be rough — I know that I will never make the money that many of my friends do. I was laid off a lot during the California budget crisis a few years ago. I work close to 70 hours per week most weeks, but I don’t get bonuses because it’s a salaried job. But I feel really fortunate to LOVE what I do. I feel thankful every day.” — Amy E.

“The only time I regret choosing my teaching career is when I start comparing myself to people my age in different career fields. I think many people leave classroom teaching because they realize how small their locus of control is — we’re at the mercy of our community’s public policies and administration. I will probably never be able to afford a house in Portland or amass significant wealth to pass down to my future children, but that’s okay with me because I enjoy what I do, and I think it makes an impact. That’s enough for me.” — Alexandria F.

“I taught in an affluent suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota. However, I went to college in a densely-populated city, where I experienced true diversity for the first time (and began my teaching career there). The socioeconomic differences between students in my school were very stark: some students came from considerable wealth, while others had to leave school for stretches of time to help their parents with harvesting (we had a population of farmers’ children attending the school). My wealthier students tended to be more popular, and they often gave me a hard time about material things (e.g. “Why is your phone so OLD?” “Why do you drive a Kia? I drive a BMW!”), but it was the money arrangements between kids and parents that I found most damaging. Many students were paid for receiving A’s, and some would receive as much as $500 per A-grade; one student was given a Lexus because he made three Varsity sports teams that year. That stuff was difficult to watch…it seemed to create a sense of entitlement in the wealthier kids; it also made them act like rules didn’t apply to them. I had the most difficulties governing those kids.” — Kirsten H.

“I’m really happy with my career path, there’s a lot to love about teaching. I have great coworkers and friends that I enjoy being around. My students make the job a lot of fun, and I wouldn’t trade how fresh each day feels: that feeling of ‘I made a difference.’ The only thing I would say to anyone who is considering entering the field is that you should be very sure that this is the career that you want, for the long haul. There are certainly frustrations that come along with the job, but it’s an incredibly rewarding career. I wouldn’t want to do anything else.” — John L.

“I knew that teaching wasn’t sustainable for me. I think a big part of that was that I felt like I had invested so much in my education — I had a master’s degree, I worked really hard in school, I exercised incredible discipline in devoting myself to my three jobs– and I wanted to surround myself with like-minded professionals. There were some days where I’d sit at my desk and think to myself, you went to graduate school to have conversations with sixteen-year-olds about prom dresses and how unfair it is that they don’t serve oversized cookies anymore at lunch. I also knew that I was spreading myself too thin. I thought seriously about going to law school for a number of months, and I briefly considered earning a technical writing degree as well. I wanted to love teaching, but I didn’t. Students, parents, administrators, faculty…everyone was demanding things from me; on top of that, there was scheduling, grading, instructing, developing curriculum…I went into work every day feeling like I was consistently failing at more than one facet of my job. When I focused on one thing, other aspects of my professional life suffered. I felt that so much was expected of me (aka, all teachers should be as inspirational and dedicated as Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society), but because of the difficult finances and workplace environment, I couldn’t be that teacher.” — Kirsten H.

“I have never truly regretted my career path. Sure, there are days when I bring home 100 essays to grade, and I wish that I had picked a different job; but then I get back in the classroom and remember how much I love it.” — Allison N.

“The main challenge that I face, in teaching at an urban school, is that my students take on the trauma they are seeing at home and bring it to school on a daily basis. This emotional baggage is a huge impediment to their ability to learn throughout the school year. Every day is a crap-shoot: I’m not sure how students will walk in feeling that day, and there is little to no support from the administration to address this dynamic. Currently, I’m teaching the 1st grade (with students who are five, six, or seven years old). When working with my students, I often have to consciously think, ‘they’re just kids,’ because of some attitudes and language that I witness. My students act much older than they are, which is a direct result of the community in which they’ve grown up in. This is one of my biggest professional challenges right now: I want my students to act their ages and cherish their childhoods. I hate seeing them forced into growing up so quickly. I try to combat this by providing a classroom environment that feeds their social and emotional growth and gives them coping skills to deal with the challenges of their community.” — Rachel O.

The Future:

“My financial goals right now are to pay off my student loans from pursuing my MA in Educational Leadership & Administration. I would love to own a house one day; however, I don’t see that happening yet (mostly because of my own saving habits, but not making a ton of money doesn’t help). My goals are to move into administration or some sort of leadership role. I do worry about retirement and my future; since I’m 33, I need to start taking more active steps toward investing on my own.” — Amy E.

“In terms of financial goals, my two current goals are home ownership and securing a comfortable retirement. Something that is unique in teaching is the pension system. By the end of my career, I stand to take home 80% of my final salary (which is increasing because of contract negotiations). I’m also considering a second master’s degree; it’s an investment, but will increase my salary step. While kids aren’t in the picture yet, I am saving to create a college fund. As for my professional goals, I would like to move up grade levels within my building; the 8th grade content would be a lot of fun to teach. While I don’t have any desire to go into administration, I would like to aim for a department chair position.” — John L.

“My financial goal is to build up $6,000 in an emergency fund. This has been challenging because I just moved across the country, and I’m getting married in December. My professional goal, at this point, is to further develop my skills in the classroom. Many of my close teacher friends have been promoted to instructional coaching positions, or they’ve left the field for a new career (including motherhood!). I feel like I’m finally past the trial-and-error stage and am truly figuring out best practices.” — Alexandria F.

“My financial goals are currently limited to the job that I have. I would love to be able to travel or go to a gym that’s nicer than Planet Fitness. I already know that I’m not going to stay in the classroom for much longer than the next five to 10 years. I love teaching, and I don’t have any regrets in choosing this as my current career, but it’s not sustainable as a lifestyle anymore (especially in large cities like Washington, D.C. and San Francisco). It’s a high-stress work environment; the mediocre teachers work upwards of 50 hours a week, while the truly effective teachers work upwards to 80-100 hours (after all planning and prepping is accounted for). Even during the summer, when teachers are supposedly on break, we are working: prepping materials for next year, planning time to go to professional development seminars, and finding effective ways to teach difficult topics from last year.” — Rachel O.

“As far as my financial goals, I keep it pretty simple. I live credit card debt-free. I am also aiming to get my student loans paid off in two years. I really struggled with saving money and using money wisely in college, and I am still paying for it…literally. I have definitely come a long way, in that regard: I’ve stuck with my New Year’s resolution of creating a monthly budget. Professionally, I hope to continue educating myself; I earned my Master’s degree in Education Administration this summer, and I have started looking at school counseling programs to explore work as a guidance counselor. I really love helping teenagers figure out their next steps, and I think working as a guidance counselor would make me very happy.” — Allison N.

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