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The Financial Reality of Being a Teacher

The Financial Reality of Being a Teacher

Zina Kumok

  Teacher walkout in Broken Arrow, OK. Photo by Shaunda Nickel

Teacher walkout in Broken Arrow, OK. Photo by Shaunda Nickel

After a nine-day, statewide walkout protesting Oklahoma’s dismal public education funding, teachers there are back in the classroom, having secured pay raises and a fraction of their desired $200 million in classroom funds. And while the state currently ranks 49th nationwide in teacher salaries (not to mention a first grader is currently learning from the same tattered textbook that once belonged to 41-year-old country music star Blake Shelton), things aren’t looking much better for teachers elsewhere. West Virginia recently ended a strike shortly before Gov. Jim Justice signed off on a 5 percent pay raise. Protests continue in Arizona and Kentucky, and teacher activists in more states might soon follow.

The details vary by state, but echo a trend in school districts across the country. Pensions are being cut, salaries are stagnating, and teachers regularly make due with shortages in supplies, classroom assistance, and even instruction time as budgets dwindle. Many states are now experiencing a teacher shortage—and experts say it's only getting worse.

We talked with teachers across the country about their salaries, and how they get by. Here’s what they had to say. 

Leesa, early elementary education teacher in Tulsa, OK.

How long have you been teaching? Two years

What is your current annual salary? $31,000 

How much do you spend on school supplies and classroom needs annually? I can’t give an exact amount, but I know there have been several times I’ve bought materials for projects.

What is the size of your family? Single

What do you think people don't realize about how teachers are compensated? I’m in school right now for a master’s in education. I was always under the impression that another degree meant a significant raise in pay. In Oklahoma, a teacher who obtains a master’s degree [only sees a marginal salary increase]. It’s almost not even worth it.

What are some other financial realities of being a teacher? During my first year of teaching, I had to get a job at a local retail store to afford my rent. It was downright exhausting balancing grad school, a full-time job, and a part-time job.

I love what I do. I love being able to pour my energy into children’s lives and equip them with tools they can use long after they leave my classroom. I just would like to be able to afford to live comfortably. I want to be able to not check my bank account app all the time just to make sure I have enough money for groceries.

Jessica, third-grade bilingual education teacher in Milwaukee

How long have you been teaching? Three years

What is your current annual salary? $44,488.76, up from $41,000 before I finished my master’s degree.

How much do you spend on school supplies/classroom needs annually? Typically, around $500

What is the size of your family? Single 

What do you think people don't realize about how teachers are compensated? I always work more than a 40-hour work week. With planning, grading, and analyzing data I easily work at least a couple extra hours each night and often several hours on the weekend.

I don’t get paid over the summer. Although I enjoy the time off, I have to work other jobs or live like I’m homeless. I also have at least a week unpaid setting up my classroom and several weeks unpaid planning at home.

Are you able to save for retirement? I was contributing $200 every two weeks to my 403(b) plan, but it was too much coming out of my paycheck. I just recently reduced my contributions to $100 a paycheck. Otherwise, I won’t have money to make it through the summer.

Why do you support the recent teachers strike? I’m glad we have a strong union here in Milwaukee, but we are constantly fighting to maintain a living wage and benefits. Tonight, we had a school board meeting where hundreds of teachers gathered to fight for our health care and wages. They are threatening to take away health care for spouses [and raising employee health care contributions among other benefit related measures].

  Photo courtesy of Catherine Piatt

Photo courtesy of Catherine Piatt

Catherine Piatt, K-5th grade ESL teacher in Lexington, KY 

How long have you been teaching? This is my 20th year in education, including two years in South America and 18 in Kentucky. 

What has been your salary trajectory? $33,000 in 2004, $40,000 in 2008, $48,000 in 2012, and $55,000 in 2016. These salary changes take into account increases due to advanced degrees and certifications as well as increased years of experience. 

How much do you spend on school supplies/classroom needs annually? It varies between $100 and $300. It’s less now because I'm not a homeroom teacher anymore and don't need as many supplies.

What is the size of your family? Just me and one needy dog. 

What do you think people don't realize about how teachers are compensated? We are not paid for all the time we get "off". In my district we are paid for 189 days, only four of these are holidays. We have 10 paid sick days each school year, three personal days (that turn into sick time if not used), and three emergency days that are lost each year if not used. 

Are you able to save for retirement? I have saved a small amount from each paycheck in a separate retirement fund for the past five to seven years, but in Kentucky, we are required to save for retirement. We have [about] 13 percent of each paycheck automatically withdrawn and submitted to a state-run pension fund. We cannot choose to use this 13 percent of each paycheck towards any other type of retirement savings. There is no opt-out. 

I believe our local school districts also contribute to this fund, and the state government is also supposed to. Historically in Kentucky, our state government has not fully funded their share, and they've even drawn from the fund for other programs that are not education related.

Our current governor is trying to change how this fund is handled to make up for the shortfall, but he and some of the legislators are not doing so in a teacher-friendly way. This is one of the issues that Kentucky teachers are protesting and rallying about. 

Rickey Washington, elementary school music teacher and high school assistant band director in Tulsa, OK

How long have you been teaching? Two years

What is your current annual salary from teaching? $33,647.07

How much do you spend on school supplies/classroom needs annually? This summer, I spent around $600 on supplies for my classroom. Over Christmas break I spent around $300.

What is the size of your family? Single

What do you think people don't realize about how teachers are compensated? My contract hours are 7:15 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., but I normally get to work around 6:45 a.m. and don’t leave until around 7:30 p.m.

Are you able to save for retirement? Yes.

What are some other financial realities of being a teacher? I have had to learn to really manage money. On the weekends, I work a second job at the mall just to make sure I have money for gas and food. I have student loans and credit card bills to pay which takes most of my paycheck.

Melissa, administrator for Tulsa Public Schools in Tulsa, OK

How long have you been teaching? Classroom teacher for 23 years and administrator for three.

What is your current annual salary? Currently making $65,000 as an administrator.

How much do you spend on school supplies/classroom needs annually? At least $1,000. 

What is the size of your family? Married with two kids.

Are you able to save for retirement? Yes, I have a small 403(b).

What are some other financial realities of being a teacher? One of the reasons my children didn’t play a lot of sports was because I couldn’t afford it. I was tired of telling them no. I spent so many years as a teacher not getting a raise... So I went back to school and got my master’s.

 

  Teacher walkout in Broken Arrow, OK. Photo  by Shaunda Nickel

Teacher walkout in Broken Arrow, OK. Photo  by Shaunda Nickel

Kevin Matthews, former 7th-grade math teacher in Dallas, TX

How long did you teach? Two years, from 2012 to 2014.

What was your salary trajectory as a teacher? $45,000 during my first year and $46,000 during my second.

How much did you spend on school supplies/classroom needs annually? It is hard to keep track because you're making several small purchases throughout the year. Conservatively, I would say I spent around $500 per year.

What was the size of your family? Single at the time.

What do you think people don't realize about how teachers are compensated? Teacher compensation in most states does not match the amount of work and time that we put in. We are often asked to be at school hours before the doors open to help with security. My school required us to feed our students in the classroom, and we were responsible for coordinating student/parent pick-up. Those are three distinct jobs: security, nutrition, and logistics, not including actually teaching a class. None of that includes the hours it takes to design, prepare, and grade a single lesson.

Were you able to save for retirement? Yes, I always made sure I contributed to my retirement accounts.

What are some other financial realities of being a teacher? I purposely avoided teaching in Oklahoma because I knew the salary was low. Instead, I taught in Dallas where my salary was enough to support myself as a fresh college graduate. As a disclaimer: For the two years I taught, I did not have to pay my student loans. If I did, things might have been different.

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