Over the past decade, the issue of financial security has dominated the national conversation. At its peak in 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics measured unemployment at 10 percent—the second-highest rate in the history recorded by the agency.
Fortunately, the labor force has steadily grown, to the point that we now find ourselves with the lowest unemployment rate since the turn of the millennium. You would think that given such positive growth everyone would be bringing home hefty paychecks, but the reality is that over the same period of time, workers’ real wages have remained flat—or even declined—especially in the lower percentiles. Among these hardworking people are America’s teachers.
Although the average household income is around $59,000, the average teacher salary is $55,100, and in some states it can be less than $38,000. This year alone, teachers in five states—West Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, and Oklahoma—have staged strikes, walkouts, and other forms of protest to push for higher pay. Some have succeeded, but many teachers are nonetheless struggling to support themselves and their families without relying on government assistance or taking on multiple jobs.
The Associated Press reports that “18 percent of teachers work jobs outside of school” in the 2015–2016 school year, which is a slight increase from previous years. Here are some of their stories.
The struggle to juggle
Melinda Dale teaches first grade at Oologah-Talala Public School, and she doubles as a janitor after classes. Her state of Oklahoma has the lowest salaries in the country for teachers—after six years on the job, Melinda makes just $32,000 per year. Her oldest daughter is a senior in high school, and college tuition is more expensive now than ever before. She has two other daughters as well—in first and seventh grades—who both attend the school where she works her two jobs, and who every day have to wait for their mother to suit up and clean the campus.
Sometimes the family pitches in themselves so they can spend more time together. The job adds an extra 15 hours to Melinda’s workweek, and as a result she has to save her lesson planning for the weekends. But at $10 per hour, her custodial work adds up to a quarter of her teaching salary. It’s a challenging state of affairs, but she feels that she has to stick with it: “I’ll do whatever it takes to be in the career that I’m in, but also provide for [my daughters].”
Elsewhere in Oklahoma, Shawn and Kaysi Sheehan were both public school teachers. In 2016, Shawn earned the distinguished honor of Oklahoma’s Teacher of the Year, and together he and his wife were making only $3,600 per month, which was whittled down to around $400 after expenses. And then they had a daughter. Shawn decided to run for office along with 40 other educators. The state had been gutting Education, and their hope was that with representation in government they could improve the conditions in their districts. But only 5 teachers were elected, and their ambitions were ultimately thwarted.
Not every state is as poorly funded as Oklahoma, however. The Sheehan family moved to Texas, where they would receive a combined increase of $40,000 per year. “It feels good because I know I’m doing the right thing for my family,” Shawn says, “but it also feels sad.” Thousands of teachers have fled Oklahoma for a better life elsewhere, leaving the state with little to prepare its children for the future.
Stephanie Lowe supplements her income at Tuscano Elementary School as a Lyft driver in Phoenix. She is 28 years old and earns less than $38,000 per year. She does everything she can to keep costs down, renting a room instead of having her own apartment. And when expenses do pile up, she spends more time on the road, even tutoring on the side now and again. Her income from teaching is not enough to protect her from inevitable circumstances like medical bills, renewing her vehicle registration, and the all-too-common burden of supplying materials for her own classroom. Despite this, she’s committed to her job.
“These kids are going to be taking care of you when you’re older,” Stephanie says. “Let’s educate them; let’s make them the best people that they can be.” At times, however, she has considered leaving the profession. “I went to school for this to be my career […] not so I could work three jobs just to be able to afford to go to the doctor.”
Supporting staff also feel the squeeze. Marianne Murray, an office assistant at West Aurora High School, imagines where she would be if she’d taken a different path. Compared to her current salary, even an entry-level position at a fast food restaurant seems attractive. “At McDonald’s I could have gone into management […] By now, who knows where I’d be.”
Shinette Williams is a single parent with three daughters who works in the athletics director’s office at her high school. Earning just over $23,000 annually, she is forced to accept government assistance. “If you work full-time for a school district, you should be able to meet your basic needs,” she says.
Higher education, lower wages
The problem of low wages in education isn’t limited to K-12. Colleges and universities are increasingly turning to adjunct professors to teach general education courses. These professors often have the same credentials as full-time and tenured faculty, but they receive no benefits, little job security, and earn an annual median income of $20,000 to $25,000. Their plight is captured by a video campaign called “Professors in Poverty,” produced by Brave New Films. Featured in the video is Dr. Wanda J. Evans-Brewer, who has a Bachelor’s, a Master’s, and is a Doctor of Philosophy in Education. But this has not kept her off of food stamps. “I have the highest level of learning,” she says, “and I am literally on welfare.”
Matt Debenham is an adjunct living in Connecticut but teaching in New York. The Connecticut State College system limits him to only two courses in-state, which forces him into a 50-minute commute. He loves his work, but he makes more money working at his local grocery store. What’s more: he’ll be eligible for full benefits within six months of employment, which is more than he could ever expect working the adjunct circuit.
The Atlantic reports that the challenges facing adjuncts translate into suboptimal student performance. This has less to do with the quality of the professors’ talents and more to do with the fact that, given far fewer resources and support, adjunct faculty are unable to prepare courses to the degree of their tenured counterparts.
Students at all levels of education suffer when their teachers are under supported. The profession is taxing on the mind, body, and spirit, and although countless teachers feel a genuine call to the service, too many are limited by financial constraints. If states continue to cut school budgets, they will only push more of them away.
It’s popular to say that children are the future, but the future may not live up to our expectations because of how teachers are treated now.
Featured image via Pixabay.