Teaching has been the through-line of my undulating patchwork of career choices. I’ve worked as a poetry editor at a literary magazine, a cheesemonger, a corporate copywriter, a French-to-English translator, a babysitter. But throughout and in-between these jobs, I’ve worked steadily as a high school test-prep, English, and French tutor (with private companies, and occasionally, freelance). I still work as a theater teacher and improv comedy coach, and I love it.
Regardless of the subject matter I’m teaching — from SAT test-taking strategies, to the conjugation of irregular “ER” verbs in French, to nurturing your confidence and imagination as a comedic improviser — I find that I’m energized by my students’ questions. I’m inspired to further my own learning precisely because I’m responsible for someone else’s education and intellectual development. Luckily, my pedagogical passion has also sustained me financially throughout my artistic pursuits and the necessary career changes that a creative life demands. My path to teaching is idiosyncratic, to be sure (I’ve never taught academic classes for groups of students at an actual school building) and fundamentally freelance in nature. The longer I’ve taught this way, the more curious I’ve grown about more traditional, full-time, in-class teaching careers: does teaching this way allow for a financially and emotionally sustainable lifestyle?
That’s why Chelsea and I put a teacher shout-out on Twitter this week to ask all you fine TFD readers who work as teachers to write in about your financial lives. I’ve got a juicy roundup of teacher write-ins on the way for next week (teachers: please keep sending me your wisdom and financial truths, I’m loving ’em!). In the meantime, however: one of our readers, Adrienne S., wrote such a detailed and thoughtful response about her teaching career and financial life in pedagogy that I wanted to share all her thoughts in one place!
1. How much do you make, and is it enough for a comfortable lifestyle?
I currently make $43,500 a year (that is the ‘third year’ salary). My school has a “cost-of-living” raise of 2.5% per year, so next year I will make slightly more than what I make this year. This allows me to live a very comfortable life for two reasons: first, the inflation rate nationally right now is approximately 1%, so my cost-of-living raise (which the faculty negotiated with the administration) is actually higher, so we make a little bit of money from it. Second, I live in upstate New York, where the cost of living is relatively low, compared to other areas of the country. (The housing market where I live is incredible — you can buy a house that’s two or three times the size of a house in the NYC Greater City Area, for about half the cost).
It’s worth mentioning that private school teachers’ salaries are typically less than public school salaries. This is because a private school salary is tied to the school’s endowment (donations made by the student families). While I certainly work at a school with extremely affluent families who consistently donate, there are over 70 faculty members; the endowment has to be split between all of us, so we’ll never earn the same pay teachers that public school teachers do. The school makes up for it, however, in what I’d consider “added benefits,” such as the fact that I only teach 155 school days per year, instead of 180 (the typical number for public school teachers).
Plus, as a teacher with access to a driven student body with disposable income, I have many opportunities to earn extra money on the side. I am certified to teach grades 7-12, so I can tutor students in my subject area from any district and charge a little more than $30/hour. Additionally, my school allows teachers to run clubs and extracurriculars (including coaching a sport) for an extra stipend. I’m young, motivated, and hoping to save for my future, so I tend to jump on every available opportunity to make extra money.
Most schools have a system in place to reimburse teachers for classroom expenditures, such as whiteboard markers, paper, staplers, red pens (of which I go through about 30 a year!), and other related costs. I also get reimbursed for travel if the trip is for professional development, such as attending a conference on pedagogical methods or literacy programs. Out-of-pocket, I probably spend a few hundred dollars each year on classroom supplies, but 90% of that cost is reimbursed, which is amazing. It is important to note that not all school systems operate like this. If you teach in a low-income area or at a Charter school, you might not be reimbursed for classroom expenses, which is sad and an absolute injustice in the American educational system. It keeps talented teachers from working in the communities that need quality educations the most.
2. How does the affluence of your school’s student body and community affect your job?
I teach at a private Catholic school, which makes my life and job infinitely easier in a number of ways. First of all, the administration’s behavioral and academic standards are far higher in the school where I teach than in the majority of public schools around the county. Parents tend to be extremely involved in their children’s educations, partially because they are paying out-of-pocket for tuition (upwards of $12,000 a year), and partially because in affluent communities, education and high achievement are considered sacred — essentially, the parents and students in my school community are in an economically-privileged enough position to espouse all the values you’d typically associate with a largely white, suburban, affluent population (working towards an elite college education that will lead to a high-earning livelihood after school).
I think most people would immediately identify the income level I’m talking about. Their “richness” doesn’t necessarily mean something bad, but it does connote extreme wealth. The families I serve are, in some cases, multi-multi millionaires who think nothing of dropping 20k on a weekend. (I have seen it happen!) This affluence makes things a little more difficult in some ways; often, the students I teach are unaware of their innate privilege. I feel it’s my responsibility to point out to them that they are very fortunate and explain to them that they have a social responsibility to learn about (and care for) those who do not experience the same advantages in society. I talk about the limited rights of U.S. immigrants, the worldwide refugee crisis, the especially the low-income, urban school district that is less than five minutes’ driving distance from our school: I try to show my students how they live a vastly different life from our neighbors because of economic inequality. I remind my students that our “world” at school is not reflective of the reality they’ll encounter someday. I get a lot of eye-rolling when I start to talk about this! 🙂
3. What are your financial goals?
This year, 2016, was the year I decided to (for the first time) stare my personal finances in the face and say, “Ok, let’s do this. Let’s get a grip on whatever financial mess my life is in right now, start to care about it, and clean it up.” So my financial goals are a lot more detailed now than they were just 12 months ago:
A) Pay down my student loans aggressively. I went to a private university on a 75% merit-based scholarship, but still walked away with $37,000 in debt. I am three years out of college now, and I have reduced my debt to $12,500. My plan is to finish paying it off by mid-2018.
B) Finish my car payment. I put a lot of money down on my car, but still needed to take out $8,000 in car loans to pay for the rest. I’m paying 25% extra on the bill each month in order to pay less interest on the loan in the long run.
C) Create an emergency fund greater than $2,000. Right now I live on the edge and have about $300 in my savings at any given moment. My savings are small because I am throwing money at my debts, but that’s no excuse for not investing some of my earnings in a comfortable little nest egg that I can use in the case of a health emergency. I am on my employer’s high-deductible health plan, which is smart for a young and healthy person, but the “unthinkable” could still happen. I could, for example, get hit by a car and spend two months in the hospital. $300 won’t cover that, no matter how you slice it.
D) My loftiest goal is to start saving for a house. I’m living in a very cost-effective apartment right now with a roommate (a close friend from high school) and love my current living situation. However, not having any equity in property makes me uneasy. Plus, I’d love to have a place I can call my own, even if it’s attached to a 30-year mortgage. Like I said, the housing market in my upstate New York area is great right now — so it would behoove me to save up for a 10% down payment on a house that I love.
4. What are your professional goals?
Right now, I teach 6th and 7th grade, which I think is great for a young teacher (I’m 25) who has the energy to keep up with them and understands their lingo (if they tell me I’m “on fleek,” for example, I know what they mean, even if I roll my eyes at them for saying it). Eventually, the youthful advantage I currently have will wear off. In 10 years, I won’t know what the heck the youngsters are into anymore! 🙂 Beyond that, I think it’s good for me to move towards a more challenging curriculum (which comes with teaching high grade levels). I want to perfect my classroom management in the lower grade levels, but eventually I’d like to teach AP United States History. I want to help students engage and wrestle with bigger questions of national policy, moral legislation, and global economics.
5. Do you ever regret choosing this career path? If so, why?
I have NEVER ONCE regretted becoming a teacher. I suspect that you’d get this answer from a lot (if not most!) of the teachers you talk to. Most of us don’t enter the profession with dollar signs in our eyes, seeking fame and fortune. Generally, what motivates teachers is that we have the opportunity to influence the country on the ground level by shaping the characters and minds of our youth, which is one of the nation’s biggest assets. Most teachers like the fact that this job is dynamic and requires constant movement — of your teaching style, of your body, of your beliefs about yourself and the world you live in. Teaching is the OPPOSITE of a “boring desk job,” in my opinion. Very little of my work is done at a desk, and that, to me, is an extremely appealing part of what I do.
6. What’s your biggest professional challenge?
My biggest professional challenge has changed over the course of three years since I began teaching. It used to be simple classroom management — having the authority to say, “Okay, I know what I’m doing here, and you need to sit down and listen to me.” Now that I’ve gotten the hang of it, it’s dealing with administrators and parents in a professional but assertive way. I have to know that not everyone will agree with what I teach in the classroom, and that’s okay. In fact, it’s ideal to expose children to a wide variety of mindsets and teaching styles. I have to strike a delicate balance between standing up for myself as an educated, professional, and qualified teacher while also making sure the parents, community members, and administration feel that their needs are being met. I have a feeling I’ll be working on striking that balance for the rest of my career.
Adrienne S. is a teacher in upstate New York who teaches 7th-11th grade social studies. She is a big believer in feminism, side hustling, and helping women to achieve financial security and equality in the world. She has two roommates — okay, one’s a cat.
Image via Unsplash