I'm A Teacher And I'm Broke

by Leslie Rutherford
Originally Published: 

Let me be entirely honest: the next person who responds with “you get to play with kids all day” or “you’re doing what you love” when we discuss educators and financial insecurity is getting an ear full. Frankly, I’m exhausted by the sentiment that because I chose to teach, I chose to be broke.

Oh, I’m not just any teacher, but to be fair, none of us are. All of us are spectacular in our own unique ways, balancing responsibilities like spinning plates on sticks and walking the high-wire under the harsh scrutiny of parents, administrators, and students. My role happens to be early childhood special education. I work primarily with 3-5 year old students who fall somewhere on the vast and varied autism spectrum.

I spend my days training appropriate social skills, de-escalating tantrums and aggressive behaviors, changing diapers, wiping faces, singing songs, teaching foundational reading and math skills, collecting and analyzing data to inform individualized education programs and behavior intervention plans, negotiating the ever-eroding landscape of district politics, designing effective differentiated instruction, comforting and guiding parents who are in the deepest throes of mourning the child they thought they would have, and soothing and instilling confidence in these children who I love. I am important within the paradigm of public education.

michael ledford/Reshot

There, I said it: I am important, dammit! And if you are the parent or teacher of a child with special needs who functions appropriately in a mainstream classroom, who can go to the store or park without anxiety, who has friends, and meets goals, you know I’m important too. I am a specialist and a professional, and I deserve to be paid as such.

Did you count the number of jobs I do in the classroom? How many was that? 1, 2, 3, 4, infinity. Now, picture me at 3:15 p.m., emotionally and physically exhausted, packing up my teacher bag to go home to my own children where I will cook a nutritious meal and help them with homework, right? Nope, I’m headed to my second job.

Some of us waitress, some of us sell crafts on Etsy, or coach gymnastics. Your bartender at Chili’s last night is a veteran third grade teacher by day. That Amazon delivery driver who didn’t drop your package until 8pm spent his day instructing 6th grade art. Don’t believe me? Ask your Uber driver.

We’re everywhere doing everything because the majority of us have second jobs, sometimes three or four. Me, I tutor kids with special needs after school until 7 p.m. and freelance or develop web content for various teacher support sites on the weekends. Both my second and third job carry through the summer as well, and I usually try to pick up extra hours from the district working on special education evaluations and professional development classes for my peers; so don’t come at me with that “you get summers off” mess. I don’t know any teachers who get summers off.

I sound angry. I know that, and under normal circumstances, I would edit myself for the comfort of my audience. However, the fact remains, I am angry. I am tired. I miss my family. I’m never home, and my kids feel this absence in their bones. I find it sadly ironic that, without my second and third jobs, I could not afford to live in the district that I teach in. I find it absolutely infuriating that, even with my second and third jobs, my family lives paycheck to paycheck. I juggle my bills as adeptly as I do my professional responsibilities.

Now, I’m certain you think I must be prone to hyperbole, to sensationalism, so let me offer up a short, personal anecdote to provide context. My husband sprained his ankle earlier this summer, and it nearly sunk us financially. He’s in construction and works two jobs as well. He was unable to work for a single week. We had to take out a loan from his IRA just to pay our monthly bills because we have no savings. Now, we have no savings and zero retirement.

Nicole Honeywill/Unsplash

I do realize that we are in the same irreparably damaged boat as thousands of other Americans. We’re a cliché really, just another casualty of the unexpected medical bill. So please don’t spam my DMs with crap about my lack of global perspective. I empathize with anyone teetering on the edge of financial destruction, but this article is about teachers. It’s about good teachers who are also good waitresses, good coaches, and good Mary Kay representatives because we can’t afford to just teach anymore.

So here I sit (broke, broken, exhausted, and angry), with my feet dangling over the edge of a financial chasm ready to swallow me up. I can’t make ends meet, and I can’t keep working like this. So, as I do every summer, just before the start of school, I am seriously considering making a dramatic, stage-right exit from public education. I am updating my LinkedIn profile, sending out my resume, and praying for what is, seemingly, a mirage, a phantom in the realm of educators: a single job that pays me fairly, according to my skills, experience, and value. One job that would allow me to pay my bills and possibly keep the $25 that automatically rolls over into my savings account each month. For now, I’ll just use that money for gas, so I can get to my second job.

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