I’m a high-school history teacher, and I really enjoy it. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, and I love my kids and my colleagues. I work at a small private school, which comes with some drama and drawbacks, but overall I’m happy here. The problem is that the pay sucks. Most of my fellow teachers seem to have family money or a wealthier spouse, but I have neither and can barely make ends meet. My salary is about $60K a year, which doesn’t take you very far in Brooklyn, especially with student loans. (Mine are on hold right now, but I’m dreading the day payments resume.)
My co-workers act like this is just part of the work we do, like we’ve taken a vow of poverty to be teachers or something. And I used to buy into that or not care as much. But now that I’m in my 30s, it’s starting to bother me that I have almost no savings. It took the pandemic (and the student-loan freeze) to enable me to pay off my credit-card debt.
I don’t want to abandon my career. I’m good at it, and I’ve put over a decade of my life into it. Plus what else am I even qualified to do? But I’m starting to realize that this just isn’t sustainable. I’ve pretty much given up on the idea of ever owning a home. And the irony is, if I ever had kids, I could send them to the fancy school where I work for free — but I don’t know if I could afford to support them otherwise. Sure, I have nice benefits, and I put money away for retirement, but I work with some teachers in their 70s who literally can’t afford to stop working. How can I avoid that fate?
First of all, you deserve to get paid more. It’s absurd that we ask so much of teachers and don’t compensate them better. This is a major systemic problem, and I wish I could change it. But I can’t, so we’ll need to step back and consider your options.
I’m glad you love what you do, and I’m sure you’re brilliant at it. I’m also glad you’re taking a moment to reevaluate whether this career choice isn’t lining up with what you need or want in the future (the income to live comfortably, potentially support a family, and retire eventually).
To start, you need to gather information. If you want to remain a teacher, you probably have to do at least one of the following: find a school that pays you better, move to an area that costs less, or pick up some side gigs to supplement your income. Obviously, these paths are not simple or easy. But neither is squeaking by without enough money to do the things you want.
Speaking of which, what do you want? I’m not asking you to map out a rigid life plan to the letter, but it’s wise to think about what financial security actually means to you. These are just some examples: Maybe it would look like traveling to see family a few times a year, renting a one-bedroom apartment on your own, and being able to go out to dinner once a week without stressing about your bank balance and retirement account. Or it could look like saving and investing more aggressively so you can afford a down payment on a home in five to ten years. Or you might want to take one major, amazing international trip every summer and spend $5 on fancy coffee every day. It’s up to you! Remember, what you want doesn’t have to line up with “traditional” ideas about financial success (house, children, etc.). You get to skimp on the stuff you don’t care about and spend more on the things you love.
Once you’ve gotten more clarity on what you hope to afford, you can look at your current income and see what’s realistic. This might be sobering. But it can also push you to make some big overhauls if necessary.
“When you get to the realization that your situation is unsustainable, that’s often a good time to make a drastic change,” says Rashad Muhammad, a school principal in Fort Worth, Texas, who runs a YouTube channel about building wealth on an educator’s salary. He and his wife, a prekindergarten teacher, began their careers in Florida and quickly realized their income wouldn’t support the kind of family life they wanted (three kids, healthy retirement savings, and enough money to go on vacations). So they started researching which areas paid educators the most and offered lower costs of living. “At the time, most of the major cities in Texas were the best fit for us,” he says. They settled on Fort Worth.
Obviously, Texas is not for everyone. And Muhammad says there were downsides to this decision — he and his wiife didn’t know anyone there at first, for starters. Moving also may not be realistic for you, and there are a zillion great reasons to stay in Brooklyn. (I would know: I live here, too.) But broadening your horizons might turn up some options you haven’t previously considered. “There are a number of major cities where you could be making $65,000 or $70,000 and probably cut your expenses in half,” says Muhammad. He recommends doing some research on where your salary could go the furthest. “It’s a simple math equation,” he adds. “And right now, you have a great advantage in that you don’t have kids, so you’re relatively untethered.”
Regarding your student loans, I recommend that you look into the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Many private-school teachers qualify, provided their employer is a nonprofit organization and provides elementary and/or secondary education according to state law. The Biden administration recently made it easier to enroll and, for a limited time, is granting credits to people whose payments did not previously count. If you’re able to take advantage of this, it’s almost definitely worth continuing your teaching career until your debt is forgiven.
It’s also worth looking at potential career transitions. I spoke to a teacher in Colorado who reached her salary cap (about $60,000) and realized she’d be better off working in an adjacent field. Now she’s taking classes to get a job working in education technology. The coursework does cost money — about $15,000 — but the salary bump will be significantly more than that.
I’m sure you’ve considered supplementing your salary through tutoring, working at summer programs, and so on. Muhammad pointed out that those side gigs can add up to an additional $10,000 to $15,000 a year or possibly even more. As I’m sure you know, public schools tend to pay better than private ones. I understand you may not want to leave the school where you work now, but you might be able to pick up some relatively lucrative summer jobs in the public system.
My point is you do have choices, and you aren’t trapped. I also think your conundrum is more common than you may realize. As you contemplate your next steps, your best resource could be other teachers, particularly those outside of your school — there are many websites, online groups, and even podcasts for educators who are trying to make their careers work better for them. Don’t be shy about networking and asking people how they make ends meet. You’ll probably be able to pass along the favor to another teacher someday.