Why Money Matters
Some educators live in shelters. Others work five jobs to make ends meet. And for all of us, a lack of professional pay shortchanges our schools.
By Mary Ellen Flannery
Do you make enough money?
Of course, you probably don’t—not for what you do, how you do it, and the years of preparation and education that went into it. New teachers in America can expect to earn about $31,408 a year, according to a recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Compare that with $51,162 for similarly educated new field engineers or $44,345 for registered nurses.
And it’s not getting any better. Teacher salaries have risen a scant 0.8 percent since 1996, says the Economic Policy Institute. That’s a whole lot less than the 12 percent increase other college-educated workers have enjoyed over the same period.
What those numbers mean for the six teachers and education support professionals (ESPs) on the following pages is uncertain futures, second jobs (maybe third, fourth, and fifth jobs), and sleepless nights until the first of the month. For others, it means leaving the profession. It also can mean signing onto a professional pay campaign in your local Association or joining NEA’s efforts to ensure a minimum $40,000 salary for all teachers and a living wage for education support professionals. To learn more, go to www.nea.org/pay.
Teacher by day. Locksmith by night.
Since Bob Moehlig became a father, he’s given up on the midnight runs to locked-out homes, but he still spins locks, sets pins, and opens doors on weekends and summer days. He has to—he and his wife, another teacher, need the extra cash from his second job to pay their bills.
After nine years of teaching math to the “kings of middle school” (the eighth-graders, that is) in Glenwood, Illinois, Moehlig makes just $41,000—less money than he did in his first job in accounting—“and that was 10 years ago!” he adds.
“For us, the first thing is the kids, making sure they get what they need,” he says of his 5-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter. That means Christmas savings accounts, used cars, and no vacations—not the kind involving bathing suits, anyway. He and his wife usually serve as delegates to NEA’s Representative Assembly in July, and sometimes they tack on an extra day to visit the local sites. (This year, the kids got lucky—it was Disney in Orlando!)
In June, he gets paid for the entire summer. But, “by August, it’s peanut butter and jelly for lunch and dinner,” he says.
Can you afford hope on $804?
This is not an urban legend: There are actually NEA members who make so little money that they live in homeless shelters. Debbie Ennels is one of them.
As a classroom aide, Ennels takes home $804 a month. She’s willing to spend half of that on rent. But this past summer, when Ennels’ landlord sold her apartment building, she couldn’t find any place on Maryland’s Eastern Shore for so little. She and her 15-year-old grandson were on their way to…who knows, maybe sleeping in her car, when a co-worker suggested the Village of Hope.
Now Ennels and her teenager live with recovering addicts, recent parolees, and others who say their lives are “in transition.” It’s cheap—the charity in charge asks for 30 percent of her take-home pay. In return, she follows their rules. Curfew is at 10 p.m. In her tiny one-bedroom, there’s no phone. If she wanted to visit with a male friend, they would be required to meet in the “common room,” under the watchful eye of the front desk clerk. This fall, when her daughter gets married, she will need to get approval for an overnight pass.
“It’s sort of like being in jail,” Ennels says grimly. And yet, she’s grateful. She can stay in the Village for two years, work on finishing her college degree in education, and then try again to find a place for $402 a month.
In the meantime, working down the street at Chipman Elementary with the youngest, most needy, worst-behaved, and best-loved (at least by her) students is her passion. She’s got kids who can’t smile; she’s got kids who cuss her out.
“I look at them like they’re my children. And I think, ‘What would I want for my own kids?’ So I’m hard on them. I practice tough love….I’ve never been in it for the money,” she says. “But the way my situation is now, I could use it.”
Talk about tough jobs.
Carol Neitzel, an Idaho Falls education support professional, works with the kids who bite their teachers, kick their classmates, and pick up their desks and fling them across the room.
“[Teachers] don’t have time to deal with these problems,” explains Neitzel, a behavioral specialist. “When they send them to me, I focus on getting their behavior back in order so they can go back to the classroom.” For this work, Neitzel earns under $11 an hour. “Not very much,” she concedes.
To make ends meet, Neitzel works at the local movie theater on weekends, earning $6 an hour selling tickets to such fare as Snakes on a Plane. At times, she also works for the county’s election office, earning $8 an hour. Her husband, who is disabled, is unable to work.
“I’ve had children who have been wards of the state, taken away from their parents and considered ‘unadoptable,’ but because of the work that I did, and others, too, they’ve been able to leave the state hospital and be placed with foster families,” she says. “But the state doesn’t value what we do—and until they do, they won’t put a proper price tag on it.”
An empty cupboard, A full slate of bills.
If Allison Wegg had more money, she wouldn’t eat quesadillas every night. “I’d probably buy better groceries,” she says—like strawberries. Oh, the life of a new teacher, earning $30,000 and living in one of the nation’s most expensive cities. She lives in a $500-a-month, one-room apartment in the center of Seattle. To make space for her couch, her bed sits on a loft. “I don’t think I’ll ever have a house in Seattle, unless I marry a millionaire,” she says.
For now, Wegg relies on the generosity of her parents. Her mother, who is a bookkeeper, has tallied the cost of their loans at more than $10,000. “I want to show them that I can make it,” Wegg says. “But every month, I end up overdrawing my checking account or taking a cash advance on my credit card.”
This will be Wegg’s second year as a full-time special education teacher in Kent, Washington. And, even though her job means she drives an unreliable car, can’t afford graduate school, and eats too many nachos, she loves it.
“I see myself teaching forever,” she says. “I knew I wasn’t going to make a lot of money…although now that I’m actually doing it, it’s like, wow, it’s really not very much money!”
Top of the scale, but still undervalued.
A 27-year veteran, Yolanda Gutierrez probably makes more money than most teachers. But even in places where teachers are better compensated than peers in other states, it’s still tough to pay the bills. Every summer, the elementary school teacher must borrow against her pension to stay afloat.
“I get by. I pay my mortgage. But it’s barely enough to make ends meet,” says Gutierrez of her $73,000 top-of-the-scale annual salary. While New Jersey ranks among the top states for pay, consider its average new home price ($488,917), sales tax (6 percent), and state income tax (6.5 percent).
The single mother relies on salary supplements from at least three extracurricular clubs, including drama and chorus, to pay the bills. Then, in what little time is left in her day, instead of another paid job, she takes on leadership positions with her local and state Association. “In other words, I have to sacrifice to do what’s best for me as an Association member.”
Her daughter, who is 20, flirts with the idea of teaching—but with tepid enthusiasm from mom. “It’s a noble profession, but we don’t make enough money, and we don’t get the respect given to any other professional.... Frankly, I want something better for my child.”
One man, five jobs:
He drives, ministers, mentors, and more.
At 6 a.m., Jerry Parham starts his school bus, checks the tires and other safety features, and warms it up for the kids. By 8:15, Parham is in his Virginia classroom, preparing his lessons as an instructional aide for special education students. At 3:15, he’s a bus driver again. A few hours later, he’s a paid mentor for local teens. Then, as the sun disappears, he puts on his ministerial robes and tends to his flock.
What’s that—four jobs? Well, there’s a fifth, too. He also works as a private driver for a tour bus company. And Parham is also a full-time college student, using community grants to help pay for his education degree. And did we mention that he’s a leader in his local Association’s campaign for a living wage? (For more information—or inspiration—see http://www.sussexlivingwage.org/.)
“There’s a lot going on in the typical day,” he laughs. “I try to sleep three or four hours.” When he’s lucky, he pulls an extra driving shift, taking Sussex County’s athletes to a game, and earns a little more cash. “I’ll be sitting in the bleachers, attempting to do my homework.”
After 10 years as a school bus driver, Parham earns $10,627 a year. After eight years as a classroom aide (a job that he “loves, loves, loves!”), he earns $16,128. It’s not always easy to pay the bills for the tidy, red-shuttered house that he inherited from his mother. His monthly mortgage is $863; a recent electric bill added up to $226. (It’s a good thing he grows his own apples in the backyard!)
And yet, he says, “Not everybody is as lucky as me.” Another county bus driver relies on food stamps and forgos health insurance to pay the mortgage. One skipped a medical test to pay for groceries. He knows a guy who has been driving the bus for 47 years—and earns $13,000.