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Money Still Matters: A Tale of Two Teachers




By Cindy Long

Peggy Swann has been in the classroom for 25 years; Nikole Kiley has only been on the planet that long. But even though they’re on opposite ends of their teaching careers, they’re both struggling to make ends meet on meager educator salaries.

They teach at Buena High School in Sierra Vista, Arizona, a community in the high desert 70 miles southeast of Tucson. Like most parts of the state, Sierra Vista is struggling to recover from a drawn-out recession, years of belt-tightening, and painful budget cuts — many of which have been to education funding.

Peggy Swann is a veteran English teacher who earns a little extra money teaching a night class at the local college. She used to further supplement her salary by teaching “Saturday School,” a weekly program for students who were chronically tardy or truant. But then the program was cut, and with it, her salary boost. Now she’s on the waiting list with other teachers hoping to proctor ACT tests for a little extra cash.

Swann always wanted to be an educator. Both her parents were teachers, and she never considered another career path. She knew she wouldn’t get rich in education. But she didn’t know that after more than a quarter of a century in the classroom, she’d still be making only $34,000 a year.

“That is truly sad for a 26-year career,” she says.

Swann can’t afford the major dental work that she needs, she rarely buys new clothes or shoes, and she’s slashed her grocery list to stretch her food dollar. But the worst part is not being able to visit her son and daughter-in-law because they live too far away and she simply can’t afford the gas.

Still, she puts in long hours, arriving at least an hour and a half early in the morning and staying late into the evenings to grade papers and prepare lessons. Putting in an extra 15 or 20 hours a week is common for Swann and her colleagues, even though they’re not paid for any of their overtime.

“Everyone I know in teaching is struggling,” she says. “Despite what we do, teachers are not seen as important, or as professionals.”

Nikole Kiley is in her fourth year of teaching social studies at Buena Vista. She recently finished her master’s degree in educational technology, and now has a $200 monthly student loan bill. She thought the degree would help advance her career. Instead, because of budget cuts, she’s making less this year than she did in her second year and third years teaching.

“Between having to pay for my benefits now and losing my coaching stipend, I make $200 less a month this year than I did the previous three years,” she says. “I do not have an extravagant lifestyle.  I have the minimum amount of bills possible.  I eat Ramen and other inexpensive food, and I’m still barely getting by.”

Reluctantly, she’s had to turn to her parents for financial help.

“When I entered the teaching profession, I knew I wouldn’t make much money; but I thought I would at least be able to cover my bills without the help of my parents,” Kiley says. “It’s very embarrassing to have two degrees, a full time job, and still not be able to support myself.  I love what I do, but I would also love not having to worry about where the money for the water bill is going to come from simply because I’m a teacher.”

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