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I went broke teaching your kid: The real story about life on a teacher's salary

Four kids. A ton of tuition. And $281.92 for a car payment. Teaching in America is barely middle class any more

October 10, 2015 6:45PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "The Secret Lives of Teachers"

I stare at the calculator: $281.92. That’s what I have to work with in terms of a car payment. My wife, a soccer mom who totes three kids (a fourth is in college) and a couple of dogs all over metropolitan New York—about two thousand miles a month — drives too much to lease one. We’ll have to buy—hopefully new, maybe used. But $281.92 a month for five years will get us only about halfway there. She and I have been doing extra work — summer classes, SAT II prep, and so on — to make up the difference (and pay for a looming set of braces on our youngest).

I find all this exhausting, even depressing, to contemplate. I shouldn’t. My salary has gone up substantially over the course of the last decade, thanks to a series of good contracts and my recent appointment as department chair. I now make well more than double the $48,000 I did when I started at the school in 2001, breaking through to the sixth figure in my salary shortly after my promotion. I am — by most measures of most jobs — well paid. Alas, I deploy my assets as soon as they appear.


I have three major expenses. The first is tuition for two of my children; even with a substantial staff discount, it comes to about $32,400 of my after-tax earnings. The rest of my paycheck goes to our mortgage payment ($27,600 annually) and property taxes ($17,000), which I gladly pay since I have a learning-disabled child in a good public school system. That’s most of my take-home pay, leaving the salary of my wife, a tenured professor at a nearby liberal arts college who makes less than I do, to cover most of the rest of our expenses, with the significant exception of my eldest child’s college tuition, covered thanks to the generosity and foresight of my in-laws. We spend too much on takeout and too little on things like home maintenance (our house steadily becomes shabbier — cracks in the driveway, fingerprints on the walls, a running battle against mildew in our bathrooms). And we don’t give enough to charity. A new minivan has already been deferred a couple times, and waiting much longer would be asking for a harrowing breakdown on the highway with kids and or dogs in the old one.

I tell you these fairly quotidian details about my financial situation in part because it’s the kind of thing my peers just don’t talk about. (Contemporary Americans seem more candid about their orgasms than about their finances.) But I believe my circumstances — and, more important, my attitudes — are typical of educators of my generation and point in the life cycle. The proportion of my income that goes to my children’s schooling, for example, is an amount many people would consider absurd. But I reckon we all have our indulgences, and mine is typical of my profession. Like a great many Americans, I experience myself as middle class, whether or not the facts warrant such a designation. I do think, with the support of some expert opinion I find in the business section of the New York Times and other publications that I regularly graze, that supporting such a lifestyle is more expensive than it used to be. I live better than my parents, a housewife and a New York City firefighter, did when I was growing up (indeed, as a late baby boomer I’m a vanishing specimen of the American Dream). But my upward mobility has been tempered by the rate of inflation for things like housing and education. And having four kids? Financially speaking, that’s just stupid.

Whatever the pay scale, few jobs seem more quintessentially middle class than teaching. No one ever gets rich as a teacher. Still, while it’s relatively low on the professional ladder, teaching is a bona fide career in a society where the middle is being whittled out of existence. Teachers are still generally on the right side of a jagged economic divide in that we receive salaries (not hourly wages), health care benefits, and paid vacation—a particularly prized perk of unusual duration. Teaching has been an actual profession for a little over a century now, a development spurred by a series of convergent phenomena: a Progressive movement that spurred professionalization in many occupations; the emergence of schools of education offering graduate degrees; and an influx of men taking what has often been considered “women’s work.”

As with so many other occupations in the twenty-first century, the economic foundations of teaching have been eroding, however, particularly in the growing number of communities quietly buckling under economic stress, as well as those insisting on quantitative measures of student performance as a basis of future employment. There have, moreover, always been tiers that fall short of steady, secure employment — teaching assistant jobs, substitute teaching, sabbatical or maternity leave appointments, and the like. Some of these occasionally lead to a full-time slot, but it’s in the very nature of such positions that nothing is guaranteed. We can’t escape — do we really want to escape? — hierarchical tiers in even the most level of socioeconomic landscapes.

Teaching has never had the prestige associated with law or medicine (though that of both has deteriorated in recent years), or the excitement associated with journalism (less professionally structured and not especially remunerative for most of its history, but alluring for its access to power and/or the spotlight). Nor does primary or secondary school teaching enjoy the stature associated with college or university instruction, which has generally placed much more emphasis on producing original scholarship than on fostering the art of pedagogy. In terms of social cachet, primary and secondary education has a relationship with the professoriate that can be compared with that of nursing and medicine: as nurses are to doctors, teachers are to professors. The former are generalists who take care of what are perceived as the less complicated cases, often knowing and doing more than they get credit for, while the latter enjoy greater stature rooted in longer years of study and specialization. (Again there are gender echoes here, as teaching and nursing have long been regarded as feminine “helping” professions).

I speak as a failed academic. I went to graduate school in the late 1980s and early 1990s, earning a PhD in American studies. I held on for almost a decade in adjunct positions — including a couple of very attractive ones, but all of them dead ends. I might have held on longer had not the arrival of children (among them an unexpected set of twins and an even more medically surprising daughter) rendered the long-distance commute I’d been doing untenable. It was time to grow up and think seriously about making money. Lacking the credentials to teach in public school, I was lucky to land my current post; from the start I believed that it would likely be the first and last real job I’d ever be offered. White, male, old, and overpriced in a market that prizes youth and diversity, I’m probably unemployable anywhere else.


One other aspect of my good fortune is that I belong to a union, something that’s quite rare at a private school. From time to time I’ll hear people say that the teaching profession lost some of its luster with the rise of powerful unions in the mid-twentieth century: educators traded away their reputation as esteemed community leaders in favor of that of employees collectively bargaining for higher pay and better benefits. There may be some truth to that (along with some overlooked realities about teachers being fired for their beliefs at the behest of petty principals, or simply to make room for someone’s brother-in-law). But as far as I can tell, American teachers have never enjoyed the relative social esteem of those in other countries, particularly in Asia. This may have something to do with the sheer size and heterogeneity of the teaching labor force in a country with a student body as large and varied as this one: teachers are dime a dozen. It’s a little staggering to consider that there are almost seventeen hundred public schools in New York City alone, with eighty-nine thousand educators serving over a million students. If teaching were a rank in the military, it would be that of a private in the infantry (with students as the civilians).

Here’s the thing: the United States has always funded its education system in a distinctive way, relying on communities to tax themselves, rather than treating education as primarily a matter of national policy, finance, and administration. This has resulted in a tremendous range in educational quality and a diverse array of private schools (sectarian, preparatory academies, et al.) along with an even more diverse array of public ones. It’s also resulted in a tremendous range in pay scales — a starting teacher in Alabama or Mississippi makes a fraction of one in Connecticut or Massachusetts, and there are significant disparities within the latter states (consider the difference between impoverished Bridgeport and nearby Greenwich, whose schools are every bit as well appointed as the most pricey private academy). In the most affluent communities, like the one in which I work, teachers enjoy a status approaching that of some of their Finnish or Korean peers; in the most underresourced ones they are forced to endure any number of petty humiliations, financial and otherwise, which are likely to be visited even more aggressively upon students, especially in socioeconomically mixed communities where taxpayers resist what they perceive as subsidizing other people’s children.

But salaries are only one variable in measuring the value of teaching as a way to make a living. While my peers and I necessarily care about money — and sometimes we care very deeply, maybe more than we should—the principal appeal of the job is not really pecuniary. It is, rather, more about the general occupational conditions of the craft. What makes teaching a little different from most office work, for example, is that teachers tend to operate without much in the way of direct (or, at any rate, continuous) supervision. Though this can be exaggerated—there are often people of one kind or another passing through the classroom; collaboration with other faculty is often sought and attained; students and parents provide feedback to administrators, and all of these intervene in the educational process in one form or another—there is a powerful myth of the teacher as the ruler of a small domain, one that may be receding in public schools but that remains alive in private ones. This sense of control over the terms of one’s work is among the most cherished features of the profession. Indeed, anything that is perceived as limiting or compromising it is often cited as a reason for leaving or retiring. Many teachers feel a sense of pride and ownership in their classrooms, which they decorate and organize to reflect their values no less than their pedagogy. So it is that you’ll find Bruce Springsteen and Abraham Lincoln posters in my classroom, along with ticket stubs, newspaper clippings, and magnetic dolls of Harriet Tubman and F. Scott Fitzgerald (gifts of students).

Territorial encroachments, literal and figurative, are nevertheless virtually continuous. In recent years these have become more systematic via curriculum mapping and other forms of bureaucratic control. A series of mandates— departmental, administrative, state, and federal, notably the national Common Core standards — shape and limit teacher autonomy. The school schedule is another source of friction, ranging from instruction that must be shoehorned into a tight wedge of the school day to incidental disruptions like a homecoming pep rally or a string of snow days.


Then there are the power struggles that take place at the ground level: students who actively or passively resist working; those who overtly or surreptitiously distract others in the room; understandable or misplaced questions that impede the completion of the task at hand. So it is that the best-laid plans can go awry — assuming, of course, that there are plans, best-laid or otherwise, from which a teacher is working. Not having time to plan is among the perennial teacher complaints.

For some of us, such impediments can feel like sand in mental gears that gradually wear us down. But if a sense of autonomy gets lost — or was never really experienced in the first place — there has long been another source of solace in the profession: its relative insulation from the pressures of the marketplace. As occupations go, teaching is secure. It isn’t easy to get a job, and there can be great anxiety in those years before tenure is attained. Once a teacher gets tenure, however, it’s rare to be fired or be laid off, much as many parents, administrators, and school reformers may wish otherwise. (Again, in the age of No Child Left Behind this sense of security has eroded, though it’s still substantial in many places.) A lot of this is a matter of the stakes seeming so high: it’s easier to put up with mediocrity that’s diffuse (and temporary — for the unhappy student, there’s always next year) than to destroy someone’s livelihood, particularly given the likelihood of downward mobility. Even when union rules aren’t a factor, it can be hard to take that step, however justified, even necessary, it may be. I know this is very aggravating to people like my brother-in-law, a successful businessman who has trouble accepting my relative lack of accountability. In the end, though, I’m not sure we teachers are as complacent as we can sometimes seem. I’ve spent plenty of time awake in bed imagining nightmare scenarios wherein I am fired.

Teachers are generally a risk-averse bunch. We’re liberal in our politics but conservative in our temperaments, preferring routine activities and safe returns than seeking a big, risky payoff. Whether or not we’re actively hostile to capitalism, our paychecks tend to come from the public sector, and we tend to view market considerations with skepticism if not instinctive opposition. (My private school colleagues tend to loathe and resent the fact that their paychecks come from rich people.) This makes teachers out of touch in some respects. But we also help generate products in the form of people who will constitute a marketplace essential to the survival of the overall economy. That’s literally priceless.


In any case, the perks of teaching are not solely a matter of the workplace. Though outsiders often fail to consider how much work must be done beyond the boundaries of the school day, the hours are incontestably attractive. Even if late afternoons, weekends, and summers are not “free” or “off,” they nevertheless afford a degree of control over one’s time that amounts to one more dimension of the autonomy teachers crave.

So it is that day becomes week becomes month becomes year becomes decade. The cyclical rhythms of school life can be one more appealing feature of the profession. But they can also seem like a trap, creating a countdown toward retirement in which time blurs and the kids keep getting more exhausting and you keep having less energy. At the same time, the steadiness of the work can breed complacency or listlessness as routines become oppressive and developing new ones seems even more tiresome. The key to sustaining oneself involves maintaining a sense of curiosity, not just about ideas but also about people. But that’s not as simple as it sounds, because such matters may not be entirely a matter of choice: you can’t always will yourself to be interested.

Insofar as one does have some control over the matter, sustaining vitality takes one of two forms. The first — which I suspect happens more with veteran teachers on the younger side of the ledger—involves cultivating a sense of professional ambition by trying new things, like developing a new class, attending conferences, or extending one’s professional network closer to home. In a way, this is a matter of hedging one’s bets, of having an investment in one’s work that’s not directly a matter of a school or a set of students. Such a hedge can insulate one from the day-to-day aggravations of the job even as it provides the plausible hope of paying off in some way down the road. Sometimes teachers develop passions that are outside — or at least initially seem outside — the job, which is a big part of their appeal: gardening, yoga, genealogy. Even here there may be possibilities of nurturing one’s work, whether through content that can be adapted to the classroom in some way or a pedagogic approach that can be imported into one’s teaching style.


The other source of sustenance—this one perhaps the domain of the aging geezers — comes from the opposite direction. This involves an appreciation of what one has rather than that which one will not attain, coupled with a newfound desire to achieve a sense of purpose by helping others. In this as in so much else, teaching is a profession of hope.


My gaze shifts back to the $281.92 on my calculator. That’s $3,383.04 a year; over the course of a five-year loan it adds up to $16,902.20. Some portion of that would be interest. How much would depend on the rate. I’m getting close to the edge of my numeric competency in any case. I figure I’ll need about $15,000 as a down payment. Damn. For thirty grand I could probably get a pretty nice sports car. Not this time.

A cousin of mine once cracked: “When a pretty girl smiles at you as you pull up at a light in a minivan, it’s all you, man.” I’m not in the market for pretty girls anymore. I’m just trying to get the job done — or, I should say, to do one job well enough and long enough to get another one, that of family man, done. Then, surely, I’ll be on easy street, right?


Excerpted from "The Secret Lives of Teachers" by Anonymous. Published by the University of Chicago Press. Copyright 2015 by the University of Chicago. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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