Teaching is not a profession for people who want to live that luxurious life making six figures. Like many of my friends and colleagues, I knew what I was getting into when, at 19, I changed my major from journalism to education. I never aspired to live in a mansion, drive a fancy car or even have an en suite (clearly, I watch too many episodes of House Hunters).
However, I thought that surely, I would be able to live comfortably and save a few bucks for a rainy day shopping excursion or a trip to a friend or family member’s wedding. (Ask a teacher how many friends he/she has lost due to not attending weddings because they couldn’t afford it.)
I soon learned that teacher salaries were meager, but that wasn’t the worst of it (I sort of knew that going into the profession). The biggest hit to my finances was my student loan debt, which according to NPR, is a struggle for many teachers. If you’re surprised, just ask your teacher friends to meet you for drinks – they’ll likely give a raincheck until their next payday.
My student loan story is not ground-breaking; in fact, many people can probably relate and have similar stories of their own, whether they are an educator or not. I share this abbreviated version because, like many, my debt is my ‘ol ball and chain. It’s something I never gave much thought to, until it was too late. Perhaps this is a caution or warning tale for future educators. Because while I thought education debt was “good debt,” I soon realized debt is debt and there’s nothing good about it.
As a first year teacher in North Carolina, I was only paying back my undergraduate debt. Despite my academic scholarship, I still owed my small, liberal arts school a good chunk of change. My payment was only about $150 a month, but when I received my first teacher paycheck ($1500) and realized this was supposed to last me an entire month, I freaked out. (In front of my 8th grade students because back in the day of paper checks, my principal delivered it to me mid-class.)
After calculating my expenses and bills, I was left with very little money each month. So, I got a second job, but that still wasn’t enough. So I got a third job. I was slowly running myself into the ground just to stay afloat financially.
After a few years of teaching, I had racked up thousands in credit card debt. You could sometimes find me at one of those Cash Advance places because despite my career and side jobs, I was still struggling. Then, I had the bright idea to get an advanced degree. Because, why not add to my debt? It was inevitable anyway because eventually, teachers need to get their Masters if they want to keep teaching.
I went to graduate school and I took a year off to do it. I also went to UPenn, which was definitely not the cheapest option, but I couldn’t turn down an Ivy who wanted me to grace them with my presence!
While I received loans for my graduate education, most of those loans were private ones. At the time, I was not very concerned with the type of loans since I was financing everything on my own. I just wanted to be sure I had enough money to cover my education and living expenses.
One year later and my degree in hand, I realized a few things: 1.) Attending Penn had opened (and would continue to open) many doors for me; 2.) A Master’s degree does not necessarily guarantee a better paying teaching job; 3.) I was in even more debt, so my financial situation was basically unchanged.
Since earning my Master’s degree in 2007, I’ve continued to struggle with my debt. I’ve gone from losing sleep and worrying about how to make the $3.60 in my bank account stretch until the next pay-day to not caring at all and buying things I could not afford, only to deal the repercussions later. I’ve tried budget websites, spreadsheets, debt consolidations, etc. I’ve had gut-wrenching conversations with loan officers who tell me I don’t qualify for lower payments because I “make too much money,” which seems ironic, since I furthered my education to make more money (which I do), but now I owe more money.
I remember interviewing for my first job in Philly and the principal wanted to pay me a yearly salary of $30,000. He acted like he was doing me a favor and even stated that I wouldn’t have to work side jobs with that salary. I didn’t take the job and found a place that would pay me significantly more money (I still needed a side job), but the fact that there are people in the field of education who do not understand the financial struggles that most teachers have really frightens me. It also made me realize that for some people, worrying about money has never (and will never) be something they struggle with. On one hand, good for them. However, if these are the people in charge of salaries, college costs, etc., then how is the Average Joe supposed to get a fair chance?
Currently, I still owe a boatload of money because of student loans and credit cards. Some of this is my own fault (credit cards), but the bulk of my debt belongs to student loans, where I fork out insane amounts monthly to American Education Services and the like.
So, what comes next? Aside from leaving the profession, not much. While many teachers have passions outside of teaching, they are unable to pursue them due to the burden of student loan debt. Perhaps some readers think I’m whining, complaining or making excuses for my choices – I’m not. My story is just one teacher’s account of the role student loan debt plays in her life. I’m sure there are many others that are similar.
I love what I do. Teaching is my passion and after 15 years, I am confident in making this statement. However, hindsight is perhaps the best teacher of all. Would I take the same road again, knowing the financial struggle that it would incur? Would I recommend the same road to an aspiring college student?