Hurray! The first week of school is over and we have officially launched the insanity that will be the 2020-2021 school year. My virtual classes went well. Even when my son climbed on top of my head while I introduced myself to 19 sixth graders. He’s pretty cute, so it works. I am in the right place for this time, and being with students again is wonderful – they really do make you feel more resilient, more hopeful, and more dedicated.
This week marked another big milestone for me – I made a key payment on my credit card debt, and it signals that I have turned around what was once a mighty ship. There is a common perception that teachers are poor. It’s practically presented as inevitable and the reason no one ever really suggests it should be your career. When I tell people what I do, the first reaction is usually pity, maybe covered in a veneer of admiration for my martyrdom. Sometimes there is a shift when they learn I work in private schools – not as bad and maybe I know the Obamas. (I don’t, by the way.) It is true that there are many places where teachers are undervalued and undercompensated. There are definitely people who make twice as much as we do and work half as hard. This is bad governance and hopefully COVID-19 will add a necessary layer to national and local conversations about what teachers deserve due to our apparently essential economic and civic work.
It is also true that when a survey of 10,000 millionaires was conducted, TEACHER, was among the top five careers. When I first heard that my jaw dropped. I hadn’t ever imagined that was possible for me, and thus I had become quite the self fulfilling prophecy. There was a point in time when I didn’t properly understand or value the money I was making. My money issues were not due to a low teacher salary. I was undisciplined and failed to manage what I had appropriately. I am not unusual. Americans accumulated 1 trillion dollars in credit card debt a few years ago and that has only begun decreasing since the social shutdown caused by the pandemic. As a self-identified shopper who loves clothing, concerts, and food, quarantine has been a financial silver lining. I am also grateful that in 2019 I began an intentional journey to pay off my debt and redefine financial freedom. Because for teachers, being financially healthy is more important than ever.
Teacher attrition is high. There are many reasons highlighted in copious videos like this one and articles like this one. 30% of people who enter the profession leave after five years, according to this report from the Economic Policy Institute. That is a lot of lost talent, and it is expensive to replace us, especially since less people are interested in becoming a teacher in the first place. COVID-19 will stretch many of us to the max. To a long list of grievances, there is so much added stress in feeling pressure to choose between physical and financial health, being asked to take on unreasonable amounts of work, managing community trauma, and navigating a steep and ever changing learning curve while tending to our own families and bodies.
I personally do not intend to leave this profession. I have already tried my hand at several other careers – TV show host, music industry publicist, advertising exec, non-profit program director, cheer coach – I suck at all of them. Teaching is my spiritual gift and ministry in this world. It is my “ikigai”. No one is going to run me off this ranch. I am here to stay.
Over the last few years, it has become clear to me that in order to stay a teacher, I need to make sure I am in a financial position to leave any job that threatens my ability to remain one. This week, I received confirmation that my strategies are working. As I work my plan, I have had to develop confidence. Some of my actions run contrary to beliefs other financially savvy friends hold. This is not one size fits all. I have found what works for me and that is my wish for everyone in my circle. The only life I can change is mine.
Here are some of the lessons that I have learned:
Where you put your energy is where you will see momentum and momentum is motivating. Drowning in credit card or student loan debt? Focus on that. Want an emergency fund to cushion the blow of a job loss? Focus on that. Need a down payment for a house? Focus on that. Worried about retirement? Focus on that. The typical American dream will have you running around on a hamster wheel trying to accomplish everything all at once. No wonder money feels stretched too thin. It is. It’s okay to pause some goals to focus on certain others that are more urgent.
- Cultivate satisfaction.
The less I want, the less I need and the more I have. I am doing a lot of work on myself right now. I used to purchase things to soothe myself during hard times. Then I purchased things to treat myself because I had successfully worked through hard times. To be honest, I don’t need a great reason to shop – just a sale sign in the window because when it comes to bargains, I am a skilled hunter. Alas, saving 30% is still spending 70%. (I’ve tried using “new” math to change this, but it isn’t working). I am trying to find ways to lessen my emotional dependency on things by investing more in simple experiences, resting to alleviate emotional and physical exhaustion, and finding ways to make what I already have more than enough. Another trick is paying for everything in cash instead of a credit card. Totally changes my decision making process since the money disappears immediately. It’s a psych game, but what isn’t?
- Diversify the skill set.
Being a teacher means curating learning experiences for people. There is typically one version of this that comes to mind, but I am discovering so many more. I am now firmly off the administrator track. I do not like managing people, and I no longer climb ladders. I have always worked in independent schools, but lately I have ramped up tutoring and begun consulting with museums and other cultural institutions. I love curriculum design. I teach multiple subjects and grades and maintain my skills in each so that I am available for different opportunities. I have a growing desire to teach in public schools or potentially work with people who are incarcerated (I just read Punching the Air). I am discovering a passion for presenting to other teachers and would love to get into instructional coaching, especially for newbies. I had an incredible team of mentors my first year, and they are no doubt why I am still here. One of the reasons I am writing more is to build the stamina necessary to complete a book. This broadening of my vision will allow me to refresh my career whenever it feels stale, but I will always be a teacher.
- Network, but build real relationships.
I have an incredible professional learning community of people I have taught with and worked for over the years. We share news and ideas. We commiserate and collaborate. Occasionally, we recommend one another for jobs and other opportunities. I have found it is important to tell other people my interests and goals. They can’t look out for what they don’t know about. When we share our dreams with other people, they are more likely to manifest. “Putting it out into the universe” is a legit strategy. It is also necessary to leave a good imprint on the people and places you touch. This includes being a good teammate, setting clear boundaries, and creating enough space in your practice to do things well and with joy. Principals, colleagues, families, and students remember how you made them feel.
- Dream in High Definition
Chris Hogan always says this, and it has always been hard for me. I am much more attuned to the present, both by nature and as an intentional result of meditation. I never had a five or ten year plan. I believe in fate and ways opening and staying nimble enough to take advantage of something just outside my current view. Like many women and BIPOC I deal with imposter syndrome and worry about biting off more than I can chew. That said, when I do decide what I want, I go after it with a vengeance. Time, experience, and age have made me more resilient and more confident. My dreams for myself and my family are beginning to crystallize. I absolutely know that teaching is a profession that can get us there.
Here’s to fifteen years and counting.