Rachel Kosher is a high school teacher at South Caldwell High School in North Carolina. Her state ranks 46th in the nation for average public school teacher salaries.
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The professionals that play such an important role in the lives of students are feeling the brunt of budget cuts. Stories of educators living in poverty are becoming increasingly commonplace, and Kosher is no exception. This is her story:
Pay cuts and pay freezes hurt mentally – mentally, physically, emotionally, financially, they hurt.
Six years ago as a first-year teacher in Georgia, I made $31,000 a year. I took a pay cut when I moved to North Carolina and took a job teaching at South Caldwell High School. I not only made several thousand dollars less per year, I also had to deal with higher insurance costs. I thought the next year might yield a higher salary, but that same year the pay freeze was announced. I was stuck making nearly $3,000 less each year than I had when I first began.
The low pay continued to affect my family as we struggled to afford food and pay medical bills. Even though I was working 50 hours a week and had medical insurance, I could not afford the co-pays for my doctor’s office visits during my pregnancy. Medicaid pregnancy had to cover my prenatal medical costs. Our dependence on the system extended to my children’s medical insurance and our eligibility for WIC (Women, Infants and Children Food Service). My husband applied at every Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and fast food place within a 30-minute radius, but every place was on a hiring freeze. We longed for independence, but we could not support ourselves, even with my full-time job.
The PTA made the teachers a breakfast one day. There were bananas, grapes, apples, oranges, and muffins. I filled my plate with fruit and brought it home. I felt relief and shame because my then-toddler son hadn’t eaten fruit in days and plowed through the banana with both fists. I couldn’t even remember the last time we’d been able to afford grapes.
The pay freeze dragged from one year to the next. Even though I became a better, more effective teacher each year, even though I took on additional responsibilities and duties, even though I advanced my career, my pay stayed put. The year the pay freeze “ended” brought no joy because the increased cost of benefits outweighed the small increase I received.
Last year, my husband worked nights and I worked days because we could not afford day care for our two children. We were together as a family two nights a week. We qualified for an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) food card, which supplied our family of four with $157 a month to buy food. We ate from our garden and used the food stamps to buy beans, rice, fruit, and dairy. I chopped firewood. My kids learned how to gather kindling. My husband hunted for meat.
A position for a special education teacher became available at my school, and my husband jumped on the opportunity. Although he has five years of military experience and four years of college, he was not hired. He applied for other positions in the school system, including custodian. Several months later he finally found a job with a cable company. Now he makes four times what the teaching position would have paid. It seems surreal that we can finally buy things that were formerly only luxuries — meat, new shoes, toys for our kids and extra supplies for my students who are in the same boat I was in once. He works fewer hours, has better benefits, and is allowed more flexible hours than me.
If my husband had been hired at my school, our combined salaries would barely disqualify us from the EBT food card. Our children would still be on Medicaid and WIC. Because he chose a different profession, his most recent monthly commission was five figures.
It’s hard to believe that a first-world country, one of the most powerful and influential nations in the world, treats its teachers this way. My profession has lost its prestige and respect. We are the soldiers of education, but are blamed instead of saluted. Every year the nation demands more from its teachers and offers nothing in return.
It is within the power of our nation’s leaders to restore the value of teaching. Offering quality pay and benefits will attract high-quality individuals to the profession and help retain them. Providing funding for schools will ensure that we can offer programs to ensure that students receive quality instruction and teachers receive necessary training and support.
The pain of education cuts is very real. Good teachers will cease to exist if the profession brings with it a life of poverty and blame.