Photo of John Ross

John Ross

Science Teacher
Read his story

John loves his job, but not the financial struggle that comes with it

John Ross, a dedicated, above-and-beyond educator from South Carolina, was given the nickname “Mr. Ross, the Science Boss” by his elementary students.

As a STEM lab instructor, Ross “got to see the light come on” for students in grades 2 through 5—both literally when they studied circuits, and figuratively when students mastered new science principles through hands-on lessons.

John Ross

“Seeing the excitement on their faces when we used real instruments—like when we checked the speed of the wind using an anemometer—those moments will stay with me forever,” Ross says. He even launched a “Science Boss” YouTube channel, where he shared more than two dozen videos of his favorite standards-based lab activities.

Our students are very important to us. But we can't take care of them if we can’t take care of ourselves. Tweet this

But Ross’s 13-year career in education has also seen some serious lows.

The STEM lab closed in 2018 due to lack of funding. That hurt. But far tougher are the sacrifices he and his family have been forced to make over the years.

“It’s been a struggle to constantly live in a state of almost fear, where we are but one emergency away from basically being bankrupt,” says Ross, who is married and has two young children.

“I used to feel I was failing my family, that I must be doing something wrong,” says Ross. “But I have come to realize, it’s not me who’s the problem. It’s the system and the way that we value teachers.”

Nationally, teachers are paid on average 21.4 percent less than similarly educated and experienced professionals, according to a recent Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report.

In South Carolina, teacher salaries have declined by 8.6% since 2009, according to the NEA Rankings and Estimates 2019 report. South Carolina ranks 40th in the nation in terms of its average teacher salary, and 48th in starting teacher pay.

Between daycare costs and paying down their debt, Ross and his wife, who is also a teacher, often have only a few hundred dollars in the bank. For about a year, Ross worked part-time at Target to make ends meet.

“I lost all those Friday evenings, Saturdays, and almost every Sunday with my family,” Ross says. “My wife would bring the kids to the store just so they could see me.”

He left his part-time gig last fall when his wife started graduate school and they got a temporary reprieve from their student loan payments.

Ross says he’s glad to have more time at home, and thankful to be serving his school district as a math interventionist who supports educators at 11 different schools in meeting math standards.

But it’s been impossible for his family to gain any ground financially.

For Ross, the 2020 election is another opportunity for educators to take a stand. He intends to support a presidential candidate who is serious about improving teacher pay nationwide and making college debt more manageable.

“I don’t need to be wealthy, but I need to take care of my family,” Ross says. “Our students are very important to us. But we can’t take care of them if we can’t take care of ourselves.”

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About This Project

We believe that opportunity begins with great public schools for every student. As the nation’s largest union, NEA created this series to highlight the issues that matter most to our members in the upcoming presidential election.

We know that opportunity for all requires a democracy that works for all, which is why we’re sharing personal stories from across the country; to demonstrate what’s at stake in this election for our students, our schools and our communities.

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