Teacher, How Much Money Do You Make?

This column will tackle the intersections of teaching ESL, language, the economy, immigration, the American middle class dream, and sometimes food.

At the turn of the 21st century I received a four-year English degree from one of the most prestigious public universities in the U.S.. Afterwards, however, I could only find work in office jobs that paid around $30,000 a year. Maybe I was expecting too much at the time; at least I had benefits such as health insurance and paid vacation time in these positions. I worked a second job modeling for art schools at night back then so I could earn extra money. After getting my hours reduced to half-time in 2008 as a result of the economic crisis, I went back to school to become an adult ESL educator, taking night classes at a private university so I could work during the day. That first semester I was laid off completely.

What I learned in graduate school was invaluable, and I see what happened in the economy as a bit of good fortune that pushed me to do something meaningful with my mind and my life; but, during those two years I had to rely on the services of the local food bank for groceries. The food bank system in Seattle is amazing, and truly helped me stay fed as I completed research for my thesis in preparation for my new career. They gave me so much food that the grocery stores were just going to throw away because of expiration dates. I would recommend it to even someone who is not financially straddled, and simply wants to prevent waste in our society. At one point I had so much in my fridge that was going to spoil, that I organized a dinner party for members of my cohort, not revealing to them where I received the goodies.

After graduating in 2010 with more than $40,000 in student loans, I found out that most community colleges only hire teachers part-time these days, and without benefits. On top of that, the market was saturated in my field and I had to hustle just to get one class. Luckily I got hired right after graduation through a personal recommendation, but actually ended up making less per month than before I had my Masters. The non-profits pay less than the colleges, many expecting teachers to work on a volunteer basis. (Let me clarify, it’s not that colleges pay too little per teaching hour, it’s that it’s difficult to get enough teaching hours. $35-$50 per hour is great, but to make a living one would need more than eight teaching hours a week.)

If you can get hired to work in another country, many overseas schools supposedly pay a living wage and then some. A great number of people get a TESOL Masters because they indeed want to live overseas, I suspect, or they have taught overseas before and want to gain additional clout in their certifications. So far I have taught in Washington, New Jersey, Illinois, and now California but have not been able to earn enough income to pay living expenses, bills, and student loan payments. Maybe I was too impatient. My husband and I have talked about going to live in Peru at some point, where he is from, because there is a famous adult ESL school in his hometown where I could utilize my degree. I was going to teach one night class this fall, but the Dean of Instruction at the local community college decided to drop half of the ESL classes according to the program coordinator, for reasons I am not sure of at this point.

That’s enough complaining for a moment. I don’t want this to be a depressing read. One perk of teaching ESL, in addition to how rewarding it is to see your students learn English and move on to improve their lives by starting college or getting better employment (you may be surprised that I will maintain that teaching is one of the BEST jobs), is that my students bring me delicious dishes to try from their home countries. Maybe I am guilty of encouraging this when I have asked honest questions like, “Do you know how to make kimchi? I want to learn how,” or “Where can I get good pupusas?” Dishes from China, Korea, El Salvador, Nepal, and many other places often unexpectedly land on my desk, or students bring them for the end of semester parties. Because I have had to live so frugally as a teacher, I sometimes joke that I am a teacher who “will teach for food.”

My husband now has a full-time salaried position (he is in the sciences, not the humanities,and has no student loans), so we can pay rent and most of our bills. However, I am thirty-five and still have to ask my parents for financial help from time to time. We live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, and our living room doubles as a nursery for our three-month-old son. We are two adults with Masters degrees but are nowhere close to having the down payment for a house. We are just starting out, though, so we will hopefully be in a better position in a few years.

I recently received an email asking me to sign a petition to ask Obama to forgive student loans. Despite my large student loan debt, the federal government has been generous and flexible with my repayment. The interest is relatively low compared to our credit cards, and they have an income contingent repayment plan so that the monthly payment is according to what our family is earning at the moment. Student loan debt is part of the problem that is crippling individuals and families, but it is more than that.

To untangle the question of why I and many other ESL teachers are unable to find work, or full-time work, I am trying to think back to what I learned in high school economics. My Masters degree had a high perceived value that I was willing to pay quite a bit for. An education from a quality private institution like the one I attended, where the classes are small and professors focus on teaching, is indeed as MasterCard would say, priceless. It seems what do not have a high perceived value are teachers in my field, people who received a degree in order to educate immigrants, refugees, and international students in English. Our services are not worth a high amount in the scheme of our national economy. It appears that educating immigrants is not valued in our market. (Please, economics people, help me with these statements if I am wrong.) Maybe I should have paid more heed to one of the opening sentences of a textbook my first semester of graduate school, which was something like, “Beware: Do not enter this field if you are expecting wealth or fame.”

With the talk of immigration reform, I am hoping that there will be an increase in adult educator jobs. I am currently trying to get a local agricultural company to start an ESL program for the hundreds of undocumented immigrants it employs because I would like to work part-time while raising my son. Most of their employees barely speak English. I am wondering if the company will value English education, or if they see that once they pay for their employees to learn English, they could possibly leave the company to go out and get better paying jobs. Frankly speaking, you don’t need English to plant strawberries and clip roses.

I once had a student from India ask me, “Teacher, how much money do you make?” I laughed at his question. People from other countries always seem more open about topics of cost and earnings.

“$80,000 a year?” he ventured. “$60,000?”

“I make less than that,” I answered. “How much money do you make?”

“I make $50,000 a year, with benefits.”

“What is your job?” I asked.

“I repair machinery for Dunkin’ Donuts.”

Good for him. He was nineteen, less than a year in the U.S,. and already making that much. Maybe that’s a field all unemployed teachers should look into”¦ But then, how would people learn English? How would I order my donuts from the immigrants who I see working in Dunkin’ Donuts, or better yet, how would they get jobs outside of the sciences or engineering? How would the immigrants I order my donuts from and I have basic human exchanges such as, “Awful weather today isn’t it?” “Yeah, but it’s supposed to be sunny tomorrow.” And, how would we all grow?

Reposted from my blog, Will Teach for FoodWill Teach For Food is actually the title of a book by Cary Nelson.  I found this out after I thought of the title for my blog and then did a Google search to see if it was used already. I hope to read the book and let you know what I find out.

13 thoughts on “Teacher, How Much Money Do You Make?”

  1. Ooooh I stink– sorry I didn’t know about your blog’s title when I did my post about tutoring.

    I got lucky and didn’t have to pay for my Master’s, but the only-being-offered-adjuncting situation has driven me out of the market for the time being– it’s kind of shocking how little colleges want to pay for so. much. work. and. stress.

    I actually fell into teaching with my university’s Intensive English Program by accident, so I didn’t have the usual certifications/degrees– but when I went to the TESOL grad program to talk about what my next step in the field should be, the head of the department actually recommended going in backwards… So see who wanted to hire me, and then get into whatever degree/certification program they required, after the fact. It sounded wonky, but also like the dept. head was seeing a lot of students going into debt without jobs waiting on them? Who knows, maybe he just thought I was shady.

    1. Hey, it doesn’t bother me if it doesn’t bother you! I just read your post and I think we have a lot of similar experiences, especially since we both thought of the same title. It sounds like like the head of that TESOL grad program was a really honest person. There was one semester where I got a temporary full-time position, and I taught 21 credits along with 6 credits at another college, and for those 5 months I was doing great financially…expect that teaching 27 credits is nearly impossible and the stress made me get some rare inner ear infection called Labyrinthitis where I had constant vertigo and had to grab at the white board for balance while teaching sometimes. It was nuts! I much rather teach one or two classes and have sanity.

  2. I knew I wanted an English degree when I went to college, and I figured TESL was the way to go. When I graduated in 2008 (in the Seattle area), no one would hire me. They were looking for someone with either a master’s degree, at least 5 years of teaching experience, or both. I never even scored an interview, regardless of how well I had studied and what my certification said. Since then, I’ve used my degree for some tutoring and, to some extent, with my Spanish speaking coworkers at a hotel. I don’t think it was a waste of time or money to get the degree, but the results of all that work aren’t exactly what I expected them to be! ;)

    1. Yes, a lot of colleges only hire someone with a Masters. I think a TESL certification with no experience would be attractive to an overseas program. I have done a lot of tutoring to make ends meet too so I understand where you are coming from. I agree, it is not a waste of time or money to get the degree, or most degrees for that matter!

      1. I didn’t look at any colleges because I knew they wouldn’t hire someone without a master’s degree. I looked at high schools and organizations that strictly taught ESL. I considered teaching overseas at the time, but since I grew up traveling frequently, I wasn’t ready to uproot from the area post-college.

  3. Teaching is one of those places you end up is because you want to add something to society. To teach you have to be willing, being in front of a class room while not being there doesn’t work.
    My father is a teacher at a college and I’ll never be not frustrated about how underestimated he is. It isn’t even about the money because you don’t want uninterested money wolfs in front of your kids. It’s the energy and patience and passion of sharing and teaching you need to appreciate.

    1. Does your father teach in the U.S.? I have been wondering if people in other countries value their teachers more or less in light of how my students from other countries treat me. Some are soooo respectful I am embarrassed, and call me Professor and like I said, bring be gifts all the time. It might have nothing to do with their country though and might be that they are appreciative of someone who is very nice to them and helping them when they are new to this country.

      1. No, in the Netherlands. And at the vmbo’s/mbo’s which is like ..practical colleges? His school is a place where 80% of the students that still have compulsory attendance until 18 go, so no, no respect. Expect for the 5% that really wants to be there and appreciates his extra miles.

  4. I’ve been thinking about adding a TOEFL certification to my repertoire, partly because I’m in an area with several huge universities and I figured that would just add to my appeal when it’s time for post-grad-school job applications. Lots of universities means lots of international students, and their families — plus, various jobs that attract immigrants (labor and professional).

    1. What is your grad school degree in? TOEFL cert would be less time consuming than a whole new masters, and many schools are fine with just a cert. + BA and not a TOEFL/TESOL masters. Also, it’s sort of like a K-12 teacher getting an ELL cert. and I think would definitely make you more valuable. Also, as you point out a lot of ESL programs at community colleges and universities both are really trying to take on international students and start intl. programs to fill the demand and earn $.

  5. Great post on teaching! I don’t doubt that you still think teaching is the best job, because if that’s what you wanted to become, in my experience, you still love it. The bug. I grew up as the child of two educators, so I know how much work – no, I can see the amount of work required at base level and don’t want to learn more, so I shan’t be a teacher. But I think this is a realistic account of teaching today, so passing it along to my friends who are currently planning on being teachers.

    1. Yes, I still think it is the best job. I see how people act in jobs where the objective is to make money, and I have done those jobs, and it makes a lot of them less happy people. With teaching (and maybe with other altruistic professions) you come home energized, and feeling good things (not that this isn’t possible in other professions, just for me it was not). There are bad days of course, and times when you get burned out, and cases when supervisors ask unrealistic things of you or districts take on stupid standardized tests that your student must pass, but the core of what you do is immensely rewarding.

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