A few weeks ago, I received an email from a young woman asking if I was the same Mr. Shapiro that taught at McKinley Elementary School. She told me her name was Daisy and that she was a former student of mine from 2001. I must admit that I’ve forgotten my fair share of names (and faces) over the years, but I remembered Daisy. Excited to hear why she would be contacting me after 17 years, I wrote that I was that Mr. Shapiro, and while I wasn’t still at McKinley, I was still teaching. I invited her to write me back, and when she did, I received a message that I hope every school teacher is lucky enough to receive because it epitomizes why someone would continue to teach in spite of the financial burden and stress that often comes with working in education.
She wrote to thank me for how I unknowingly impacted her life — how I made her feel comfortable with who she was… with her shyness. She reminded me of the essay contest she won during the time I taught her. And she wanted to let me know that our classroom was “her safe haven in South Central Los Angeles, a place that could often feel like a hell hole.” She thanked me, and educators like me, who “allow for black and brown children to feel empowered regardless of their social and economic background.” She was proud to let me know that she had graduated high school, enrolled in community college, earned her B.S. in child development and is currently working towards a Master’s Degree and teaching credential. She thanked me one last time for “inspiring her to come back to my community and help foster positive change in the minds of young children.”
As I write this piece, I’m having a bite to eat before attending a workshop on retirement benefits. I’m not leaving teaching to go off and travel, or to play golf, or to sit at Malibu Beach, watching sunsets with my wife. I’m retiring because I simply cannot afford to teach anymore. My salary (along with my wife’s) gets us partially through the month, and after that we must dip into the well of an inheritance that was to serve as our retirement and college fund for our seventeen year-old son. That well will be dry in a short few months, and it’s terrifying. I’m currently looking for a new job that will (along with my pension) pay me enough to keep my family afloat.
I’m not a financial genius, but investing or saving money feels incredibly difficult when living paycheck to (almost) paycheck, which is how many teachers are forced to live. My family and I live decently. We rent a townhouse and have many of the amenities of modern life. But things like going to a baseball game or out for dinner are extravagances that have become increasingly rare. Now just paying monthly bills is becoming nearly impossible, as is having a decent night’s sleep without waking with the fear and guilt of not being an adequate provider for my family. At times, it has begun to feel like I’m unemployed, even though I have a full time, extraordinarily demanding job. At the same time, I know that no one put a gun to my head and insisted that I become a teacher. It’s a choice I made, and messages like the one I received from Daisy make me feel proud of that choice.
People often feel inclined to let me know what a great and important service teachers perform. Others opine about how disgracefully low our salaries are, and that our society’s priorities are so far askew. Opinions aside, I know from experience that our wages do not keep up with fourteen dollar hamburgers, seventeen dollar movie tickets, and hundred dollar bills that are the new twenties — forget about the big stuff, like mortgages or paying for college. I know that a four percent pay raise is earned with layoffs, years, and far too often, a strike. But mostly, right now, I know that a growing number of talented educators across our land can no longer afford to do these jobs.
To Daisy, I say: Teach your students a love of learning. Provide them with that haven where they can feel safe, confident, and comfortable. And, I pray, my determined former student, that when the time for you comes to retire from teaching, it is without financial stress, and that you will be leaving just to watch a sunset with someone you love.