Whether they’re at JC Penney or Cafe Alley, whether they teach in Lone Grove or Ardmore, whether they’re selling lipstick or candles, teachers of all experience levels are still working second and third jobs to help make ends meet.
Despite a statewide teacher pay raise that averaged out to about $6,100 across all experience levels, but varied greatly between individual teachers, the Oklahoma State Department of Education approved a record number of emergency certifications once again this school year. While it’s still unclear if the pay raises will help stem the state’s shortage of teachers, individual teachers are still struggling.
Tonya Crowe, a third grade Lincoln Elementary School teacher has been working at Main Street Coffee for a year in an effort to pay off debt. She also sells Mary Kay products and tutors on the side. She also did housekeeping work in the past.
“I’ve always had multiple jobs,” Crowe said. “To be totally honest, it’s not as horrible as it sounds. I’ve gotten used to it at this point.”
Crowe graduated from Ardmore High School and attended Southwestern University, where she was a double major. During her first year of teaching, she started a master’s program. She characterizes herself as someone who’s used to not having free time.
“You just kind of do it,” Crowe said. “I didn’t have a choice. When I got divorced and cut down to one income, you can’t afford to live on a teacher’s salary, so you don’t have a choice.”
Crowe said there’s an important distinction between herself and others in the same position — she’s not a parent.
“I don’t know how people are in teaching and have children,” Crowe said. “I don’t know how they do it. I’ve looked at the cost of insurance, the cost of care. I don’t know how they afford it.”
She said for her, standard financial advice offered to people in their 20s isn’t realistic.
“I started doing Dave Ramsay, and you know, they talk about having a $1,000 emergency fund to start out,” Crowe said. “But how do you get $1,000 when you don’t have it?”
Newer teachers aren’t the only ones struggling. She said another teacher she works with, with more than 10 years of experience, is in a similar situation. A Lone Grove teacher continued to work at TJ Maxx and eventually started selling Mary Kay as well.
“You don’t have the time, it’s incredibly difficult,” Crowe said. “If you have kids, you can’t do that.”
Crowe said multi-level marketing companies like Mary Kay, Lipsense and Herbalife, are a common way for teachers to try to supplement their incomes. Crowe said she’d estimate about 20 percent of the teachers she knows do some form of MLM, because it’s the only other source of income that works with their teaching schedule, especially if they’re parents.
“Everybody’s situation is different, but every teacher I know has to supplement their income in some way,” Crowe said. “That obviously depends on how willing you are to be in debt or do without certain things.”
The Oklahoma State Department of Education formed a Teacher Shortage Task Force in 2015 to try to gauge why so many teachers were leaving the state. This September, the task force released an updated report to measure the impact of the teacher pay raises.
OSDE will receive federal funds to bolster recruitment efforts in a variety of subjects, including arts, music, business, career and technical, computer science, early childhood, elementary, English, foreign languages, health, high school, library science, mathematics, non-core, counselors, science, social studies and special education. The department also received a five-year grant in June 2018 specifically meant to help recruit veterans and military service members into the teaching profession.
Along with the recruitment efforts, the report mentions teacher pay and concludes by stating the 2018 pay raises were a positive first step, and the next step is to bolster recruitment efforts in Oklahoma.
In fall of 2017, the department partnered with the Oklahoma Public School Resource Center to survey everyone, about 32,355 people at the time, with active teaching certifications who weren’t currently teaching. Of the 8,420 responses, 83 percent said teacher pay was their top concern and 31 percent said an increase could persuade them to return to the classroom.
Patti Green, a long-time music teacher at Charles Evans Elementary School in Ardmore, said the story is different for teachers near retirement. Changes to the state pay scale mean that teachers can earn more if they remain at work for a few more years, a measure that Green said will likely keep experienced teachers at work for about three more years than they’d planned.
“We’d been fighting for a raise for years, and now that we’ve got it, some of us are going to work longer than we thought because you need to do three years,” Green said. “That’s going to help the teacher shortage, but once they get that they’re going to be in severe, dire straits.”
Green said while the teachers she knows are grateful for the raises they did get, teachers she knows with second jobs kept them, while others simply left the state. Oklahoma Education Association, the teachers association that led the walkout last year, set their initial demands for a teacher pay raise of about $10,000.
“Had it been $10,000, many teachers would have been able to quit (their second job),” Green said.
Green said retirement poses another problem for public school teachers that have limitations on how much income they can earn for 36 months following retirement. Earning more means they draw less retirement as a penalty. The rule went into effect in 2008. Teachers 61 or younger who’ve been retired for less than three years can’t earn more than $15,000. Teachers 62 and older who’ve been retired for less than three years have an earning limit of $30,000.
“I don’t think we’re finished,” Green said. “Why should I be penalized? Anyone else who retires, do they have stipulations on them?”
Green, who attended the walkouts in April, said while she isn’t sure of what will happen next, she knows one thing for certain: Teachers will be back at the Capitol before long, still contending with the same problems that galvanized them to march in 2018.