True Stories from Teachers with Heavy Student Debt

Anelle Valdes
Anelle Valdes

If asked to name one of the lowest-paid careers in the United States, many people will respond with: “Teacher.” Aside from actual numbers on a paycheck, the fact is that teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree, at least, before they can be hired. This means that many new teachers graduate with a hefty student debt, and before they even land a job doing what they love, they are so far in the red that it seems impossible they will ever pay it all off.

NPR conducted a survey this year, and more than 2,000 teachers responded. Here are some of their stories.

Oklahoma City English Teacher Lauren Pena, has 10 years of experience in her field, she makes only $43,000 a year.

She started off with $30,000 in loans, and currently still has $6,000 to pay off. While some of her loans were forgiven because she chose to work in a needy school, in a needy subject area, she still wishes she could do it over. “I tell my students: ‘If you’re going to be a teacher or a social worker, or have one of these important jobs that doesn’t really compensate very well – don’t take out loans, because it doesn’t make financial sense.’ “

St. Louis Language Arts Teacher Ashley Catelli, has been teaching for five years and has been paying down her $42,000 in student loans for 6 years. She makes only $41,000 a year.

“It’s just like this suffocating debt. I feel, like, kind of duped. I don’t ever look at myself as a teacher making enough money to get ahead of the loans that I had to have for the degree that was required for my job.”

Dallas Geography Teacher Andrew Kirk, and is working on his fourth year of teaching. He holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, and started his career with close to $150,000 in student debt. He is close to paying off a full third of his loans, but he also wishes he had been able to get his degree without so much debt. “Before I even knew about my options for repayments, I had a very pessimistic view about how things would turn out for me. I thought that I’d always be a renter.” After enrolling in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, he was finally able to get married and purchase a home, last year. “Those are some things I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do without the security of a program like Public Service Loan Forgiveness.”

Brooklyn ELA and Technology Teacher Stephanie Plachy, after starting off with around $75,000 in student debt, she has successfully paid off about $15,000. Because she teaches at a low-income school, she is eligible for some loan forgiveness after five years, to the tune of $5,000. She was aiming to qualify for the PSLF program, but when she decided to pursue a master’s degree, that reset the clock on her eligibility for that program.

“Because my loans were technically in deferment while I was in grad school, even though I was paying them off – the same payments I had been paying since I finished undergrad – those didn’t count as qualifying payments. So my 10 years of public service would have to start again. Every time I look at how much money I owe, I freak out a little bit. But from month to month, I try to make it work and not stress out about it too much.”

These stories are not unique to the educational field. Across the country, these stories are normal, and perhaps they should not be. Part of the issue is the system: we require teachers to have a certain level of higher education, and without those certifications, a prospective teacher cannot be hired. Higher education is expensive, much more so than in our parents’ or grandparents’ time, and the pay level for new teachers after college has not kept up. In addition, the cost of living for every adult in our country has skyrocketed over the recent decades; to have a job, you have to have a vehicle to get to and from work; you have to buy gas for that vehicle and keep it in good working order; you have taxes on that vehicle every year, and you have to keep the registration up to date on that vehicle; you have to have insurance on that vehicle, or you risk a fine. The nickel-and-diming never ends. And for teachers who do our entire nation a great service, the compensation is nowhere near a level that makes it all “worth it.”

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