working on the weekend

Teacher by day, waitress by night: Colorado teachers work second jobs to make ends meet

PHOTO: Denver Post file

Three days a week, Denver teacher Kendall Finch leaves her first-grade classroom after the final bell and heads to her second job at a local gym, where she works the front desk until 7 p.m.

Soon, the first-year teacher will add another job on the weekend — helping coordinate beer festivals and other events.

For Finch, the second and third jobs are a necessity — covering groceries, her gym membership and helping repay the $20,000 loan she took out last year to make ends meet during her unpaid teaching internship.

The 27-year-old isn’t alone in working extra jobs on top of teaching full-time. Many teachers nationwide take on second jobs outside the school system — 16 percent, according to a 2014 report from the Center for American Progress. The report only looked at data for one year.

The proportion is even higher in Colorado — about 22 percent — putting it among the top states where teachers take on extra employment. They’re bartenders, babysitters, deejays, tutors, cashiers and waitresses, to name a few.

The prevalence of teachers with second jobs is one symptom of larger, systemic problems — the steady erosion of teacher pay, Colorado’s perennial school funding crunch and skyrocketing housing costs. But some teachers and observers say it’s also a problem in its own right, sapping teachers’ energy, diverting their focus from the classroom and contributing to decisions to leave the profession altogether.

In interviews with more than a half-dozen Colorado teachers who have second and sometimes third jobs during the school year, the consensus was that teaching alone doesn’t pay the bills.

Teachers in rural, suburban and urban districts — those with children and those without — all voiced concerns about meeting their financial obligations. They cited the cost of housing, health care and student loans as their biggest burdens. Several described the scramble from teaching jobs to second jobs as draining and distracting.

One Jefferson County teacher, a father of three who works as a bike mechanic and property manager on the side, half-joked that he drinks ten cups of coffee a day.

Abby Cillo, a second-grade teacher at Fletcher Community School in Aurora, said her after-school jobs tutoring and nannying add another layer of logistics to her day.

“It’s one more thing for me to think about and plan for and do,” she said.

Some experts say it’s uncommon for such a large percentage of educated workers in a single profession to have second jobs.

“It’s really an important marker that we’re not treating teachers like the professionals they are,” said Lisette Partelow, director of teacher policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

“I’ve never met a doctor who had a side gig as a waiter or waitress,” she said.

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The teacher pay gap

Experts and teachers alike say lagging salaries are at least partly to blame for the prevalence of second jobs among teachers.

Nationally, teachers earn about 17 percent less than similarly educated professionals, according to a 2016 report from the Economic Policy Institute. Even when teachers’ benefits — typically more generous than other workers — are added to the equation, teachers receive 11 percent less in total compensation.

Digging into Colorado data, the statistics become gloomier.

In a state-by-state ranking of average 2014-15 teacher salaries compiled by the nation’s largest teachers union, Colorado ranked 34th. Its average salary of nearly $50,000 was well below the national average of more than $57,000.

In addition, the Economic Policy Institute report revealed that Colorado teachers earn about 65 percent of what similarly educated professionals earn here.

“I was a little bit shocked that Colorado was so far behind,” said Sylvia Allegretto, a labor economist at the University of California, Berkeley and co-author of the report.

She noted that some other states with comparable numbers, such as Alabama and Virginia, have laws granting workers the right to avoid labor union membership or dues as a condition of employment. Those states have histories of low public sector wages.

In Colorado, school budgets and teacher pay in many districts have been impacted by a complicated web of constitutional amendments and laws that contribute to the state frequently ranking near the bottom in per-pupil funding.

Teaching wasn’t always like this. Back in 1994, teachers nationally only made a bit less than other professionals, and when you figured in benefits, there was almost no difference in compensation. But since then, what researchers call the “wage penalty” has grown significantly for teachers while their “benefits advantage” has not grown enough to offset it.

Part of the reason for this trend was huge wage growth for non-teacher college graduates between 1979 and 2002. Teachers didn’t enjoy the same surge because they work based on long-term contracts and because public sector wages don’t go up or down as dramatically as private sector wages do, researchers say.

Cillo, whose mother was a teacher and whose father was a principal, is keenly aware of the changing financial landscape for educators.

During her growing-up years, she said, “We weren’t super-rich, but we definitely didn’t want for things.”

“Teachers used to be middle class.”

This month, Cillo started a master’s degree program in organizational leadership.

“As much as I love teaching … I need to be prepared for something other than education,” she said.

Going solo

During the week, Nikki Fitterer, 40, is a math teacher at Falcon Bluffs Middle School in Jefferson County. On the weekends, she spends 10 hours serving sandwiches, tacos and stews from a local food truck.

She got the extra job several months ago — the first time in her 17-year teaching career she felt the need for extra income. One factor was the rising cost of living, she said. Another was the medical bills that piled up after she had back surgery last spring. Even with her $69,000 salary, Fitterer, who has a master’s degree, couldn’t keep up.

Things were different when she first started teaching. At the time, wages for female teachers were more comparable to those of other female college graduates — lagging by only about 4 percent. Today, female teachers nationally make about 14 percent less than similarly educated women, according to the Economic Policy Institute report. (The gap is even worse for male teachers.)

And while Fitterer was married when she became a teacher, she has since divorced.

“I’m a single person. I don’t have a second income in my home,” she said.

Other teachers echoed the sentiment.

Finch, the first-grade teacher from Denver, is single right now, too. She makes $39,000 a year and pays $850 a month to share an apartment with two roommates. She doesn’t see an end to working extra jobs unless she finds a partner to help shoulder the burden. But contemplating that kind of safety net feels anti-feminist, she said.

“I want to be self-sufficient,” she said. “But I’m not sure that can necessarily be a reality unless I have other jobs.”

Community conversations

It’s difficult to broach the topics of eroding pay and second jobs, without also touching on how the public views teachers.

“I think the compensation issue is intertwined with the status issue,” said Partelow, of the Center for American Progress.

Several teachers interviewed said while they often hear flattering comments about their noble career paths and the good they do, they feel the broader world sees them in a different light — ensconced in cushy jobs and undeserving of higher pay.

For some Jefferson County teachers, voters’ recent rejection of two school district tax measures was a stinging reminder of that reality.

Troy Rivera, a teacher at a Greeley charter school who also teaches at a local community college, said a friend of his likes to say, “Oh, you’re a teacher you’ve got it made.”

But his friend, a car salesman, doesn’t see him staying home to grade papers and create lesson plans on school holidays or taking classes to get recertified in the summer.

“There’s a lot more to the job than people think,” Rivera said.

In fact, most teachers interviewed for this story reported working 50-60 hours a week for their teaching job. Second and third jobs took about 10-15 hours a week.

What kind of salary bumps would make it possible for teachers to jettison their extra jobs? Answers vary. A couple teachers said $10,000 a year. One said $20,000. Rivera said while his side job keeps him from living paycheck-to paycheck, he believes his $51,000 salary is fair.

Caitlin Snarr, a first-grade teacher at Pagosa Springs Elementary School in southwest Colorado, took a diplomatic approach to the question.

“We could be paid a little bit more,” she said. Later in the conversation, she added, “I would never want to come across as whining.”

Snarr, a fourth-year teacher, earns $35,500 a year through her teaching job, plus enough to cover her car payment by running the school’s afternoon tutoring program four days a week.

“Down the road eventually it would be nice not to have to have a second job,” said Snarr, who has a daughter in third grade and a baby on the way.

Getting there, at least by way of a locally generated salary increase, will take community conversations about the feasibility of ballot initiatives like a mill levy override or a sales tax measure.

Snarr wants to be part of those conversations, driving the point home that extra school revenue — whether it’s for teacher salaries or anything else — “goes back to having really great opportunities for our kids.”

state of the state

Whitmer: Michigan needs ‘bold’ changes to fix schools — not just more money

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her first State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2019.

Michigan’s new governor called for “bold” changes to the way schools are funded — though she’s not saying what those changes could be.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who took office last month, devoted a large part of her first State of the State Address on Tuesday night decrying a “crisis” in education defined by alarming declines in childhood literacy.

Those declines can’t be blamed on students or schools, she said.

“Our students are not broken,” she said. “Our teachers are not broken. Our system has been broken … And greater investment alone won’t be enough.”

Whitmer offered no specifics about the reform she wants to see, but said she didn’t think incremental changes would be enough to fix Michigan schools.

“Phony fixes won’t solve the problems,” she said.

“A government that doesn’t work today can’t get the job done for tomorrow,” she said. “That ends now. As a state, we must make the bold choice so we can build a stronger Michigan.”

Whitmer is expected to propose her first state budget next month. She said that budget will “give our frontline educators the tools they need to address the literacy crisis.”

Her comments come amid a growing chorus from education and business leaders across the state who have called for funding schools differently, giving schools more money for students who cost more to educate, such as those who are learning English or living in poverty. That would be a departure from Michigan’s current system of giving schools largely the same amount per student, regardless of that student’s needs or background.

A report from Michigan State University last month found that Michigan had seen the largest education funding decline in the nation since 2002 and currently has one of the nation’s lowest funding levels for students with disabilities.

Changing school funding could pose a challenge to a Democrat working with a Republican-controlled legislature.

Whitmer’s hourlong speech was greeted warmly by Democrats who cheered her policy proposals but drew less support from people across the aisle.

At one point, she seemed concerned that only Democrats stood to applaud a line about “generations of leadership” failing Michigan children.

“I know Republicans love education, don’t you?” she asked.  

Whitmer invited Marla Williams, who teaches special education at Detroit’s Davison Elementary School, to the speech. She praised her for “tireless” advocacy that includes visiting children when they’re sick and doing their laundry.

“That’s because she — like so many Michigan educators — knows teaching is more than a career. It’s a calling,” Whitmer said. “I want to send a message to all the devoted educators across Michigan: You’re not failing us. We have been failing you.”

Detroit teacher Marla Williams waves during Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s State of the State address.

The only specific education policy proposals Whitmer offered in her speech involved helping high school graduates attain career certificates or college degrees.

She proposed a scholarship program called MI Opportunity Scholarship that would guarantee two years of debt-free community college to qualified high school graduates.

Whitmer said this would make Michigan the first midwestern state to guarantee community college to all residents, but the impact would be minimal in the 15 cities — including Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, and Kalamazoo — that already offer free community college through Promise scholarships.

Whitmer’s proposed scholarship would also provide two years of tuition assistance to students seeking four-year degrees at nonprofit colleges and universities. She said the option would be available to all Michigan students who graduate with a B average.

The Detroit Promise scholarship pays the four-year tuition for students who earn a 3.0 grade point average and score above a 21 on the ACT, or a 1060 on the SAT.

Whitmer’s scholarship proposal bears some similarities to a popular Michigan scholarship called the Michigan Merit Award that gave scholarships to students who earned high scores on a state exam. That program was cut from the state budget over a decade ago.

First Person

Denver teachers are stepping up. It’s time for Colorado voters to do the same.

PHOTO: Kirsten Leah Bitzer

I’m a Denver social studies teacher, and I am striking today with my colleagues as we fight to make teaching in Denver schools a sustainable career.

Yes, it must be noted that Denver Public Schools is top-heavy, and more of the district’s funds should be directed toward professionals who have direct contact with students. But amid this pitched battle between district and union, it’s also important to realize that our current moment does not exist in a vacuum.

Twice in the last six years, we’ve watched ballot initiatives that would have significantly increased Colorado education funding fail. Amendment 73, which lost last fall, was projected to raise $1.6 billion a year. Much of this revenue would have gone to local districts, which could have boosted teacher salaries and added programming for students.

Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights played a significant role in creating this situation, through its draconian limits on our representatives’ ability to raise additional needed funds and its requirement that ballot measures effectively be presented to the public with the costs as a headline and the benefits as a footnote.

But there are other forces at work here, too. Last year, the state’s Chamber of Commerce and business-oriented lobbying groups celebrated the demise of Amendment 73, the latest attempt to bring Colorado’s education funding to an appropriate level — even as some business leaders have expressed concern over the lack of fully prepared graduates.

The result? Denver Public Schools’ and the teachers union’s proposals are currently separated by $5 to 8 million. While our state’s $345 billion economy booms, we are fighting for scraps.

It shouldn’t be this way. An investment in teachers is an investment in our students, and in our civic and economic future. This is challenging, essential work that requires us to contend with competing answers to a recurring question: What is the purpose of schooling? As teachers, we work to balance many answers, from teaching our subject matter to instilling work skills, modeling interpersonal skills, developing citizens, and cultivating creativity.

As a social studies teacher, I’m driven to help my students understand the world as it is while also giving them the tools to reimagine it. So as my colleagues and I strike, I hope my students and my neighbors will think about what education activist Margaret Haley said 115 years ago.

“A grave responsibility rests on the public school teachers and one which no fear of opposition or misunderstanding excuses them from meeting,” she said. “It is to organize for the purpose of securing conditions that will make it possible for the public school, as a democratic institution, to perform its proper function in the social organism, which is the preservation and development of the democratic ideal.”

This is why we are organizing, today and in the future. We deserve pay that is commensurate with the demands of our work and a level of education investment that reflects the vital importance of our schools.

When the district and the union reach an agreement, which I am confident will happen soon, we will be closer to that goal — but we will not be there yet. Whereas teachers in West Virginia and Arizona were able to pressure their legislators to raise pay statewide, Denver teachers are stuck negotiating with a district starved of funding from above. Our state cannot endure this neglect forever.

The next time education is on the ballot, I hope Coloradans will invest in our students and our future.

Peter Wright is a teacher at Denver’s Northfield High School, serving students from Stapleton, Park Hill, Montbello, Green Valley Ranch, and beyond.