What I Learned About Myself as a Teacher Living Paycheck to Paycheck

It took reaching a low point to realize I couldn’t give everything to my school.

What I Learned as a Teacher Living Paycheck to Paycheck

It was winter in Chicago. I walked to work. A daily trek close to two miles long, lugging a backpack full of assignments and resources over icy sidewalks. I could not afford a car, and the buses were unreliable.

As a second-year teacher with three preps, I did nothing but plan and grade. Each night until 10 p.m. and all day on Saturdays. On Sundays, I cajoled a friend with a car to drive me to the print shop so I could make copies for my ESL and Advanced Placement classes.

I put a couple hundred dollars on my credit card for copies every month because the copy machines at school were temperamental, and I needed more texts for my students. Nothing—and I truly mean nothing—seemed more horrifying to me than standing before my class and having to wing it because my meticulously planned lesson lacked the necessary materials.

When my paychecks came, most of the money went to cover rent, credit cards and my student loan payments. The rest to necessities—you know, like food and heat.

“Well, you didn’t go into teaching for the money,” people would say to me.

But you know what? I kind of did. I also did it because I like teenagers and my content. But most people would not go to work if they did not have bills to pay.

On this particular Monday morning, I stood in the faculty bathroom facing down a dozen rolls of toilet paper.

Ooh! Toilet paper! I thought.

It was the end of the quarter and I had spent the weekend swamped with grading. Because the grocery shopping had been neglected, I was down to the last square of paper at home. I reached for a roll and shoved it into my backpack.

Wait a minute, I said to myself. You don’t steal. What are you doing? What’s next? Kidnapping?

I scrolled through my justifications: There was a ton of work to do; I had just $30 in my checking account; I did not have the time or energy to go four blocks out of my way to stop at the store; and with everything I gave, didn’t the school district owe me more than they paid me?

After listening to my complaints, I realized something. Teaching sucked up most of my personal time and many of my resources. As a result, I felt aggrieved and entitled. I needed to restore a balance. I unzipped my backpack and placed the toilet paper back on the table.

Since that day, I have adopted practices that help me feel more balanced and less overwhelmed. Here are some that have helped me the most.

1. Be flexible.

If your school has limited resources, don’t bankrupt yourself to do more. Work with what you have, and if that is not enough, ask for donations.

2. Say no.

As a beginning teacher, I said yes to everything: after-school tutoring, leading PD for other teachers, social committee. Focus only on what you can handle, and when you have reached your limit, say so.

3. Make time.

Make the people and the activities you love a priority. Put them on your calendar. Commit to them just as you would to your work.

4. Take care.

Exercise. Eat well. Sleep. Relax.

Following these simple practices when you are underpaid and overworked can help you keep your balance and your sanity. I learned that the hard way.

Posted by Tanya Baxter-Bateson

I am writer and educator with close to 20 years of experience teaching elementary and high school in Chicago.

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