For 12 minutes one night in October 2016, Mallory Heath could not speak.
The 30-year-old, Arizona-based English teacher was suffering an aphasia migraine. She couldn’t write or talk like she usually could; her words came out jumbled and nonsensical. But amid the terrifying episode, Heath chose not to go to the emergency room. She knew she could not afford the expenses.
“I realized,” Heath told MONEY in a recent interview, “how often do I put my health on the line because I just don’t have the funds to be able to care of myself?”
More than a year later, Heath is just weeks away from leaving the profession she calls her identity. She lives and breathes teaching, spending hours outside of the classroom listening to education podcasts, reading pedagogy, attending conferences and serving on the board of the Arizona English Teachers Association. But making $42,000 a year before taxes and before a significant portion goes toward her pensions, she can’t afford basic living expenses like rent — and she can’t replace her decade-old pair of glasses or blown-out tires. With a Health Savings Account (HSA) insurance plan, she must carefully choose how she uses her insurance plan to cover medical expenses. Once that dries up, she has to pay for medical costs up front — and having any savings, she said, is almost out of the equation.
“I didn’t really have a choice,” Heath said of her impending departure from the classroom. “So I’m just finalizing the choice that has been made for me.”
Heath is just one of hundreds of teachers across the country leaving the profession as a result of low pay. MONEY spoke with half a dozen educators who are leaving teaching because of their dismal salaries. They detailed years-long salary freezes that stifled wage growth, the struggle to balance a second or third job to make ends meet and managing classrooms filled to the brim with students amid teacher shortages and dwindling state funding. As their pay fell or grew stagnant, their costs for health insurance, retirement pension plans and payroll taxes rose. And the public employee pension crisis has left teachers concerned about enjoying a financially stable retirement — even as higher pension costs dig into their paychecks.
Teachers, and those who have already made plans to leave the profession, are sick and tired of this. Educators at suffering school districts in a number of states have engaged in strikes, protests and walkouts to demand higher pay, better funding and an overhaul to the state’s pension plans, with efforts starting in West Virginia earlier this year. Teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado and, now, North Carolina followed their footsteps, and, in some cases, won incremental pay increases with promises to address their lack of resources and other concerns. In West Virginia, for example, state lawmakers agreed to a 5 percent salary increase and the promise to address the hodgepodge of other issues they faced.
There are more than 3 million teachers in the U.S., and public teachers earn an average salary of $58,353, according to the most recent estimates from the National Education Association. But many of the protests happened in states where public teachers make far below the national average. Arizona teachers, for example, earned $47,218 on average in 2016 — the 43rd highest for all 50 states — according to the National Education Association. That’s more than $200 less than they earned on average in 2015, making Arizona one of just a few states, along with Oklahoma and West Virginia, to see its average pay fall in that year. Of all K-12 public school teachers who left their jobs in the 2012-13 school year, 6.8% said they did so as a result of their salary, according to the most recent figures from the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.
The stagnant pay is why Jeff Taylor, a Flagstaff, Arizona-based biology and chemistry teacher with multiple teaching awards, is quitting, too. He has taught in Arizona since 2002, save for four years teaching students at the Department of Defense in Tuscany (a more lucrative gig, he noted). But he returned to Arizona and now earns a $44,700 base salary — less than the government estimates for the average teacher compensation in the state. Adjusted for inflation, Taylor made the equivalent of $1,500 more a year than he did during his first year of teaching in 2002.
Taylor doesn’t know exactly what’s next, but he does know that he and his wife, also a teacher, are going to sell their Arizona home to help finance some traveling. They will also homeschool their 10-year-old daughter, who Taylor says also suffered as a result of growing classroom sizes due to teacher shortages and weak funding in Arizona.
“Maybe it’s worth putting up with all the stress and strain of being a teacher if you’re making 50% more. Or maybe it’s not,” Taylor said. “When you’re in the middle of all the chaos, it’s hard to think about what’s the right thing to do.”
Teachers in states without the lowest wages are suffering from pay freezes, too. Bryan Steinberg quit his job teaching in the Philadelphia School District at the end of the 2016-2017 school year after enduring a five-year pay freeze. He made $660 each week after taxes as a teacher. Now, he earns double that — around $1,320 — a week working as a bartender and waiter. He just got his real estate license, too, in an effort to launch his next career path.
But on top of the pay, teachers and school districts are treated with a lack of respect, he said. “It’s a profession that should be treated almost like doctors, but we’re treated almost like essential babysitters,” Steinberg said.
Ashley Samek, a chemistry teacher at Eagle Valley High School in Gypsum, Colorado, who earns $46,000 a year, said she felt that lack of respect stifled her work as an educator as she dealt with low pay. She earned a master’s degree in education a few years ago to get a $3,000 pay increase, but still had to pay off loans for continuing her education. All the while, she worked as a waitress throughout her seven years of teaching. Now, she plans to leave the profession at the end of the year to take up waitressing full-time as she prepares for a nursing school program that begins next spring.
“Nursing is a valued profession,” Samek said. “And, starting out, nurses make around $60,000-plus a year. I’m excited to be able to not have a second job.”
Teacher pay has been falling since the 1990s — and particularly over the last five years, said Linda Darling-Hammond, president and CEO of the Learning Policy Institute. As it did for many professions, the recession hit teachers hard. Districts fought to hold off on layoffs, but the pink slips still came — and so did salary freezes and weaker state funding. Slowly, as the economy improved, school districts began hiring more teachers. But fewer people want to become teachers now. Over the last five years, there has been a 35 percent decline in enrollment in teacher education programs, Darling-Hammond said. Potential teachers can be lured into other fields with more promising wages like tech — or waitressing and bartending.
The rise of the tech industry has also made it more difficult for school districts to acquire and retain promising science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teachers in particular. Sean Duffy, a former Colorado teacher whose parents were both educators, left teaching several years ago when he found more lucrative opportunities in the burgeoning tech industry in Austin. Upon moving to Texas, he realized he could make much more in a different field. He said he now earns significantly more than his annual $43,000 teacher salary, though he declined to disclose specifics. Duffy says he misses his students and his classroom, but he was glad to leave the other aspects of teaching and working in a school district behind.
As a teacher with a two-year salary freeze, Duffy felt demoralized and began comparing his work to his peers in other fields. “I had a bachelor’s and master’s and all my peers in other sectors were making higher salaries with increases and bonuses,” Duffy said. Now, he works at Capital Factory, an Austin-based company that helps entrepreneurs start their businesses. His inbox, he said, is consistently filled with teachers seeking advice on how to escape.
A number of organizations around the country are trying to find ways to bring these talented teachers to the classrooms — and keep them there — despite the difficult conditions. Incited by the Obama administration’s call to get 100,000 STEM teachers in the classroom by 2021, the organization 100Kin10 is dedicated to doing just that. And low pay and limited resources certainly aren’t helping.
“You can’t have teachers be the engines of equality and social mobility if they themselves cannot provide for their and their family’s economic security,” said Talia Milgrom-Elcott, the co-founder and executive director of 100Kin10.
Other teachers who spoke to MONEY detailed the extreme lengths they’ve gone to earn a higher salary. Working a second or third job is commonplace, they said. Some have moved to different states with a higher average pay — and others moved to countries halfway around the world for more lucrative teaching salaries. And a few teachers are ditching the profession to enter state politics to have a seat at the table. In a state legislature, they can more heavily push their colleagues to adapt higher budgets for public education, or as state superintendent, they can use their classroom experience to inform their policymaking. Kathy Hoffman, a Tucson, Arizona-based speech therapy teacher, wants to do just that. She is now running for Superintendent of Public Instruction, which oversees the state’s public school system and Department of Education. The confirmation hearing of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a charter school advocate who has been criticized for her lack of attention to struggling public schools, inspired Hoffman to run and develop a platform focused on improving teacher pay and programs for bilingual students, among other policies.
“I strongly believe we need more teachers running for office,” Hoffman said. “Not just politicians.”
Shawn Sheehan, the 2016 Oklahoma state Teacher of the Year, ran for state Senate in Oklahoma to help tackle similar issues. After a failed bid, however, he and his wife, another teacher, moved to Texas to teach in a new school district with a higher average salary. Now, the couple earns $38,000 more a year than they did in Oklahoma. (Of course, Sheehan, a math teacher, planned for a cost-of-living adjustment in Texas — and he still comes out earning more a year in the Lone Star state.)
“We weren’t expecting to be rich,” Sheehan said. “On the flip side, we were expecting to make ends meet and pay the bills. We’re highly trained and qualified and we do expect to be paid at least a livable wage — and that’s still not the case for Oklahoma educators.”
But, thanks in part to the uprising of teachers demanding better pay, there’s a chance for improvement in these suffering states. A nine-day teacher walkout in Oklahoma in April led to millions of more dollars in education funding in the state. In early May, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed a plan to raise teacher pay by 20 percent over the next three years — a plan that includes a 10 percent pay bump within the 2018 school year. That will add more than $1 billion to the state budget in education spending. Still, Arizona educators had more demands and have voiced there’s still a long way to go.
Heath, the English teacher from Arizona, is hopeful. She already signed her resignation and she plans to pursue a career in commercial real estate or content marketing — professions she knows will be lucrative and “hopefully still fulfilling.”
But if these massive protests and strikeouts create long-term, substantial change, Heath may return to the classroom, she said. She could return to teaching The Great Gatsby (her favorite book). She could return to her students — and she could return to the career she most identifies with.
“I’m trying to hold tight to the idea that everything happens for a reason,” she said.