I’m the state teacher of the year, and I live paycheck to paycheck

This blog was originally published on Textbooks & Beaux Ties on January 24, 2019.

Spencer Kiper, 2019 Louisiana State Teacher of the Year and 2018-2019 Stand for Children LEAD Fellow, has been a teacher in Bossier Parish for 8 years.

There’s not a lot you can do to truly prepare you for what you will see and experience as a teacher. This fact wasn’t something I was really prepared to emotionally or situationally deal with when I went into the classroom eight years ago. In a family of educators and blue-collar workers, my family had hopes of me becoming something other than an educator. An astronaut, maybe? My grandmother had hopes of me becoming a computer engineer. However, I never chose teaching as a career. Teaching chose me.

It is impossible to prepare yourself for all of the emotions you feel as a teacher. My mind often wanders back to the moments that have defined the teacher and the person that I have become. Moments like sitting in a funeral, crying alongside a number of my students, mourning the loss of one of their classmates who lost himself in the struggle that so many of our youth find themselves in today. Moments like sitting in academic assemblies, and feeling like a proud parent when you see one of your “project” kids walk to the front of the gymnasium to receive a ribbon for A/B Honor and see that student’s face light up with pride as if he had just won a Nobel Prize. There isn’t a day that goes by that I am not reminded of the reasons why I stay after school to sponsor clubs, check on that student whose mother is sick, write that grant to bring more opportunities to my students, or write that letter of recommendation for a former student trying to make a better life for him or herself. Reasons like these are why I know what I do matters. Teachers matter. What I do matters to the students that walk through my door everyday.

These formative moments of my career are the ones that I carry with me as I head into my year as the 2019 State Teacher of the Year. I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to represent my students and my school at places like Google, the White House, and even far-away places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. It’s going to be a year of my life that will be unforgettable. As joyous as this time is, I still feel the stresses that every teacher that I know feels: am I giving my students what they need to succeed and am I working enough to pay my bills? You see, as far as I have come, I still live paycheck to paycheck. I’m not alone. Most teachers that I work with and know through my professional network are in the same boat.

The lifestyle that my family and I live is fairly modest. The vehicles we drive are domestic. The home we own is below the median house value in our area. The “extras” are kept to a minimum so that we can be prepared for the small things, like hospital visits and home repairs, that may arise. In a typical year, I work as an adjunct instructor at LSU Shreveport to supplement my monthly income and to pay down some of debt I have accrued. During the summer months, I use my “vacation” time to move to Alabama and work for two months delivering professional development to other educators. All of this work is extremely rewarding, and I am beyond thankful for these opportunities, but time with my family and friends is the sacrifice I make in order to be financially stable. As I head into my year as State Teacher of Year, I must let go of these side jobs for now in order to focus on the vital work ahead of me, which means that I am now back to living paycheck to paycheck and minimum payment to minimum payment. To add to the stress, my spouse is a federal employee whose pay is now frozen until the government shutdown is resolved. Our biggest financial fear is now being realized: we are now a family living off of my teacher income alone.

In the next few months, there’s going to be a lot of discussion about the salary proposition for the teachers and support personnel in Bossier Parish. There’s going to be a lot of data that is presented on both sides, as well as valid points both for and against the proposition. As we head into the coming months, I ask that our community keep these thoughts in mind: Do we see value in the service that Bossier teachers provide to our community’s children and what are the best methods of supporting public education in our area? For me, and for the thousands of teachers and support personnel that have been instrumental in making Bossier Schools some of the most successful schools in Louisiana, taking some of the burden of trying to figure out how to gain a sense of financial stability is the first step in ensuring that our educational professionals stay focused on continuing to provide the best education possible to our area’s youth.