Educator’s View: Aiding Teachers With Student Loan Debt, Fees & Financial Literacy Can Help Them Afford to Work in Even the Most Expensive Cities

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California Gov. Newsom recently made a nearly $3 billion dollar investment in the state budget to increase teacher preparation to recruit and retain qualified educators. Why was this necessary? Because California’s ongoing teacher shortage has only worsened as the state grapples with classroom vacancies that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Newsom’s injection of resources is a step in the right direction. But how is it possible to make the pathway to teaching viable for the long run?

Paying teachers more may seem a simple answer, and it’s a good start. It’s not enough. 

Without giving people a root understanding of how to use the money they earn, the benefits won’t stick. Education needs to take a cue from the corporate world and consider how to eliminate debt and provide ongoing, responsive support for teachers. 

At Teach For America Bay Area, we have found that recruiting talented teachers is not easy in an area of the country where dollars have to go further than in other regions. I was a casualty of this — I left teaching, a job I loved, because of finances. 

I became a kindergarten teacher in West Contra Costa in 2010, when a two-bedroom apartment in Oakland rented for $1,750 a month. Today, the price for that same unit has doubled. During my three years of teaching, my rent skyrocketed while my school lost hundreds of thousands of dollars after our School Improvement Grant ended. With dwindling funds and my cost of living increasing, I left the classroom out of fear that I wouldn’t be able to pursue my interests and dreams on a teacher’s salary. I know many other talented educators have made that same decision.

But with help, support and training, teachers can learn to manage their finances and remain. In my current role, my job is to help current and future teachers access resources to help them stay in the classroom comfortably. From this experience and best practices from others in the field, here are some suggestions for improving financial wellness for teachers:

Provide resources to teach financial literacy. People who don’t learn financial literacy from their families often don’t learn it at all. Only recently have policymakers and schools gotten serious about financial literacy education. But myriad resources are available. Teacher preparation programs can step in to provide financial literacy resources to incoming educators. For example, TFA partners with Spring to provide teachers with one-on-one financial planning coaching and support, seminars and budgeting tools. This helps teachers navigate finances so they can afford the Bay Area’s high cost of living. 

Reduce debt for teachers upfront. Over 43 million people have federal student loans, so it’s no wonder they are flocking to companies that promise to help pay down this debt. The typical teacher accrues $37,750 in debt in graduate studies alone, and most early career teachers earn just $45,000 to $50,000 per year. The average TFA Bay Area teacher receives $5,000 directly from TFA before they ever set foot in a classroom. This financial assistance includes a mix of grants, interest-free loans to pay for common out-of-pocket costs.

Lowering financial barriers to the teaching profession is catching on. For example, Aspire Public Schools has a Grow-Your-Own program that identifies talented staffers and helps them transition into positions as special education teachers. Aspire provides a first-year teacher’s salary to program participants, offers mentorship and one-on-one coaching, and foots the bill for credentialing. 

Make resources known. Resources can help only when they’re used. The California Legislature directed $24 million to help cover credential fees for prospective teachers. This could have been a valuable resource to cover an expensive out-of-pocket cost of entering the profession — if teachers had known about it. But the Legislative Analyst Office published a report that found 10,000 teachers didn’t realize that a fee waiver was available.

Teachers are called to educate and empower students, but first they must feel equally empowered to take care of themselves. With the understanding to manage their finances and relief from debt on their way to the classroom, prospective teachers — especially educators of color — will have the agency and confidence to choose and persist in a career that may not make them a lot of money, but will align with their values. It’s how to make sure amazing teachers will stay in the classroom.

Dorian Barrero-Dominguez is senior managing director and head of program at Teach For America Bay Area

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