Working nights as a bartender, days as a master’s-educated teacher
A typical week for Halle Thomas looks like teaching her toddler class from 7 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. and heading straight to her bartending or serving job, which runs until 10 p.m. Weekends are her days off from both jobs, but Thomas usually picks up extra babysitting gigs or extra bartending or serving shifts. Stretches without a day off usually go for several weeks in a row.
“I don’t really have time for friends,” said the early child educator. “I don’t really have time for family. I don’t have time to take a vacation to Minnesota to see my family. It’s tough to live as a teacher here. I’m surrounded by so many teachers, my master cohort, and friends who live here, and they’re doing the same thing as me. They’re picking up babysitting jobs, odd jobs, whatever they can do just to make sure that they’re able to pay rent on time, which is crazy.”
Colorado educators make 35.9 percent less compared to other educated professionals, according to the Economic Policy Institute. As of 2022, the average Colorado educator is paid about $60,000 a year. “Low pay” was the second cited reason for leaving the profession, after “high workload.”
Thomas works at a preschool serving children of teen mothers in Boulder County. Thomas pays about $1,200 for living expenses, not including her car payment and health insurance payment, as most early childhood providers do not pay for employee health insurance benefits.
Colorado educators make 35.9% less compared to other educated professionals, according to the Economic Policy Institute. As of 2022, the average Colorado educator is paid about $60,000 a year. “Low pay” was the second reason for leaving the profession after “high workload.”
While earning her master’s degree in early childhood education, Thomas worked for a private school, which connected highly with the educational philosophy she studied during her time in graduate school. Although the school fit well with her teaching philosophy, Thomas wasn’t able to pay the bills with the $40,000 a year salary they offered. Thomas found work at another school but is still having difficulty making ends meet.
“I’m struggling to pay the bills right now,” Thomas said. “It’s hard to do that when it’s something that very much opposes my educational philosophy. It seems like I’m selling my soul to work at this place, so I can earn some money.”
Now Thomas is searching for other options, which include leaving the teaching profession to do something adjacent like administrative work. The reason for possibly making the switch is purely financial.
“[Teaching] is my passion,” Thomas said. “It is what I was meant to do, which is why it’s been really tough for me trying to figure out what my options are here. I’ve dedicated the past six or seven years of my life to this now. It’s really what I was born to do. I am a teacher of little humans through and through. I would really like to stay. It’s my last resort to leave the teaching profession. Keeping up with all the different things I need to do to sustain my own mental health and sustain a living here is hard to figure out.”
Thomas sees small change in her community but still notices many people don’t understand that she is an early childhood educator, rather than “just a babysitter.”
“I surround myself with people who hold the same beliefs as me,” Thomas said. “Within my own personal teaching community, yes I do believe it’s getting better. The places I’ve worked at I’ve seen it get better and actually listen to
what we say and give better pay — not great pay — but better than we were getting. I see small community change, but until there’s legislature written about early childhood and pay, I don’t think it’s going to get much better.”
Teachers salary barely covers the bills
Katy Mathes started teaching elementary art at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette in 2008. She provided consulting services and sold Osborne books on the side. Around 2016 Mathes began her own business, Widespread Love, designing and printing t-shirts and home decor items. Doing the work out of her home with a heat press and laser for engraving, the extra money was useful to pay for childcare for her then 18-month-old son, Mathes said.
Mathes grew her design skills on the computer after undergoing a mastectomy and oophorectomy, which left her bedridden for nine months. Beyond working for her own business, Mathes is the chief design officer for MOJO Health, an organization offering a holistic approach to healing cancer and does design work for a mycologist.
“I pick up any extra work that I can,” Mathes said.
Mathes doesn’t think that teachers living solely on their teacher salary in Colorado can do much beyond just paying the bills.
“I don’t personally think it is [possible to live on a teaching salary], unless you’re willing to not have an adventurous life at all,” Mathes said. “I live in Colorado because I love to explore. I love the outdoors. It costs money to go do those things. It costs money to travel. I love traveling. It’s not something I’m willing to go without. If I didn’t have the second or third job, I would not have enough money coming into savings to do vacations.”
The places I’ve worked at I’ve seen it get better and actually listen to what we say and give better pay—not great pay—but better than we were getting. I see small community change, but until there’s legislature written about early childhood and pay I don’t think it’s going to get much better.”
Mathes and her husband were only able to afford their first vacation six years into their marriage.
“If I don’t do the side jobs, I have a hard time saving any money at all,” Mathes said. “I pay off all my credit cards every month. I don’t have any debt. After the bills and credit cards and stuff, I have nothing in my savings. I have $200 right now.”
This year Mathes dedicated much of her free time to MOJO Health, which is a startup that is not yet paying her for her work, leaving less time promoting Widespread Love. With the holidays, Mathes hopes selling ornaments will generate some money for her savings.
“I live in Colorado because I love to explore. I love the outdoors. It costs money to go do those things. It costs money to travel. I love traveling. It’s not something I’m willing to go without. If I didn’t have the second or third job, I would not have enough money coming into savings to do vacations.”
Mathes has what she calls “golden handcuffs,” which make it a risky decision to leave the teaching field: Over her career Mathes has invested in the Colorado Public Employees’ Retirement Association. After 20 years of work, public employees start receiving retirement benefits at age 55.
“I don’t really have a choice unless I totally want to ditch my retirement fund,” Mathes said. “I have to stay teaching or doing a job that is a PERA job for at least four years, and then I wouldn’t get paid out until I’m 55. There aren’t a lot of choices.”
Mathes spends lunch breaks in virtual MOJO Health team meetings and sometimes uses her teaching planning time at the end of the school day to make it to the post office to send off orders for Widespread Love. That pushes her school planning time into night.
Mathes likes teaching at the same school as her son and having mostly the same time off as he does, aside from professional development days when she must find childcare for him.
“I’m really good at [teaching],” Mathes said. “It’s something I know. It’s the only thing I know that I can get a steady paycheck. My side jobs have a flux to them. Right now I’m selling a ton because of the holiday season. Come January there might be nothing. It really depends on how much I have to put into it, how much I want to do social media.”
Mathes isn’t alone in her frustrations with the field. She’s seen many teachers quit in the past few years.
“These teachers are responsible for making sure that all of the children in the community learn and that they become responsible humans,” Mathes said. “We’re in charge of making sure that they are progressing. We’re not paid for the amount of work we do. Most elementary teachers spend lots of time in the summer working. They stay at school and work a lot of nights. I know my first couple of years I worked every other weekend the entire weekend on curriculum. We are not really paid proportionally for the work we are doing, the importance of the work we’re doing, and the volume of work we are doing.”