I am a woman who has my feet firmly planted in two distinct eras. I recall a time when working women with children were a bit of an oddity. Most of the ladies in my neighborhood wore the badge of homemaker with pride and those who left each morning to work in offices seemed exotic and maybe even a bit mysterious. Then my father died and my own mother found herself in need of a full time job. She chose an occupation that was very much the domain of highly intelligent women at the time, teaching. Through her connections to education I found myself intrigued by the world of work inside a classroom.
Somehow in my mind I always knew that I wanted to share my talents with the youngest members of our society, but for quite some time I fought my inclinations to become a teacher. I considered a number of alternative occupations and even stalled in my pursuit of a college degree as I struggled to find myself. Regardless of what I tried I somehow returned again and again to the very career that my mother had chosen in her moment of economic need. I realized that I was secretly happiest when I was helping some youngster to learn and so even though I had at times dreamed of becoming wealthy I decided to forge ahead in a career that I understood would reward me more with good feelings than financial gain.
My very first teaching job was one of my very best. I adored my principal and my students but I only made eleven thousand dollars a year, hardly a resounding figure and well below what my female peers were making as accountants or businesswomen. Still I was happy every single day, and so I told myself that money really didn’t matter, but of course it did. When I got an opportunity to move to a different school and up my salary by eight thousand dollars I leapt at the chance and realized soon enough that I would earn that extra money in blood sweat and tears. Still, it was a grand experience where I learned how to work with children with some of society’s most horrific problems. I became a bonafide educator in those challenging days and sensed that I had truly found my destiny despite the fact that my salary rarely increased more than five hundred dollars a year.
Time passed and I went to different schools and had new experiences, all of which delighted me. Still, by the early nineteen nineties I was not yet earning even thirty thousand dollars a year even though I had been plying my trade for decades. Teachers simply did not get paid well regardless of years of experience or the difficulty of the subject that they taught. Then the Texas legislature finally realized that they needed to make the profession more attractive if they were going to recruit and retain talented young people. They voted to dramatically increase the starting pay of educators so they had to do the same for those of us who had been faithfully working for years. Sadly they did not do so proportionately and the old timers were ultimately making not much more than the new kids on the block.
By this time my own children were in college and I began to feel the pinch of paying their tuition, board, and other expenses. I wondered if it was time to consider a career change and so I returned to college and earned a Masters degree in Human Resources Management. I had enjoyed the courses that I took and my professors believed that I would be quite outstanding working with employees. I had even worked in a Human Resources department at a chemical company one summer and my boss became my cheerleader. Having once been a teacher herself, she understood my dilemma and we became the best of friends as she encouraged me to transition into a new profession.
Somehow I was never able to force myself to make the change. I turned down wonderful offers and made excuses for not following up on leads. One of my professors confessed to me that he believed that I should stay in education because I was subliminally shouting that I didn’t want to leave the profession that had brought me so much satisfaction. After much reflection I knew that he was right. Instead, I took the five hundred dollar a year increase in salary that my new degree had earned me and kept at the job that I truly loved. Over time my pay began to approach a more reasonable level as teacher shortages became more prevalent, but I never broke into the kind of earning power that I might have achieved in the world of business. I loved my work and adored the students, so materialism didn’t seem to matter. Besides, the state had promised all of us a comfortable retirement with reasonable health insurance and so I felt that I had all that I would ever need.
Now I am retired. My monthly earnings are not exceedingly great because I never really made huge amounts of money. A brand new teacher of today earns only a few thousand dollars less than I did in my last year of work. Still my pension provides me with enough to be able to travel now and again and pay the expenses that I have. I’m not sure how well I will do if I lose my husband because I do depend on his Social Security checks and those will go away once he is gone. The federal government in its infinite wisdom seemed to think that teachers were double dipping when they received payments from both the federal and the state governments. I did pay into Social Security for enough quarters to get my own check each month, but because I have a state pension even that amount is offset so that I receive only about a third of what I actually earned. I have to maintain my composure each time I think about how teachers are slapped in the face over and over again, but then I remind myself of the intangible rewards that I have received and just count my blessings.
I suspect that the actions of the current Texas legislative session have sent me over the edge. As the saying goes, “I’m mad as hell.” With little regard for those who worked for decades inside public schools for ridiculously low salaries and conditions that were often verging on the abusive, our state senators and representatives have decided to cut the health benefits of retired educators and school staff members. Whereas we have heretofore been able to choose from four different insurance plans at a fairly reasonable cost, we now must accept a Medicare Advantage plan and pay almost three times more. Not only that, but the deductibles and copays have increased to the point where it is doubtful that we will ever receive a cent from the insurance company since Medicare provides the primary coverage. In addition, many of my doctors have already indicated that regardless of assurances from the state, they will not keep me as a patient if I have a Medicare Advantage plan. Furthermore, I am in the final months of taking a very expensive treatment for my osteoporosis and the pharmacy will suddenly change in September leaving me to wonder if I will be able to complete the two year regimen since it took me almost three months to be approved by my present carrier. I wonder how many of my fellow educators will be adversely impacted while they are in the middle of health crises and I truly worry for them.
The average retired teacher receives about twenty one hundred dollars a month in pension payments. By the time that they pay for supplemental medical insurance and Medicare they will have spent one seventh of their incomes. While I do far better than that, I still plan to continue tutoring as long as I can to offset the increases that are coming soon. Many of my colleagues are not fortunate or healthy enough to find alternative ways of handling the unexpected changes. They will instead be forced to tighten their already rather constricting belts.
The state has the income to help defray the expense of keeping promises made to its teachers but has chosen not to take that route. It has been almost nineteen years since retirees have been given a cost of living increase. When my mother, a former teacher, died she was receiving less than a thousand dollars a month from the Texas Teacher Retirement System. Luckily she had spent her final working years at the University of Texas Health Science Center and thus had health insurance paid for by the university. Still, she had felt forgotten and betrayed as she struggled to stay financially afloat and she quite often urged me to take my skills to a more profitable marketplace. She all too well understood how frightening it is to work for a lifetime only to find that it is almost impossible to meet the most basic needs. She worried most of the time in her final years.
I suspect that there are many former educators in the state of Texas who are wondering what they are going to do. Like my mother they are afraid. Somehow I can’t understand how Governor Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and most of the Republican members of the state legislature can be so insultingly heartless. I worry about those who will be crushed by this travesty at the very time in their lives when they have earned the right to rest and reflect on the great gift of knowledge that they imparted to so many young people. Shame on the men and women who have forgotten their contributions.