Above: Kevlyn Walsh in her classroom at East High School
“I don’t think DPS is concerned with being competitive.”
If you happen to catch East High School teacher Kevlyn Walsh on her way out the door on a typical school morning, you’d notice she’s carrying a lot of, well, STUFF. In fact, on most days it’s enough to fill both arms and a packed duffel bag.
There are the tools of her teaching profession: books, notebooks, graded assignments, perhaps a laptop. And then there are the requirements for her evening job as a hostess at Cherry Creek Grill: change of clothes, pens, etc. Not included are the patience and stamina she needs to get through her 16-hour days.
This is life for a teacher in Denver Public Schools.
“When I leave in the morning I have to make my game plan for the day,” she said. “Am I going to work right after work today? Do I have everything I need in my car? Do I have my clothes for tonight? Do I have my lunch packed? I leave around 5:45 a.m. and don’t get home until after 10 at night, so I have to be certain I’ll have anything I’ll need.”
The additional income isn’t necessary due to Kevlyn’s extravagant lifestyle. A graphic design and photography teacher, Kevlyn currently lives with her parents and drives a hand-me-down car. But the 29-year-old would like to buy a home someday, pay off her student loans and save a little for those life emergencies that come along (like when her 2006 Honda Civic finally goes kaput). Accomplishing these common life goals is impossible on her DPS teacher’s salary alone, she said.
“I’d probably have to make smaller payments on my student loans and I wouldn’t have any savings account for emergencies,” she said. “Everything would go toward survival. There’s no way to get ahead in life with a teacher’s salary in DPS. There’s no way to save for a new car. There’s no way to save for a house.”
Kevlyn detailed the financial challenges she faces during a speech at the May 16th Bargaining Session for DPS and DCTA representatives. She also recounted her difficulties for the DPS School Board at the May 17th board meeting.
“I love what I teach. I am passionate. And if DPS wants to keep me and other Millennials like me around, it will need to pay me a salary that is competitive with other districts,” she said in her comments at both meetings. “The district needs to pay me a salary that reflects the high cost of living in Denver so that I don’t have to work two jobs and live with my parents. It needs to pay me a salary that is predictable so that I can plan for my future! And most important, Denver Public Schools should care about retaining dedicated teachers like me, so that its students can receive the best education possible.”
That last point, Kevlyn said, is her key concern about DPS. She said the district does not appear to understand that teachers have options – and that students are the ones who suffer when strong teachers leave the district.
“I love the school where I teach and everything about my work here,” she said. “But if I can go and teach the same thing in Cherry Creek and get paid thousands of dollars more, why wouldn’t I leave? I don’t think DPS is concerned with being competitive. I don’ think DPS recognizes it’s a competitive market out there. We know we’re a valuable work force and we’re going to go where we’re valued.”
Despite her efforts last month, Kevlyn said she felt ignored at the Bargaining Session. And she wonders if the district is actually listening to teachers.
“I felt like the Bargaining Session was a joke because no one important from the district even showed up,” she said. “This one woman from the district was texting or doing something on her phone the whole time I was talking. She wasn’t even engaged. It just didn’t feel respectful. It was really disheartening.”
She said she felt more “heard” at the DPS Board Meeting, in part because she knows some board members recognize how teachers struggle and in part because board members had no choice but to listen.
“I like the fact that (DPS Superintendent) Tom Boasberg had to be at that board meeting,” she said. “He HAD to listen to me.”
Kevlyn’s activism on behalf of teachers can be traced back to her upbringing. Her father is a retired high school English teacher who was always active in collective bargaining efforts for teachers.
“I remember when I was a kid at one point he went on strike and that was a really big thing for my family,” she said. “Throughout his whole career he was a part of his union. I remember always hearing about things that were going on with his school and his district.”
The lesson Kevlyn learned: It takes an active membership to create change in a district.
“Without a union we really have no power,” she said. “It’s frustrating to me sometimes to see teachers in the district that don’t want to be a part of the union but they still reap the benefits. So many people don’t realize how hard the people in the union are working to make our life better.”
It’s just one reason she’ll continue to speak out when she can to help conditions in DPS improve. But in the meantime, she’ll keep working (and working and working) just like so many other teachers in the district who are forced to hold multiple jobs.
“Sometimes I’ll see students and their families while I’m working as a hostess and they seem surprised to see me,” she said. “It’s kind of weird for the kids to see their teachers in another work environment.”
In either of her work environments, Kevlyn strives hard to stay professional and pleasant – though with long hours and often difficult circumstances it can be a challenge. If she has a rough day at school she can’t let it carry over to the restaurant. And if she has a tough night at the restaurant, she can’t allow that burden to follow her to school the next morning. Her dedication to professionalism is evident: She was named the Colorado Art Educator Rookie of the Year in 2017.
“But my patience can start to run out at times,” she said. “I have to really absorb everything at school and internalize it and the same thing at the restaurant.”
And one day, she admitted, it may all become too much.
“I’m going into my third year teaching and I’m just taking it one year at time,” she said. “At this point, I don’t know if I can do this as a lifetime career because it’s just so hard trying to juggle my multiple jobs. I’m hopeful that DPS will make changes to teacher salaries. Teachers really need a raise, and students deserve an education from talented, experienced teachers.”