Above: Emily Griffith High School teacher Rebecka Hendricks
“If the agreement is no good, next year may be my last year.”
Teachers shouldn’t have to live on the edge. But that’s just where Rebecka Hendricks resides. Financially, she’s stuck between loving her life’s work and living a life of quiet desperation.
Well, maybe not so quiet.
“This is my tenth year as a teacher,” she said recently after speaking before DPS officials at a DPS Board Meeting. “I went into teaching because it’s my passion. It’s my career. I don’t even know what I would do if I quit teaching.”
Still, after 10 years as an educator, Rebecka admits she’s contemplating leaving the profession. It’s not because of the work. It’s not because of the students. And it’s not even because of district politics. It’s for sheer survival.
“If my car breaks down, I’m in trouble. If my dog gets sick, I’m in trouble. Forget being able to afford a family.” Rebecka said recently of the many hardships that could literally break her budget. “I have a friend of mine who’s a great teacher and she’s a mother of three children. She decided to quit because child care for her three children costs more than she was making as a DPS teacher.”
It’s a story heard over and over from DPS teachers. Although she has no children, Rebecka’s financial challenges are no less traumatic. The 32-year-old teacher at Emily Griffith High School is tired of scrimping, scraping and just plain doing without, all the while working tirelessly both in her classroom and lesson planning, as well as in side jobs to earn extra income. What’s worse, Rebecka said her Master’s Degree puts her in a higher income level than many DPS teachers. She can’t imagine how difficult it must be for others.
According to HSH.com, the largest provider of mortgage and consumer loan information, a home buyer in Denver needs to make a salary of approximately $68,500 to qualify for a mortgage. This puts home ownership in Denver out of reach for even a higher-earning teacher like Rebecka.
“I know that despite my struggles, many, many teachers have it much worse – and I have to have multiple jobs, a roommate, and commute to be able to get by – and I still can’t buy a home,” she said. “I’m a 32-years-old professional and I would really rather not have to have a roommate anymore. Seriously. It’s ridiculous.”
Rebecka works as a Lyft driver in the evenings and on weekends. She picks up extra income opportunities at school, tutors outside of school, and she teaches summer school. She finds work wherever she can, all the while struggling to find time to maintain the highest standards of her role as an educator.
“I have to work harder. I don’t sacrifice the quality of my teaching,” she said, despite the demand on her time to make ends meet. “I have to frontload everything and really plan on how I use my time. I just put in more hours.”
Although her dedication to students is its own reward, she could use more encouragement and support from the district – and not just with adequate compensation (though that would help).
“It’s pretty bad,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of amazing teachers leave the profession because of low salary and the low respect.”
It’s not just her low pay that Rebecka finds demeaning. It’s the principle that passionate, talented professionals should be adequately compensated. She hears glowing praise for teachers from friends and members of the community. She’s told over and over that teachers deserve to be treated with greater respect. And she’s constantly admired for her dedication. She’s just waiting for these sentiments to translate into better pay and better working conditions for teachers.
“I love this career and it really would break my heart if I had to leave,” she said. “I would definitely stay if (a new compensation) agreement is good. If the agreement is no good, next year may be my last year. I don’t know what I will do, but at the very least I need to leave DPS and maybe even teaching as a profession.”