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As costs rise, wages stagnate, Louisiana teachers ask: Can I afford to keep doing this?

Kezia Setyawan

Arkansas raised its starting salary for teachers by $15,000 last year, to $50,000, catapulting the state from the near bottom to one of the top slots nationally in rankings for teacher pay.

Meanwhile, Alabama approved a 2% increase for educators, with the goal of having the highest salaries in the South. And Mississippi passed its largest pay raise in history in 2022.

Other states have also increased teacher pay significantly following the pandemic and recent staff shortages. But not Louisiana.

State leaders decided again this year to not give teachers a permanent raise, instead opting for a one-time stipend. Many agree educators are underpaid, but point to the state’s looming budget deficit — even as they increase spending on law enforcement, jails and courts.

The average teacher in Louisiana made just over $55,000 during the 2022-23 school year, more than $13,000 less than the national average, according to the Southern Regional Education Board. Louisiana also lags behind most states in the region, including Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama.

The state’s problem has less to do with starting pay, which is somewhat high for the region, and more with a teacher's ability to earn a higher salary over time, according to a study commissioned by Louisiana’s department of education.

That’s left teachers at a crossroad. Many have made sacrifices for years. Now, as costs mount and wages stagnate, some are asking: Can I afford to keep doing this?

WWNO/WRKF asked educators to share what it’s like to live on a teacher’s wage in Louisiana. More than 70 teachers responded. Here are some of their stories.

‘They don’t want to fix it.’

Kezia Setyawan

Deidre Sims Martin

Parish: Orleans
Years teaching: 34
Salary: Retired

Deidre Sims Martin has been teaching since 1990. She spent the last few years working as a pre-K teacher at a charter school in New Orleans. So, low pay? She’s been dealing with that for decades.

“I don’t even understand why the pay is so low,” she says. “I believe they don’t want to fix it.

She’s watched policies aimed at increasing salaries come and go. Like performance-based pay. Or when the state lottery started. A portion of ticket sales go to education, but it didn’t increase overall funding for schools.

Sims Martin says that in recent years, New Orleans’ all-charter system has made things worse.

“I can come in as a 20-year veteran teacher and it can be somebody two years in and you find out through talking that they making more than you.”

That’s because charter schools have the autonomy to pay who they want what they want. “I think that’s totally unfair,” she says.

Sims Martin retired earlier this month. Looking back, she says being a teacher had its benefits.

She had the same hours as her kids, summers off and a good retirement plan, something newer teachers are less likely to get. Sure, she sometimes had to work other jobs to make ends meet.

But in the end? “I just felt like it evened itself out,” she says.

Teachers who are early- to mid-career are less sure.

‘I have to do what’s best for myself.’

Kezia Setyawan

Jason Huang

Parish: East Baton Rouge
Years teaching: 1
Salary: $47,500

“As fun as teaching is, I don’t think it would be a good option for me going forward financially,” says Jason Wong, a first-year teacher in Baton Rouge.

Wong was recruited to go into teaching when he was a student at LSU, as part of a program that’s trying to boost the number of people entering the field.

He majored in biological sciences with a concentration in pedagogy and, since graduating in 2023, has been putting his degree to work teaching physical science and engineering to eighth graders. In addition to teaching full time, he’s a private tutor and drives for Uber.

Wong’s mom was a teacher, so he says he had a sense of the field’s difficulties.

“She’s always telling me like, ‘Jason, teacher pay has always been an issue. If you want to stay in this profession, it’s not a lucrative one, but a noble profession.’”

While his salary is enough to live on, though just barely, he says he hasn’t been able to save much money. That makes him nervous.

“It gives me a sense of urgency,” he says. “Like, I feel like I need to make more because what if I have an emergency?”

Wong says a modest salary bump would make a big difference and dramatically increase the chance of him staying in education. He looks at his older colleagues who have been teaching for 10 or 15 years.

“They’ve seen only so much in pay raises,” he says. “They’ve got health problems and kids to take care of. They want to relax, too. It's like, ‘Do I have enough money to go on vacation? When I deserve a vacation.’”

Interview with Jason Huang

While many new teachers struggle, Wong has already shown himself to be highly capable in the classroom and says he was even named teacher of the month. “I know I’m good at this. I just don’t get paid enough.”

He’s also one of the assistant coaches for a sport he loves, volleyball. The team recently won the parish championship. He says the head coaches want him to take on more responsibility. But he hesitates becoming more involved, knowing he may not be at the school for long.

“It's really awkward. I definitely feel like I'd be letting some people down,” he says. “But I have to do what's best for myself.”

‘Will I be there next year?’

Kezia Setyawan

Ed Lackaye

Parish: Orleans, previously taught in New York
Years teaching: Since 2007
Salary: $54,000

Though he loves it — especially his school’s rock band — Ed Lackaye sometimes thinks about leaving teaching, too..

“I’m in the band. I'm the advisor for the band,” he says with a laugh. “However you want to say it.”

Lackaye has the same problems as a lot of other Louisiana teachers: not enough income and rising costs, especially insurance.

“When that bill is coming in, it’s a hold-your-breath moment,” he says.

Lackaye’s wife is also a teacher. They talk about which one of them will get to stay in the classroom if their finances get too tight. It’s a tough conversation for both of them.

“We’re supposed to be kind of like these martyrs,” he says. “It’s like we’re teachers because we love working with kids and we think it’s a valuable profession and all that stuff. We do think those things, but not to the point where we're going to make our lives miserable.”

Lackaye and his wife haven’t been able to afford traveling out of state to visit family in years. His wife wants to join a Mardi Gras krewe, but they worry about the dues.

To make more money, teachers tend to have to change schools. That leads to high turnover, teaching vacancies and worse outcomes for students.

“It feels awful to say, like a mercenary. But there is, for a lot of us, you know you are on the lookout,” Lackaye says.

It’s something kids are aware of. He says he’s had multiple students ask, “Will I be there next year?”

‘This field is a mess right now.’

Kezia Setyawan

Lauren Luby

Parish: Jefferson, previously St. James and Ouachita 
Years teaching: 18
Salary: $58,000

Pay wasn’t at the front of her mind when Lauren Luby decided to become a teacher.

“I chose to teach because I like kids. I like seeing them learning new things. I like to be able to be that person for them,” the fifth-grade math teacher says.

She took a pay cut when she took a job in Jefferson Parish five years ago, but did it to be closer to home for her then two-year-old daughter.

“I haven't really gotten a pay raise since I started,” she says.

After about a year, she began to see she wasn't making enough. She picked up odd jobs and summer work, helping at a family friend’s insurance agency and teaching English online.

She says many people don’t understand how much time good teachers dedicate to their jobs outside of work. She gets 45 minutes during the school day to plan the next day’s lesson. But by the time she drops her class off, uses the bathroom, makes copies and calls parents, there isn’t much, if any, time left.

So she gets up early to prepare before school and does more work at night.

“If I got paid for all the extra time that I worked and not just the 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., then it would be easier to digest,” she says. “But I'm not getting paid for all the time that I'm spending doing my job.”

Interview with Lauren Luby

Luby says the situation has become more challenging due to staff shortages. When a teacher is out sick, or a school is dealing with a vacancy, the teachers that are there have to pitch in, giving them even more work.

“This field is a mess right now. New teachers are coming in and it's not the dream that they thought it was going to be and they're, they're out,” she says. “They’re like, ‘I can make more money working at Starbucks and hand people coffees and smile all day long.’”

Last year, she had a group of kids she found difficult to teach. Her stress level was high, as well as her blood pressure, and her passion for the classroom waned. She says she started researching other jobs.

She feels better about her new school, and her students this year reminded her why she loves teaching.

“I find myself really going back and enjoying my job more,” she says. “So then making less money, or having to work other jobs to make money, doesn't seem as daunting.”

‘I can’t pay my bills.’

Kezia Setyawan

Kelly Mueller

Parish: Orleans, previously taught in Chicago
Years teaching: 17 as an art teacher, plus several years in special education 
Salary: $59,000

Kelly Mueller is in her 50s, single, never married, and has been teaching art at the same school for nearly two decades.

“I spend my days kind of geeking out with my students about art,” she says. “I enjoy that so much.”

But Mueller hit her breaking point this past summer. She was already worried about paying her mortgage. And then came the really hot weather.

Her monthly electric bill skyrocketed to $450 for a couple of months. Her homeowners insurance climbed to $250 a month. Then her car broke down.

“This summer was the first time where I not only went through all of my savings, but I ended up going into a little bit of debt,” she says.

Mueller says she chose to pursue teaching as a young art student because her family wanted her to have a stable career. She feels “betrayed” by the profession.

“I work really hard and I work a lot of hours. And in return I can’t pay my bills as a single homeowner in the community that I work,” she says. “Something is really wrong with that. And that was the point where I decided I can’t do this anymore.”

Mueller left her school last month and says she might leave teaching permanently if she can’t find a position that pays more.

She says sometimes it feels like teachers are expected to work just because they love what they’re doing and because they’re providing a public good — educating the future of the country.

“The passion and the feelings that we get that we’re inspiring the next generation is supposed to be our takeback and our income and it's wonderful. I do feel a lot of value in what I do.” But it doesn’t pay her bills. So it’s time to move on.

This story was edited for radio by Rosemary Westwood and produced by Aubri Juhasz. Garrett Hazelwood edited and produced the web version.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.