Here’s what teacher Corrie Eickman’s day looks like: She wakes up at 6 a.m. to get her three kids off to their grandma’s house, heads to a full day in the classroom at South Lakewood Elementary School, then returns to pick up her children to carry out the dinner-homework-chores routine before reporting for her evening shift at Amazon, where she processes packages, sometimes until 1 a.m.
The 32-year-old Denver native picked up her night job last year during her first Christmas season as a single mom when she feared there wouldn’t be any presents under the tree. Eickman was working seven days a week between teaching sixth grade and wrapping pallets at Amazon until a couple of months ago, when she requested Sundays off to spend time with her children.
“I’m very tired,” Eickman said. “My house is not very clean. But I ended up staying at Amazon because it’s nice not going negative in my bank account every month.”
As walkouts and historic strikes related to teacher compensation play out across the state, local educators are going to great lengths — little sleep, time away from their own children and endless work weeks — to remain in the classroom for the job they view as a calling.
Eickman, who is a fifth-year teacher, earns about $45,000 a year, taking home about $2,700 a month after taxes.
Eickman lives in a 2-bedroom apartment in Glendale where her three boys — ages 15, 7 and 8 — share the master bedroom. Her rent is $1,245 a month.
The $13 an hour she earns working 12 to 25 hours a week at Amazon allows Eickman to keep up with her bills.
“I’m fully paying down the electricity bill now,” Eickman said. “I’m keeping up with the internet bill, which was getting shut off, like, once a month. I can buy my kids shoes that don’t have holes in them. Occasionally, we can do some fun things like go see a movie or go to the museum, which were things we weren’t able to do before.”
Before Eickman’s teaching career, she worked as a restaurant manager but wasn’t feeling fulfilled.
“I decided to go back to school for a job I loved,” Eickman said. “I became a teacher because school saved my life.”
Eickman was the first person in two generations on her mother’s side of the family to graduate high school.
“Stuff was hard at home sometimes, and school was my happy place,” she said. “I wanted to work with kids who needed that happy place. I knew that teaching didn’t pay a lot of money, but I thought I would at least be able to pay my bills.”
Kathy Schultz, University of Colorado School of Education dean, is thinking through how to handle the latest national uproar over teacher’s compensation that’s caused educators across the country to take a public stand.
One idea Schultz is mulling: advising teachers about their likely financial situation before they commit to the career.
“I think there is this sort of new surge of student activism and teacher activism, and for it to have a larger impact, we will need to address it in the classroom,” Schultz said. “I’m very interested in teaching education finance. Really understanding how education finance works in Colorado is critical for the long-term engagement in being a teacher and an informed citizen in the state.”
The National Education Association’s 2018 report said Colorado teachers were paid on average $51,808 in 2017 compared to a national average of $59,660. That puts Colorado 31st among the states and Washington, D.C.
The average Colorado teacher’s salary rose 8.1 percent from 2009 to 2018, but dropped 6.7 percent after adjusting for inflation, according to 2018 National Education Association data.
Teachers have been taking to the streets, flooding the state Capitol in Denver and striking in Pueblo, asking for higher pay and demanding that the public and lawmakers support school-funding reform.
Amy Kalinchuk, an instructor at Denver’s Thomas Jefferson High School, is among the educators making noise — and soap.
A teacher for more than 25 years with a master’s degree in special education, she makes a gross salary of around $70,000.
“But I pay over $14,000 a year for health insurance,” Kalinchuk said. “And that’s the cheapest for us.”
In the early 2000s, Kalinchuk’s husband left his job to stay home with their child, making her the sole income provider for their family. Diapers were a struggle to afford, she said.
“That’s when things got tough,” she said. “We realized we weren’t going to make it. That’s when I started my soap business.”
Olde Crone’s Bewitching Bath Soap was created in 2003 out of a need for grocery money and evolved into a means for Kalinchuk to stay in her dream job.
“It’s not going to be able to sustain us completely,” she said, “but it allows us to be able to not put basic living expenses on credit cards, and that’s a big thing.”
Kalinchuk’s husband, Israel, now works for the family’s soap company, too.
The Denver teacher does the administrative work the soap business demands during the school week and tries to save the product-making for the weekend. Israel makes most of the soaps while Amy tackles the other products like citrus herb lip balm and mystical mint sugar scrub.
Sundays are for selling at the South Pearl Street Farmers Market.
“It’s not like I had no clue teaching won’t support a family,” Kalinchuk said. “I was good at it. This is what I need to be doing.”
The best part of Kalinchuk’s day is advocating for her special needs students.
“I love that I can be a warrior for them,” she said.
Kalinchuk said she enjoys working on students’ social skills like showing them how to let a teacher know they’re not getting what they need.
“Sometimes a student no longer needs accommodations, and I’ve taught them to advocate for themselves, and they’re getting a job or going off to college,” Kalinchuk said. “Imagine what that feels like.”
Kalinchuk isn’t shy about advocating for herself or her fellow educators. To work toward a solution, she encourages people to vote in favor of increasing school funding.
“Increased school funding means we can bargain for our increased pay,” she said.
The passion for education that Kalinchuk and Eickman have is exactly what the teaching field needs right now, Schultz said.
The line between letting prospective teachers know what their bank account might look like in the future and discouraging them from pursuing a profession that needs them is a tough one to walk, she said. Compounding that difficulty, the CU dean said, is that students coming out of college are often already dealing with loan debt combined with stints of unpaid student teaching.
“One of the things we’ve had to do sometimes is find ways to support teachers while they’re student teaching so that it can be affordable for them at that point, especially as they look out at the precipice of paying back loans,” Schultz said. “As a Colorado school, we really do want them to stay in Colorado. All this is not a formal part of the curriculum at this point, but it’s very much a topic we talk about, especially with faculty who have been teachers, themselves.”
Decades into Kalinchuk’s career, teacher compensation and its real-world impacts are still fresh on her mind.
“I kick ass right now at teaching,” Kalinchuk said. “I’m really good at this. This is my 26th year. I know what I’m doing. Imagine what I could do if that was my only job.”
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