Nicole Johnson knew she wanted to teach art since she was in elementary school. A fine arts college transplant from New Jersey, Johnson, who teaches at a charter school in Gray, says that she is “just good at it,” and that she builds an easy rapport with her students. 

“If you come into my classroom and think kids are just cutting and pasting, that’s not right,” she said, explaining the thoughtfulness behind her assignments. “There’s so much more going on. There’s persistence. There’s reflection.” 

But as a single mother living in Portland, with dreams for herself and her nine-year-old son, Johnson’s talent and the love she has for her work aren’t able to compensate for the low pay she receives. 

“I feel like I was made to teach art,” she said. “But pretty soon, it won’t work for me.” 

In New Jersey, Johnson’s first teaching job out of college paid $48,500 the first year, then $52,000 the second. A few years ago, her position was eliminated and she and her now ex-husband moved to Maine, where she was required to take months of additional coursework to become certified. 

Now, despite 20 years of teaching experience, Johnson says she makes an hourly rate of $18, or about $22,000 a year, excluding what she earns elsewhere during the summer months. She works at a charter school where teachers can be paid less than the minimum legal salary in public schools. 

Teachers in Maine overall are paid some of the lowest rates in the country with the average public school starting salary falling $5,000 behind the national average of $39,249 in 2017. A 2018 report from the Maine Education Policy Research Institute found a correlation between low teacher salaries and lower retention rates at schools across the state. 

An effort to raise the starting teacher salary from $30,000 to $40,000 did not pass during the last legislative session, but Governor Janet Mills’ budget phases in the increase to $40,000 by 2023. 

The low pay in addition to rising rental costs, unreimbursed expenses — like the millions Maine teachers spend on classroom supplies — and substantial student debt burdens is driving teachers like Johnson away from the profession at a time when there is already a teacher shortage in the state. 

‘How many part-time jobs do I need?’ 

To make additional money, Johnson spent her summer working at an art camp, where she made $1,000 a week, and occasionally taught art at The Telling Room in Portland for roughly $100 a day. She said she plans to teach art classes for young children outside of school hours during the school year as well. 

But the additional cash the summer months brought in will be quickly depleted between her $1100 monthly rent, hundreds of dollars in Central Maine Power bills, taking care of her son, and buying her students the tools they need for class. 

“I starve the rest of the year,” she said. “I don’t know how I do it, but I survive.” 

For the past year, Johnson has also forgone health insurance, which would have cost her an additional $80 a month, which she said she cannot afford. She also said she wants to own a house one day, to give her and her son the space they need, but believes that being a single mother and public school teacher in Maine puts this dream out of reach. 

“How many part-time jobs do I need?” she said. “I want to buy a house, but how am I supposed to do that? I’m trying to decide if I should even spend $80 on health insurance.” 

‘It’s discouraging a lot of people from going into it’ 

Marie Lane has taught French at Mountain Valley High School in Rumford for six years and still earns less than $40,000. With more than $231 in monthly student loan payments, Lane and her husband, Will, who teaches at the same school, said they can get by for now, but just barely. 

The couple, who live in Rumford, currently have no children, which Lane said makes it possible to afford to live on two teacher salaries. But she knows many of her colleagues, like Johnson, are working second jobs and she believes that the low pay coupled with the emotional demands of the job take a toll on educators. 

“I think the low salaries, people know that going in,” she explained. “As a teacher, I feel like you devote so much of yourself. You can’t just let it go at the end of the day, both because of the workload and also emotionally. These kids, you get attached to them — you’re sometimes supplying food and school supplies for them.” 

Even without children, Lane said that she and her husband are barely able to cover their bills. She explained that they held off on getting married for years due to the cost of the wedding, and purchasing what seem like household necessities — like a snowblower or new windows — takes time to save for. 

Lane said she worries about Maine schools failing to attract and keep talented educators. 

“For it to be such an involved job, for there to be so much time and effort and emotional labor [teachers] put into this job, to be making, you know, on the lower end of other four-year degree careers,” she said, “it’s discouraging a lot of people from going into it.” 

The preceding originally appeared on mainebeacon.com, a website and podcast created by progressive group the Maine People’s Alliance. 

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