JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — There are only three things second-grade teacher Natalie Brooke Long wants to do when she has a taxing day at school: Go home, turn off the lights and sleep.
Sounds simple enough, an earned right even, after several hours spent instructing energetic 7-year-olds.
But for Long there’s no time to crash.
Because when the last bell rings, another timer starts.
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After dismissal, she has half an hour to grab a snack, freshen her makeup and head to her second job at a Brookhaven-based catering company.
Long isn’t alone in having an after-school or weekend hustle. A 2014 report by the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, found that 16 percent of teachers are what the government considers multiple jobholders. In Mississippi, almost 13 percent of teachers have jobs outside the school system, according to the study.
Kaitlyn Barton is one of them. Now in her third year of teaching at Clarksdale High School, she works two shifts a week at a restaurant called the Yazoo Pass.
Barton is savvy with her paycheck and follows a strict savings schedule. But a car wreck in October 2016 threatened to derail her efforts to shore up a rainy-day fund.
“I was not willing to sacrifice saving, so I decided to get a second job,” she said.
Finding one in the nation’s most impoverished region wasn’t easy. She didn’t land a shift at Yazoo Pass until March.
And she’s honest that the need for economic security could switch her career path. She enrolled in a Delta State University graduate program this fall and is thinking about working as an instructional coach or principal in the future.
“I decided to go back to school because I want to continue to work in education, as that is my passion, but I cannot afford to be a classroom teacher for the rest of my life,” Barton said.
In a state, which routinely ranks toward the bottom in analyses of state teacher salaries, Barton’s dilemma of whether or how long to stay in the classroom isn’t new.
State law requires that licensed teachers make a minimum of $34,390. That amount increases based on the number of years a teacher has taught and their certification level.
A teacher who has taught for 16 years, for example, would have to make a minimum of $41,320 (districts often supplement the amount or offer incentives for hard-to-staff subjects like math). While that floor is 4 percent higher than the state’s median wage, the salary still likely is outpaced by an educator’s peers, according to a 2016 report from the Economic Policy Institute that found nationally teachers take home weekly wages that are 17 percent lower than those of comparable workers.
Long says she was prepared for this. Both of her parents were educators. Her father, a principal, always had a side gig, she says.
“It’s (teaching) a calling,” Long says. But, she adds, she’s not interested in reliving the ramen noodles struggle of college.
“I’m trying to move past that point,” she laughs.
Barring a windfall that would allow the McComb School District to increase salary supplements to teachers amid state cuts to school funding or a legislatively mandated pay raise, working on the side remains Long’s only avenue for economic mobility.
Most of her second income, she says, goes toward getting ahead on bills. And Long likes the peace of mind of not having to live paycheck to paycheck. Her students benefit, too.
“My students are very spoiled,” she says.
Anyone who has spotted Long sitting down at the bar grading papers or making flashcards — which she often does when business is slow — might have guessed this.
For Long, the smiles she receives when she shows up to class with bags from Dollar General, full of supplies and little trinkets to reward positive behavior or academic gains, make the extra hours on her feet worth it.
“I jokingly say they eat my pencils and crayons. I don’t want any child to worry about not having a pencil, folders or a backpack. I try to be that extra support for them.”
Jamie Dickson, who teaches English in central Mississippi, has held a second job for 16 of the 17 years he’s been inside the classroom.
For Dickson, the decision to take on a second job was easy — he needed to buy an engagement ring for his then-girlfriend-now-wife.
“I was looking at how much (the rings) cost. (And I) looked at the amount of money I was bringing home every month. Even for a guy with an English degree, it was pretty simple math,” he said.
Dickson started working part-time shifts at a coffee shop that a student’s parents owned. Other gigs — private tutor, swim instructor, bookseller, adjunct college faculty and youth minister — followed.
For the last four years, he’s worked at Lemuria.
“One of my former students was the manager of the children’s section, and I put her down as a reference,” he says lightly.
Ask Dickson how he finds a balance, and he’ll tell you, “caffeine and Jesus.” You can see the teakettle in his classroom as evidence.
Like Long, a love for students keeps Dickson going.
Much of his supplemental income now goes to pay off debts his family incurred for his son’s medical bills. Mississippi has the highest percentage of adults reporting past-due medical bills, according to the 2015 National Financial Capability Study by the Urban Institute, a phenomenon that leaves many families vulnerable to financial consequences as harsh as bankruptcy.
Still Dickson has been known to use his store discount to purchase classroom-reading assignments for students who can’t afford them.
“When I’ve thought about leaving the classroom for something that pays better, I’m reminded that the work I do is important. I’m so lucky in that I have had students and parents who drop the occasional compliment or send a sweet note. These things don’t pay the mortgage, but they keep me going,” he said.