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Virginia Journal of Education

Money Questions?

Hard-working, well-trained Virginia educators struggle to pay bills, buy homes, and plan for the future. It’s no way for a professional to live. 


By Tom Allen


Nobody ever chose a teaching career for wealth, glitz, and glamour. But they didn’t sign up for a trip to the poorhouse, either.

Virginia must raise pay -- or risk losing dedicated teachers like these.


A Jarring Tune

Christian Peabody teaches music at an elementary school in Stafford County, and he really likes both his job and where he gets to do it. He also thinks Stafford County would be a nice place to live. However, even though Stafford has been ranked among the 10 richest counties in America, his salary makes being a county resident all but impossible, and he’s currently living with a family member in a neighboring county.

“Not being able to live here, I have to seriously weigh if I can continue to work at a school I absolutely love, but in a division with a history of not taking serious action to preserve and enhance educators' compensation,” Peabody says. “The bottom line is that after four years in Stafford I don’t earn a dependable, livable wage. Looking back through the division's history, I may not ever, realistically." 

He’s run the numbers over and over, and the results are always the same: He starts with his take-home pay and subtracts rent, utilities, student loan debt, a car payment, and a list of other “incidentals,” including his phone, car insurance, credit card, life insurance, and retirement and other savings. When the dust settles, he’s got $295 left on the second of each month, which has to cover daily necessities like groceries, gas, classroom supplies, and medical expenses.

And he’s still better off than many of his colleagues. “I have a master’s degree,” he says, so my salary is $358 a month more than those with a bachelor’s. So, had I not had my master’s, I’d be at minus $68 on the second day of every month.

"That's the hard reality of living and teaching here,” says Peabody, who also serves as vice president of the Stafford Education Association. “With numbers like that, I would challenge Stafford County Public Schools to find anyone, in this demanding job market, who can honestly say that remaining here isn't irresponsible, especially with openings in more competitive divisions because of the teacher shortage.”

While other divisions may tempt Peabody and his colleagues, many don’t want to leave. "My commute takes me through neighboring school divisions, even one where I could easily make $6,000 more a year,” Peabody says, “but we want to be here to fight for and protect our students and colleagues in the schools we are at right now! I drive 40 minutes each way (when there’s no traffic) so I can be there for them.” 

He struggles with seeing great educators lured elsewhere: “There’s no substitute for relentlessly devoted educators who are passionately invested in their students' success. However, when people like that leave, our leadership justifies it by saying research shows that millennials move around, or that veteran educators chose to relocate closer to family. It's never an honest discussion about how inadequate and out-of-touch their compensation plan really is. Watching the division's leadership fail to adequately address compensation, especially not protecting veteran educators' salaries, the risk assessment we have to make as younger educators is disheartening. Veteran educators feel like they’re deliberately being pushed out by the division, and younger educators are seeing it as writing on the wall. It’s incredibly troubling when I think of Stafford educators who are single parents or have other financial issues. How are they making ends meet and what are they having to do just to get by?”

And he feels the pain good teachers feel everywhere in the face of such issues: “The part that really hurts, though, is that students are paying the ultimate price for negligence they aren't committing.”


Tough Choices

Loudoun County second grade teacher Alexa Severo understands Peabody’s struggles: With her salary, life these days feels like it’s being lived squarely between a rock and a hard place.

She lost her father last year and says she “was reminded of the need to slow down, enjoy life, and spend time with the people I love.” So she cut way back on the jobs she was doing in addition to teaching to support herself, which over the years have included positions at a karate studio, winery, distillery, and as a wedding planner, along with tutoring, teaching summer school, and serving as a coach for a marching band. 

“My friends and family always gave me a hard time for working non-stop,” she says, “so I've slowed down and while I’m still working some extra, it’s not as much as it once was.”

That sounds good, but Severo now realizes that “during that time of non-stop working, I lost or limited a lot of meaningful relationships, and rebuilding those has been hard. I also learned, even worse, that I love having time to relax and enjoy life a little more, but not working as much in extra jobs means not having money to spend on doing those fun things with my family and friends.”

She’s left with this dilemma: “Do I work non-stop and risk burning out and not enjoying life as much, or do I cut back on extra work but have no money to do things or help work towards buying a house?”

Housing is another conundrum. She investigated getting a mortgage, but her amount of student debt prevented her from qualifying. Then she checked out special programs for first-time homebuyers, but didn’t qualify for those either: Because she has her master’s degree, she makes slightly more than the programs’ maximum income limit.

“There’s no winning,” says Severo, who’s now in her fifth year of teaching. “All this prevented me from finding a good place to live in the county.”

She’s currently sharing a two-bedroom apartment with her brother. She’s rented the apartment for four years, with various roommates. “I’d love to invest in owning a place,” she says, “but it’s just not feasible financially.”

“I went into teaching because of my love of children and learning,” says Severo. “I knew I wouldn’t get rich. But I thought I’d make enough to live comfortably. Instead, I’m stuck without the ability to buy a house and I’m continuously in debt. I love what I do, but the money and housing struggle is hard.”


Back to School but Not Moving Ahead

Economic struggles for educators aren’t limited to Northern Virginia. Far from it. James Puckett felt the pull to teach years ago, as a coal miner in Southwest Virginia, so he invested in himself and returned to school to get the credentials he needed. He earned degrees from both a local community college and from Emory & Henry University and today teaches earth science, environmental science, and biology to high school students in Russell County.

The payoff? Twenty years into his teaching career, he’s just now earning about what he made when he left the mines in the 1980s.

“There’s tremendous pressure financially,” he says. “The wages are nowhere near what it takes to live.” He’s supplemented his teaching income for 17 years by coaching football and softball, but still doesn’t see himself retiring until he’s around 70.

He’s also having difficulty furthering his own education. “School divisions like you to get a master’s degree and higher endorsements,” he says, “but it’s left up to teachers to pay for it. Many of us can’t afford to go back to school.”


Allen is editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.




You, Too?

There’s a better-than-average chance if you’re an educator reading this, you can completely relate. We need to band together. One way to do that is to share your story—and so we invite you to do that on VEA’s Facebook page at Collectively, we can get Virginia’s attention.






Highest and Lowest Teacher Salaries in Virginia, Bachelor’s Degree






















Highest and Lowest Teacher Salaries in Virginia, Master’s Degree





















VRS Hybrid Plan Members: You Must Take the Initiative

If you were hired after January 1, 2014, you’re in a VRS Hybrid Retirement plan—and that means more responsibility for your financial future is on you. Take an active role: The more money you set aside now, and the earlier you start, the better off you’ll be later. The difference can be enormous, as you can see in the graph below.




















Source: Virginia Retirement System (

How the hybrid plan works

The Hybrid Retirement Plan started in 2014 and is a combination of a defined benefit (traditional pension) plan and a defined contribution plan (based on contributions and net investment earnings). You and your school division both contribute, and those amounts can vary. 

You automatically contribute 5 percent of your compensation each month now. In the hybrid plan, 4 percent goes into your member contribution account and 1 percent goes into the Hybrid 401(a) Cash Match Plan. You choose how the money in your defined contribution account is invested, from a range of options, and your decisions then determine your future benefits. That’s why making voluntary contributions is essential.

Do it now. You’ll be thankful later.


These resources will help

SmartStep. Use this to increase voluntary contributions on a schedule you choose. To start SmartStep, log into DCP Account Access at to get information on your defined contribution hybrid plan account, including investment options. You can find SmartStep on the Contributions page. 

Hybrid member paycheck calculator. This will show you how contributions and deductions affect your paycheck. Go to and select Calculators.

myVRS. Here, you can check the balances in your defined benefit and defined contribution accounts. The Benefits Estimator lets you estimate what you’ll get based on different retirement dates or payout options. The new myVRS Financial Wellness program also offers information to better equip you for making day-to-day financial decisions. 

Hybrid retirement plan website. For plan information, the Hybrid Retirement Plan Member Handbook and other publications, educational resources, contact information and more, visit

Specialists. Local retirement specialists are available to answer your hybrid questions, including understanding investment options, managing contributions and developing a strategy for retirement savings. Visit and go to Education.






Your Association Can Help: Use Membership to SAVE  Money

Need Proof? Just a few of the ways that VEA and NEA Member Benefits put dollars back in your monthly budget.

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How much VEA members saved using the VEA’s Access to Savings desktop platform and mobile app. Travel savings lead the pack, but you can save on everything from pizza to an oil change for your car.


Average amount members save on NEA auto insurance


Your BONUS when you get the NEA’s new Cash Back VISA card and make at least $500 in purchases in the first 90 days

$12 million

Total amount NEA members have saved through our Click & Save program. Save $$$ on everything from workout gear at Athleta to pet supplies at Petco.





Take action to boost K-12 funding and support better pay.


Stay in touch with VEA and your fellow members.

Check out VEA and NEA Member Benefits savings programs.

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