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Teachers With Student Debt: These Are Their Stories

Lilli Carré for NPR

Teachers have one of the lowest-paid professional jobs in the U.S. You need a bachelor's degree, which can be costly — an equation that often means a lot of student loans. We've reported on the factors that make this particular job even more vulnerable to a ton of debt, including chronically low teacher pay, the increasing pressure to get a master's degree and the many ways to repay loans or apply for loan forgiveness.

More than 2,000 teachers responded to our first survey about the issue, and we're following up to hear a few of their stories:

Lauren Peńa is a 10th-grade English teacher in Oklahoma City with 10 years of experience. She's married and lives with her husband, stepson and 10-month-old daughter. She makes $43,000 a year.

After starting off with $30,000 in loans, she has $6,000 left to pay off. She took out a 15-year loan, but she's hoping to pay it off next year, 12 years after she took it out.

Some of her loans were forgiven because she worked in a Title I school and taught Spanish, a designated "high-need" subject.

"I tell my students: 'If you're going to be a teacher or a social worker, or have one of these important jobs that doesn't really compensate very well — don't take out loans, because it doesn't make financial sense,' " she says.

Peńa says she wishes someone had given her that advice — that maybe she'd have gone to a cheaper state school.

"It's just like this suffocating debt," says Ashley Castelli, a middle school language arts teacher who lives near St. Louis. She has been a teacher for five years and borrowed $42,000 to get her bachelor's degree. She has been paying her loans for six years, but owes the same amount she took out because she's paying down only the interest each month, not her principal.

She makes $41,000 a year.

"I feel, like, kind of duped," says Castelli. "I don't ever look at myself as a teacher making enough money to get ahead of the loans that I had to have for the degree that was required for my job."

She thought about enrolling in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, but she doesn't want to pay less per month and have that program go away. Her expected payoff date is in 2026, but she's hoping she can do it by 2023.

Andrew Kirk, 29, is a geography teacher in Dallas, approaching his fourth year of teaching. He holds both bachelor's and master's degrees in history. When Kirk, an AmeriCorps alum, started teaching, he had close to $150,000 in debt. By this time next year, he estimates he'll have $100,000.

Kirk is enrolled in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and its income-driven repayments, which allows him to pay down his private loans. By next year, he hopes to have just federal loans left.

"Before I even knew about my options for repayments, I had a very pessimistic view about how things would turn out for me," Kirk says. "I thought that I'd always be a renter." He also worried about how "potential romantic partners" would see him.

But the low monthly payments and the potential for forgiveness in 10 years have Kirk optimistic. Last year he got married and bought a home.

"Those are some things I wouldn't have had the confidence to do without the security of a program like Public Service Loan Forgiveness," he says.

Michelle Smithers, 28, is a special- and general-education teacher at a middle school in the Queens borough of New York City. She has been teaching for five years and has a master's degree — as required by the state of New York. She has about $80,000 in student loans — as does her husband. Smithers says they think paying off their loans is going to be "a forever thing."

Smithers pays off her debt through income-driven repayments. She feels that her generation is "dealing with this ordeal," and that past generations "kind of frown upon us for having this loan debt."

"They always say things like 'Well, I worked full time and went to school full time and paid off my tuition,' " explains Smithers. "But that wasn't really a possibility for anyone that I know."

Tiffany Sanford, 33, works as an autism specialist at a school district in Portland, Ore. She provides early intervention for children from birth to 5 years.

When she got her teaching licenses, Sanford had just shy of $30,000 in debt. Now she's closer to $25,000.

"I think it's just been so normalized," Sanford says. "Everyone I know has student loans."

Sanford got a federal Teacher Education Assistance grant, thinking it would be forgiven. But because she waited too long to get into the classroom — she first took a job in academia teaching other teachers — the $5,000 grant got added to her loans. She'll now have to pay that back with interest.

Stephanie Plachy, 26, is a sixth-grade ELA/technology teacher at a Title I school in Brooklyn in New York City. Plachy started off with $75,000 in debt, and has so far paid off $15,000. She said it will take her about 10 years to pay off the remaining $60,000. Because she teaches at a low-income school, Plachy will get some loan forgiveness — $5,000 — after five years.

She thought she'd also be able to qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, but her time getting her master's degree reset the clock.

"Because my loans were technically in deferment while I was in grad school, even though I was paying them off — the same payments I had been paying since I finished undergrad — those didn't count as qualifying payments," Plachy says. "So my 10 years of public service would have to start again."

Plachy lives in the city with her dog and boyfriend.

"Every time I look at how much money I owe, I freak out a little bit," Plachy says. "But from month to month, I try to make it work and not stress out about it too much."

Danielle Bergeron teaches eighth-grade history in Kansas City, and just finished up her eighth year of teaching.

She got her master's degree right after undergrad, with the promise of an extra salary bump in mind. She borrowed just under $50,000 and knows her remaining debt to the penny: $38,878.15.

Bergeron expects to pay off her loans in 2026 or 2027.

"I always thought that the government was more lenient with student loans, for education — like you were granted a lot of forgiveness," Bergeron says. "If I would have known it's just a tiny, tiny fraction, maybe I would have done something differently."

But is she ready to leave teaching for a more lucrative career?

"What's the point of going to school and having all this debt if I'm just going to leave education?" she says.

Like Bergeron, teacher after teacher told us they love their jobs and don't want to leave.

"The loans are stressful and the pay is not good, but it's totally worth it," says Lauren Peńa.

Kayla Lattimore contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.
Julie Depenbrock
Julie Depenbrock (she/her) is an assistant producer on Morning Edition. Previously, she worked at The Washington Post and on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show. Depenbrock holds a master's in journalism with a focus in investigative reporting from the University of Maryland. Before she became a journalist, she was a first grade teacher in Rosebud, South Dakota. Depenbrock double-majored in French and English at Lafayette College. She has a particular interest in covering education, LGBTQ issues and the environment. She loves dogs, hiking, yoga and reading books for work (and pleasure).