Banks Summers never goes out to eat. Or to the movies. Or to any social event that costs money.
Instead, the first-year teacher at M.C. Riley Elementary School in Bluffton takes a lot of walks around her Savannah neighborhood.
Struggling to live on her pay, she lives 45 minutes away in the Georgia city with a roommate because it’s cheaper than Bluffton or Hilton Head Island.
And she works a second job at the Tanger outlet mall in Pooler, Ga. — one that keeps her from getting home until almost 11 at night after leaving for school at 6:15 in the morning.
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Even with both jobs, Summers is barely making it.
“When I love teaching so much, I am willing to make sacrifices,” said Summers, who moved to the area after teaching in North Carolina for two years. “But the question that keeps coming up is for how long.”
Her monthly budget would make a good math problem for her students: After paying for rent and utilities, car and health insurance, and her student loans, how much money does Ms. Summers have left every month?
The answer: About $200.
That mostly covers groceries and gas, but not much else.
She only puts $10 into her savings every month. And even that is pushing it, she said. But she wants to at least put something in there.
“I’m always thinking about where my next paycheck is going,” Summers said. “I obviously did not get into teaching to make lots of money. None of us do. But I was not prepared for the complete lack of funds to get by.”
Summers’ mother tried to warn her.
A principal in North Carolina, she repeatedly told her daughter what it meant to be a teacher, and the toll it takes.
But Summers said she couldn’t quite wrap her head around what her mother was telling her at the time. Even if she could have, it likely would not have stopped her.
She can’t imagine not being with her students almost every day of the week. She calls her fourth-graders her darlings and her loves.
The morning after one of her late nights at the outlet mall, Summers moved around her brightly decorated classroom — though it’s not as colorful as usual, since she had to take down some of her posters for end-of-the-year testing.
Just as her room is a little tired, so is Summers.
She keeps a smile on and is attentive to her students, but she speaks slowly, her words just dusted with drowsiness — a departure from her ordinarily vivacious self.
That’s what frustrates Summers most. Not that she has to work a second job or just scrapes by, but that she can’t always keep those things from following her into the classroom.
“I find that my engagement with my students is less, and I’m slower to get involved with them, which is not how I want my classroom to be,” Summers said. “I don’t want to be the teacher who just has the energy to give them a worksheet and no more.
“It is so sad because I love teaching my students, and I am learning from them just as much,” she added, pausing to look up at the tiled ceiling to keep her glassy eyes from tearing up. “So it makes me sad to think that I might not be able to do it for forever.”
In her three years of teaching, there have been a couple times she has wondered what other career options are out there — what else could she be good at, could she be passionate about?
As quickly as those thoughts pop into her head, however, she tries to cast them out. It’s too early to give up, she thinks.
She has also thought about trying to get her Master’s degree to open more education doors and get a pay boost. But with what time and money?
“I am constantly choosing between my profession and my living, and I wish it didn’t have to be either or,” Summers said. “There is a constant battle of where are my priorities, where should they be, how can I make this work?”
Summers was more than excited when she heard that the district might be giving teachers a supplement to help with that last part.
For Summers, the $5,000 locality supplement the district wants to phase in — or even just the $1,000 for all staff members it currently has in next year’s budget — could make Beaufort County a place for a career, not just a job.
“I am so impressed that the district is seeking to understand our struggle and is being an advocate for us,” she said. “The first thing I thought to myself when I heard about this was, ‘If they do this, I can stay for longer.’ ”
Summers’ students would be just as excited for her to stay.
As they filed into her classroom on a recent morning, many came to say good morning and give her a hug. While working on an independent project, many of them raised their hands — not because they had a question, but because they just wanted to talk with her about what they were working on.
One student even presented Summers with a little gift — a parting token as the school year winds down.
Summers opened the glossy blue gift bag and removed the crumpled tissue paper to find a little wooden block with a paper clip-like metal attachment meant to hold a picture.
After giving the student a hug and telling the young girl they will have to take a picture together for the frame, Summers took a moment to read the message painted in pink and black on the block.
“Keep Calm and Teach On,” it read.
“That’s very fitting,” Summers said. “That’s all I need. (That message) reminds me that I’m in the right place and the right job and to teach on.”