On Labor Day, we're sharing this essay by a worker who labors in one of the toughest areas of all: teaching. But while the profession may not have big financial rewards, there are other compensations.
“A good teacher is like a candle — it consumes himself to light the way for others.” I remember reading that quote on a syllabus back around 2008, in one of my teacher-education classes at the University of Colorado Denver. I remember considering the slight hint of morbidity in the quote, and deep down in my gut I knew it was a foretelling of what was to follow.
Since my foray into the world of teaching, I had always felt drawn to work with the high-needs community: in other words, the poor. “Jesus work,” as my mother likes to put it. My strong desire would lead me to various rewarding and challenging assignments. I completed over 1,000 hours of rigorous student-teaching hours and then migrated south and found myself teaching English at a school in the Korean-Argentine community of Buenos Aires. I came back to Colorado and continued my work teaching ESL to adults and dabbled in some traditional classroom teaching. Eventually I would find a piece of my heart at Warren Village.
What is this Village? It's a Denver-based nonprofit located in Capitol Hill's Cheesman Park neighborhood that is a caring community dedicated to empowering low-income, single-parent families to gain the skills, confidence and resources to support themselves and thrive. It's made up of transitional housing, a learning center and family services. I work in the Greta Horowitz Learning Center as a teacher, and although my degree is strictly in education, my job over the years has taken on a heavy social-work aspect as I've learned the ins and outs of teaching early childhood education to students with very high needs.
As the cost of living in Denver continues to rise, so does the homeless population and common misconceptions about it. Often, we find it difficult to comprehend and understand homelessness outside of what we see on the surface, failing to understand the other factors that lie deep below. We see panhandling, and shopping carts in the park; we see people sleeping on park benches in the middle of the day, discarded needles in the alley. We feel rubbed the wrong way when a stranger begs for spare change to catch the RTD.
What most people don't know is that families with children make up almost half of the homeless residents in metro Denver. At Warren Village, we have children who have been sleeping in cars, shelters, and living in dysfunctional and unstable housing environments.
One of the most profound things I have learned while working at Warren Village is that there are many reasons that people become homeless. We have parents who have left abusive situations and suffered debilitating health problems, people who are victims of a simple but devastating bout of bad luck. I've noticed a slew of adults who aged out of the foster-care system with little skills and support; there are parents who are recovering from drug addiction and have dark pasts that continue to cast a shadow on their present. For the most part, though, a majority of our residents are simply wanting something better for their children and have come to us for help.
Want to know a dirty little truth? I toiled in college for six years and graduated on the dean's list, I have a child of my own, I teach full-time...and with my home town’s recent cost-of-living increase, I'm not too far off from homelessness myself. At the moment, we can't afford a two-bedroom apartment, and yet I often feel guilty complaining because I go to work every day and see people living with far less. I had a co-worker who once called teaching in Denver a "Joan of Arc job" because you martyr yourself for the good of the cause. While this sacrifice might seem noble, it's not sustainable; at some point you get tired of being the candle.
The Colorado Department of Education has been hosting town hall meetings to discuss a statewide teaching shortage that is only worsening as rent costs skyrocket. Both rural and urban areas have been hard hit, and some question the necessity of even holding a meeting when the answer to the teaching shortage is starkly obvious: Teaching doesn't pay enough. Why work a job that is incredibly difficult for little in return? It's human nature to want rewards for hard work, to have your basic needs met. According to Business Insider, last year it took a salary of $62,842 to live comfortably in Denver; the cost has climbed since then. With the average salary for a public-school teacher around $50,000, you can understand the deficit...and early childhood teacher salaries can hover as low as $25,000. Warren Village, a nonprofit, tries its hardest to compete with local learning-center teaching wages, but the sad truth is that for the amount of work the teachers perform, salaries do not reflect the input.
So what keeps teachers anchored at the Village? What keeps the teachers, and family-case workers, and all the other people who have wandered in and found a home? It's our commitment to children, to families and the community. It's our ability to look at people who have experienced various traumas and say, "Come here and let's work together." We know that the work we do is important and that at the end of day, you'll always have people willing to commit to helping humanity in the smallest but most imperative ways.
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As we endure days bombarded with politics, as we see people with prominent jobs and the ability to change the world for the better question whether or not spending money on the homeless is "worth it," you have to wonder for a moment: Exactly what core values does this country holds true to its heart? Regardless of politics, controversial Tweets and budget cuts, regardless of how hopeless a situation might seem, you can always take comfort in the knowledge that there really are people out there willing to get up and do "Jesus work" every day. People willing to take a salary cut in order to make sure that the poor are cared for with compassion and kindness and, most important of all, that our children who are our future have a chance to succeed in life.
If you want to learn more about Warren Village, homelessness in Denver and how you can help, visit warrenvillage.org.
Westword occasionally publishes op-ed pieces about local issues. Have an opinion you'd like to share? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.