'As a plumber, I make double': Former special-needs teacher speaks out about lack of support

Karin Selchert left the teaching profession to become a plumber and now makes double her previous salary. (Photo Illustration: Quinn Lemmers/Yahoo Lifestyle)

One year into her job teaching students with autism, Karin Selchert started to think about leaving. Her Arizona school district, she says, didn’t provide her with even the most basic resources she needed to teach effectively.

“I had students who needed a mat to lay down on and I didn't have any, so my students spent more of their day in their wheelchairs than they did getting what they needed,” she says. “We didn't have a handicapped-accessible bathroom… so I was having to deadlift students that were junior high age through a corridor that couldn't fit their wheelchairs. That was my first week.”

Selchert says she was in a “constant state of fight or flight,” spending days trying to give her students the best care she could, and nights on the phone with the district trying to get more resources. Eventually, she realized that if anything was going to change, the higher-ups would need the will to change it — and they didn’t have it.

So after four years, Selchert walked away to join her dad’s plumbing company — initially as an office manager, and now as a plumber out in the field. “I make double what I made as a teacher,” she says. Selchert is one of more than 50 teachers who decided to share their stories of leaving the profession.

Her answers to our exclusive Yahoo Lifestyle survey, some of which have been edited for clarity, are below.

Location: Queen Creek, Ariz.

Final year teaching: 2015

Subject: Middle school (7th/8th) special education, autism

Hours per week: 60 to 70

Salary: $30,000-$39,000

Was it enough to make ends meet? No

How much she spent on school supplies per year: Over $1,000

Did you ever feel like your mental or physical health was in jeopardy as a teacher?

Yes! I felt like I had to work these obscene hours because if I didn’t, who else was going to help my students? I was working myself to death and was constantly exhausted. Mentally, I was feeling like I had nothing left to give to my kids or family because I had given every ounce of myself to my students… It was a lot of sleepless nights, stress eating and stress drinking. I was drinking all the time, trying to just pass the time and spending hours on hold with people, trying to figure out who to get in touch with. It got to the point where I was like, “I'm exhausted.”

What job did you take after leaving teaching?

I’m a plumber and I make double what I made as a teacher. I have better benefits than what I had as a teacher… My colleague makes more than I did — as an apprentice. [It’s] a fraction of the hours. No nights, no weekends, no holidays. You get paid holidays here. Who knew?

What are your biggest concerns about what you left behind?

As a parent of a child who also is on the spectrum, how would I feel? I would hang [the district] up to dry. I would. I would sue, and I told parents, ‘you should probably look into this and sue somebody…’ At what point do you say, ‘your kid's not getting an appropriate education and we're not giving them what they're supposed to be getting’ and then signing off on it?

What do you think about the state of education today?

I think it's sad because people say we have a teacher shortage. We don't. We have plenty of teachers. We have crummy school systems and crummy working conditions. I love teaching. I loved my job. I hated everything else… It breaks my heart, because I would want my kids to have me as a teacher. I was a great teacher. I got rave reviews. I got Teacher of the Year my second year of teaching. I'm not a bad teacher. [But] everyone has their bottom line.

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