Mary W. is a former nurse and second-career teacher from Georgia who reached out to us to learn more about the current research on pensions and Social Security. Social Security coverage varies within the state of Georgia, and some school districts provide coverage while others do not. I interviewed Mary to hear her story and perspective on retirement planning as a teacher.
What follows below is a lightly edited transcript of my recent conversation with Georgia teacher Mary W.
Leslie Kan: Can you tell us a bit about yourself, what you teach, and how many years you’ve taught? Why did you decide to become a teacher – what led you to this profession?
Mary W: I’ve been in healthcare for about 23 years. I’ve done a lot of different things: I’ve owned a business, and I was a registered nurse for 23 years. I still hold my nursing licensure.
I thought about teaching at one point. I had thought about working in a school with children, but I just didn’t know when that was going to happen. Then I got a nursing position at an elementary school in 2010; I worked at that position and I was very successful at it. I started befriending some teachers in the school, and I started learning how the school operated. I started bonding with some kids in my school, and I realized there was something about teaching that I liked. I liked the interchange between me and the students.
So I found out about a master’s of teaching and certification program at a nearby university. Last year was my first year teaching in special education. I teach in an inclusion setting. Teaching blended some things that I had been doing anyways. It was not easy to do, but I’m glad that I did.
Leslie: Did your previous experience as a nurse influence whether you would stay in the public sector?
Mary: I’m staying in the public sector—I know this sounds bad—because I want to make sure that I get a retirement check. I like working with people; I like working with other human beings so remaining in the public sector is a good fit for me.
I was actually able to come from the ERS [Employee Retirement System] system from the state of Georgia (I had about 3 years with the state of Georgia as a regulator in healthcare when I was working for the Department of Community Health) and I was able transfer that time into Georgia TRS [Teachers Retirement System]. I think this will be my 8th year in TRS. And then of course, in 10 years, I’ll be vested. A lot of my decisions have been based on the realization that I need some type of pension for my retirement. I’m starting late, because in healthcare, as a nurse, I was able to work different hours and do different things, such that I couldn’t always work full-time because I had children that I was raising. So I had to be very flexible. Now I’m playing catch up.
Leslie: Many school districts in Georgia don’t provide its teachers with Social Security. Before you decided to join the profession, were you aware that teachers did not receive coverage?
Mary: I had no idea that this was occurring. I was really shocked this summer when I found out that there were groups—large groups—of working professionals who do not pay into the Social Security system. I had always known that people who were self-employed, because we had a business, had to pay that 12 percent into the system. I had never known about teachers, and I think it’s really weird that there are teachers who have no clue that this is going on. There are some teachers that know but they don’t talk about this openly. I had one teacher who was my mentor this past year. When I told her that I turned down a job because they didn’t take Social Security, she said, “Oh, [the neighboring] county doesn’t pay Social Security either.” And I said, “That’s not a big deal to you?” But then I realized that she was in our system, which did pay into Social Security, so it must have been a big deal to her or she would have stayed in the neighboring county's system. She was very close to retirement.
Leslie: And how did you first find out that teachers are not covered by Social Security?
Mary: I went on a job interview for a neighboring county and in the midst of the interview I asked about benefits. I’m pretty thorough, I’m older, I might be a second-year teacher, but I’m pretty savvy and I know what kind of questions to ask about jobs. The principal happened to mention in passing, “Oh, and you know that we don’t pay Social Security.” I stopped. I said, “You don’t pay Social Security? You mean your system does not pay into Social Security for the employee.” She just nonchalantly said, “No, we don’t. But we have a 403b or 457 and that makes up the difference because we give a matching for your contributions to those retirement plans.” In so many words, I told her that was in addition. My [current] school system offers those, too [in addition to Social Security]. It’s not like those plans are something that can make up for not having Social Security.
That was that. The principal offered me the position, but I told the principal that I would have to refuse the offer because of her board's decision not to pay social security. I would have loved to work at that school.
I think there a lot of teachers who really don’t realize that this going on. They’ll take a job, and they don’t realize they might be making a little extra money in the short-term, but in the long-term, they’re not paying into the Social Security system and losing out on a heck of a lot of money.
I already had a job at a school system that pays into Social Security. This was just a job that was offered to me in a neighboring county. Then I found out there was another neighboring county that did not participate in the Social Security system. One of the things I’m interested in knowing is which counties in Georgia pay in and which don’t pay in.
We’re thinking of moving to the mountain area in our state, or perhaps another state. But that’s a whole other conversation on portability. I think it’s crazy. I need to know what county I can go to in north Georgia that pays into the Social Security system. I think it may be one thing if I was younger. In Georgia, TRS pays the same in my current county as it does in any of the others; it’s the same pension plan in all the counties. So TRS is not going to make up for not having Social Security. Also, a matching contribution to a board controlled retirement plan does not make up for a national security net like the Social Security system.
Leslie: Could you describe how you first learned about your current retirement plan? Which aspects were easier or more challenging to understand?
Mary: I first learned about TRS when I transferred from a general state retirement plan into a teacher retirement plan. I researched the plan a little bit before I transferred my money.
I don’t really find any of it easy. I guess the easy part is how it is automatically taken out, how it automatically takes out a percentage. It just goes on auto-pilot, and you don’t start worrying about it until you get closer to retirement. One of the things that I have witnessed from friends who have retired is the difficulties. They offer you some counseling and try to help you as much as they can as you get ready to retire, but I don’t think they give you as much information as you should have. In other words, what would be the benefit of staying 25 years instead of 20 years? Where’s the offset, the breakeven mark, where it doesn’t really pay to stay in the system, when could I come out of the system and make more money elsewhere, rather than continuing to stay in the defined benefit plan?
I guess it’s because I’m not really close to retirement. But I wonder about those things. Because I do think there is a point where it makes sense to retire. Because at some point you’re paying into a system that’s not going to give you back a return that would make a large difference in your monthly retirement check.
There’s just not a lot of help for people who are thinking about questions like this.
Leslie: In your ideal world, what would a good retirement plan look like?
Mary: It would be more equitable for everyone. Meaning, it would give you the same amount of money that you would need for all your living expenses, for everyone across the board. I just don’t think retirement in this country is equitable. It’s hierarchal, and it’s tiered. There are people who work so hard all their life, as opposed to someone who sat in an office. It’s the social structures we have that are so delineated, and not everyone gets what they need. It needs to be the same in retirement plans. I think everyone should have a pension plan that takes care of all of their needs.
Leslie: And what advice would you give to new teachers just starting out in the profession about retirement?
Mary: They probably need to make sure that they know a little bit about how their plan works. New teachers get very preoccupied with lesson planning and classroom management, and get very weighed down with all the responsibilities that come with being a teacher. On one of their breaks or doing the holiday, they should stop and look at their retirement plan and just learn about it. Figure out how it works. Figure out if teaching is even something that they’ll be staying in long enough to even recoup from that retirement plan. Learn what it is, and how they’re affected by the people who make the decisions for that retirement plan. We need more teachers who keep up with retirement issues and who can speak equitably and proactively for our profession.
If you’re a teacher who enjoys reading our work and would like to tell us your story, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. We can't promise to interview everyone, but we are interested in hearing how state and local retirement systems impact the lives of individual teachers, whether you are early in your career, in the middle of it, nearing the end of a long career, or looking to transition into teaching from another field.