November 15th, 2011
08:00 AM ET

One Teacher's Story: Danny Kofke

Courtesy Danny and Tracy KofkeEditor's Note: Danny Kofke is a special education teacher and author of two books – "How To Survive (and perhaps thrive) On A Teacher's Salary" and "A Simple Book Of Financial Wisdom: Teach Yourself (and your kids) How To Live Wealthy With Little Money." If you are a parent, teacher or student who has a story to tell, email us at SchoolsofThought@cnn.com

My name is Danny Kofke and I am a special education teacher. This is my 12th year of teaching. I have taught pre-k, kindergarten, first grade and second grade. My wife, Tracy, was a first grade teacher for 10 years before becoming a stay-at-home to our two daughters, Ava, age 7, and Ella, 4. This September, after being home for 7 years, Tracy went back to work teaching Ella's 4 year-old pre-k class.

I knew I wanted to be a teacher after having Mr. Stutzke in 9th grade Civics class. He was an amazing educator and inspired me in so many ways. Upon entering college and declaring my major (elementary education) I heard from many about how I would not make any money and would probably be broke my entire life. I realized at that point that I still wanted to be a teacher even though the pay was not as high as some other professions. The basic fact is that if you spend more than you earn, you'll eventually be in trouble. It doesn't matter if you make $10,000, $100,000 or even $1,000,000 a year, the same principle applies.

Clearly, having money can take away many worries, but it doesn't automatically guarantee happiness.

Think about some of your peers. Do any of them make a lot of money but have nothing to show for it? There might be some who press the snooze button numerous times on Monday morning because they dread going to work. Even if you make $500,000 a year, if you are unhappy Monday through Friday, I don't feel you are "wealthy." Many of these same people spend money and buy things to make themselves "happy." Once the weekend rolls around, they can come up with some great reasons to buy things. "I work so hard and put up with so much I deserve_________." Fill in this blank with clothes, jewelry, eating out, and so on. So many people do this in search of happiness.

Let's face it, buying things can bring about a sense of joy, but only for a moment. If I go out and buy a shirt it feels great. The first few times I wear it, it feels good. Then, after five or six times of wearing this shirt, something happens: it becomes old. How many of us have looked in our closet and said, "I have nothing to wear" even though we have 50 outfits staring back at us? At one point in time we liked these clothes (or at least we liked them enough to buy them) but, after a while, that feeling goes away. If we base our feelings of happiness on materialistic things, we will be in a constant cycle of having to buy things to make ourselves feel happy.

That is what is so great about being a teacher. Most get into teaching because it is a calling. If you got into it for a large salary your college professor lied to you. For the past five years I've taught what is known in my state as a severe/profound special needs class. Many of the students have IQs below 30, some are in wheelchairs, some are fed using a feeding tube and most use nonverbal cues to communicate. A lot of people have told me that I must have a big heart and great patience to teach these students, but the truth is that I feel like I'm the lucky one. These students actually teach me more than I could ever give them.

They get joy out of what many of us take for granted. I had one student who was happy as he could be when he was eating marshmallows out of Lucky Charms cereal. I currently teach a little girl who smiles the biggest and prettiest smile I've ever seen when she sees Blue from Blue's Clues. In these days of consumption and wanting more, I get reminded on a daily basis of the little things that most of us can find happiness in but overlook in the pursuit of wanting more.

As a teacher I may never drive a Rolls Royce, live in a 5,000 square foot house or take exotic vacations. Yet, despite living off my teacher's salary (around $40,000 a year) alone for many years, my wife and I have no debt except our mortgage, invest each month for our retirement, have an emergency fund in place and basically live a "wealthy" life on a moderate income.

Most importantly, I get to wake up on a daily basis and get to go to a job that I am passionate about. That, to me, is priceless!

Posted by
Filed under: Practice • Teachers • Voices
soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. mario olivo

    Great writting and very inspirational kudos goes to you and to your great patience danny,there should more people like you

    November 16, 2011 at 12:47 am |
  2. Clare

    Great article. I graduated from college an MBA. I worked for a large computer firm and made lots of money. I was climbing the corporate ladder pretty quickly. It seemed there was no limit to what I could achieve. Yet...at night I would think "who really cares?" So what if I sold a $2.5M deal? Really? Is the world a better place? Am I a better person? At my funeral will someone say, "remember that $2.5M deal"? Don't think so. I got laid-off from that job the very first month that I didn't make quota (so much for feelin' the love...). I was severly depressed and thought my world had come to an end. Very long story short...I got into teaching. 15 years later, I have never looked back. I don't make any money but I know my job MATTERS. That makes me sleep well at night. The End.

    November 15, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
  3. Orville

    Having recently completed a career of 38 years in elementary education, upon reflection, I would do it over again in a minute! It is a calling and a wonderful one at that. 18 of my years were served as an administrator and what I learned in this role (among many things) is that there are three basic problems with education: First, we don't hold weak teachers more accountable; second, too often we teach to the state mandated test and lose sight of offering a well rounded education; and third, elementary curriculum often times is layered and disjointed. The subjects/themes of instruction are not connected and/or are irrelevant. Education needs to focus on our changing world, emphasize the "big picture." and make things relevant for children. Do we teach enduring understandings? Not often, but we should. Change in education is hard to implement because everyone has an opinion based on their own self described expertise (because they are a product of the system.)...in short, we will not be able to compete with many other nations educationally until we offer a balance between teaching our children the "wonders and beauty" of being in America as well as emphasizing that we are truly global citizens and have a responsibility to people everywhere as well as our planet.....check out ...the international baccalaureate program does just that!

    November 15, 2011 at 7:54 pm |
    • IB on that

      You are so right! The IB is a strategic school improvement for many public schools, so long as the administration "gets it" and the students are well-supported at home. The child doesn't have to be an A-plus student, just willing to work hard. My own kid went to an IB school; we paid through the nose for it, and the administration was weak (albeit committed to the IB), but the teachers were strong. What a pleasure to aim for the IB exams and not some state-run standardized testing. The Theory of Knowledge course, the emphasis on community service, exposure to an international faculty — all were pluses. There was American history, but it contained ongoing references to other things happening in the world, both as cause and consequence to American policies.

      November 15, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
    • Georgia

      So agree with you. Since you started nearly 40 years ago, you qualify as "old school" and I mean that as a compliment. Teacher quality and curriculum standards have gone way down since you started your career.

      November 16, 2011 at 2:15 am |
  4. 20 years and counting

    I love my job, even the 60 hours a week. 70 during IEP season. You are either born a special ed teacher or not. I teach 8th grade..ED, LD, Autism, etc. You name it, we make it work, and I love it! These kids give back two- fold. My husband teaches as well. We put ourselves through school and started out in debt. Then had 2 preemies whose medical bills put us in debt even more. I am glad for him that his situation is good, but it is not the norm. In NY you have a subject area and additional certification. You also are required your Masters within 2 years of your undergrad. No tuition help. Most have to work and go to school at the same time at night. It makes it tough. We do have some set aside for retirment. But not enough, and certainly not enough for our own kids' educations when we are still paying off ours. Still wouldn't change my job or my life with my family. It is worth the sacrifices monetarily to know my family and students love me.

    November 15, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
  5. ticktockKY

    Two uncles , one aunt, and my sister are teachers. One uncle and my sister work with special needs students. My sister has been assualted several times (once she was stabbed). None of this has stopped her; she will have to retire soon due to her health and she really doesn't want too. She loves working with these kids. My uncles and my aunt have taught in "economically depressed" communities (Appalachia) since the 1960's. While I can understand their motivations, I couldn't do it. I did teach community college. But my point is, without people like the author and my family members, the education system would be worse off than it is now. You certainly can't get rich doing it. Bless our teachers.

    November 15, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  6. Kurt Wootton

    Mr. Kofke's post beautifully captures the richness that is inherent in the field of education. Having been a public school teacher myself, and the son of two parent's who were as well, I felt I and my family always lived with a wealth of opportunities. I loved when I was a little boy and my dad would take me with him to school to do some lesson planning or to a meeting. I'd walk around the classroom, look at the bulletin board of student work, and imagine what would happen in his high school classroom during the day. Later when I became a teacher I reaped the same rewards all teachers who are dedicated to their students receive every day, described touchingly in this post. Yes, teachers get paid less than those in other fields. But for me and my colleagues pay was never the issue. If we were in a school that was supported by the community, and as teachers we were supported by our principal and the administration, then we were happy to do our work. However, when our creativity is taken away, when we have to teach to the test, or when we have to follow a narrow mandated curriculum, this is what takes the joy and excitement out of teaching.

    November 15, 2011 at 11:56 am |
  7. American Citizen

    I'm a law student with many years of experiencing working at universities, dealing with financial aid departments, and obtaining my education in law and legal studies. I am the mother of a soldier and instilled the value of higher education in my children. My ex-husband is employed by a state university and broke the law. Because he's not been properly arrested or prosecuted, he shouldn't be working at the university because he's working while an arrest warrant exists against him. Universities have a long way to return to the moral institutions they once were in the United States. So far removed from societies' more's as we've recently seen with Penn State University. You didn't ask me any of my opinion, so I'm not reading your blog.

    November 15, 2011 at 10:13 am |
  8. Persistence

    We need smart, enthusiastic, motivated individuals in our classrooms, period. Public ed has always needed grassroots support above all, and I've often felt dismayed by individuals and think tanks who believe they're improving education by attacking teachers. Are there lousy, incompetent teachers? Sure, because lousy incompetents fill any profession. But the majority of teachers I've met and have worked with are first-class people who just want to teach, so...what's the problem with just being supportive? Bravo, Mr. Kofke, and to CNN for this blog.

    November 15, 2011 at 9:44 am |
  9. Ash

    Tell that to public teachers in New Jersey....

    Great article. I do have a problem with teaching being a major... you need to be good at subjects and your passions, not just in the mode of teaching. These is no use in paying educators and school administrators based on their Masters degrees and PhDs from vague colleges.... teaching is an inspired career, too many people looking for just any jobs are getting into teaching.

    November 15, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  10. Georgia

    It's good that the writer understands teaching is a calling; however, he notes his degree was in education. I am opposed to 'education' being a major, because ironically, it undermines teacher quality by making dilettantes of our teachers, rather than subject matter experts, in core classes. (In any case, great teaching is an art, not a science that can be taught.) Secondly, he notes his field is special education. Though his salary is low, too much is already being spent on special education that targets the lowest achievers - who will sadly always remain so - no matter what interventions are applied. This is hurting our future potential. We should throw the most money at the students who show the greatest potential for achievement, not the other way around.

    November 15, 2011 at 8:53 am |
    • SomeGuy

      In most states, majoring in education is in ADDITION to majoring in subject areas, at least at the secondary level. You major in subject areas AND learn how to teach. Makes sense.

      November 15, 2011 at 1:57 pm |
  11. asrael

    In a word: bravo!

    November 15, 2011 at 8:36 am |