In 2018, 23-year-old Israel Tovar, a Yale graduate, had just earned his master’s degree in education from Stanford University. He’d also just landed his first full-time education job, teaching US history at a middle school in Nashville, Tennessee. That’s what he’d trained for – or at least he thought so. He resigned within two months.
“I worked at a school that was incredibly challenging for me,” says Israel entrepreneur. “I felt like a prison. I was feeling really burned out and overwhelmed, and my anxiety was through the roof partly because of this job, but also partly because I was buying a house during that time. I had no financial education.”
Israel’s older sister Sunem Tovar, who was doing her Masters of Finance at the time, advised her brother not to buy the property. But Israel believed that this was its only path to generational wealth. As first-generation Hispanic siblings raised in poverty and exposed to systemic racism, they had never experienced this.
“I was like It doesn’t matter that I went to Yale and Stanford because I don’t have generational wealth‘ says Israel. “I got those degrees and I went to schools that were very well funded and had access to a lot of resources and I benefited from that. But at the end of the day, I was still a first-generation college graduate with neither generational wealth nor social capital.”
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Israel and Sunem were determined to secure that kind of wealth for themselves, and they are building it today: together they have amassed more than $350,000 through savings and investing in the stock market. In the meantime, they’re helping others do the same with The Dream Teacher Project, the organization they co-founded to empower color teachers by helping them “make their money right and back their pockets.”
“We, as color teachers, are overworked and underpaid.”
The wheels started turning for Sunem when Israel still had its first teaching assignment. She had recently begun her personal finance journey, which began when she graduated from college with $42,000 in debt and a salary of $20,000 to pay off — plus payments for a new car.
Committed to achieving financial freedom, she began learning everything she could and she began coaching Israel, who was unfamiliar with investing at the time, on making smart money moves.
“That’s when the idea came up [for The Dream Teacher Project] came,” says Sunem. “I was like, oh, I’m a money nerd. I like to talk about personal finance. I love teaching women of color about personal finance because it’s really important for women to have their own money.”
Sunem was debt-free in 2019 and over the next few years, the siblings’ project took shape. After Israel left his first full-time teaching job, he worked numerous part-time jobs and eventually returned to teaching for another four years before fully focusing on the project. But what he experienced, particularly in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, reaffirmed the need to equip color teachers with financial literacy.
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“Especially we, as color teachers, are overworked and underpaid,” says Israel. “There is a wealth of research that explains the specific factors pushing us out of the classroom.”
Systemic problems are behind everything, say the Tovar siblings. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any solutions—in fact, there are many. But they require action by those in power, and teachers have no time to lose.
“Last year alone, teachers left and right resigned,” explains Israel. “And they had no financial security, no financial plans. So Covid made it even more urgent for us to keep pushing this work because people were suffering financially, especially the color teachers who are at the intersection of all these different systems.
“As a former history teacher [I know] It takes a lot for systemic change to happen,” he continues. “We must regain our agency because we have the power to increase our financial literacy, reclaim our money, and organize our money to find financial peace.”
“Making that transition can be very, very challenging, especially for color teachers.”
Israel and Sunem are not waiting for systemic change: With The Dream Teacher Project, they are showing teachers how to use their money to build the life they deserve, whether they hope to stay in education or out of it field to exit .
What does that look like exactly?
Regardless of a teacher’s plans, financial well-being begins with a budget. “A lot of people think that budgeting limits your spending, but it’s just a way to organize your money,” Sunem says. “If you know where your money is going, you can achieve your financial goals.”
Next, it pays to organize debt. You have to know how much you owe in order to get out of debt, Sunem explains.
And don’t save on an emergency fund, either. “If you want to go to a better school that doesn’t affect your mental health, you have this emergency fund to support you,” Sunem says.
Finally, for those teachers who are certain they want to leave the classroom, a sabbatical fund is an important additional step. “It’s basically a savings account that you put money into in case you want to take a career break or switch to another job,” Sunem explains, noting that saving three to six months of living expenses is a good rule of thumb.
When it comes to approaching the search for a new job, Israel warns against a purely “DIY” approach: “This transition can be very, very challenging, especially for color teachers because [we’ve developed] a scarcity thinking in the sense of Oh, we don’t have enough skills to move to a corporate job or any other environment.” Teachers moving out of the classroom should consider investing in a career coach or courses, he says.
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“Working on your money mindset is just as important, if not more so, than building wealth.”
But neither Sunem nor Israel want to discourage teachers from entering the profession. The siblings advise those who feel called to have a realistic sense of the job and to know its limitations.
Some additional advice for teachers (or anyone else) looking for financial security? Start investing as soon as possible and Work on your relationship with money.
“If you grew up in a paycheck-to-paycheck household and are somehow able to build a $1 million investment portfolio [and you don’t] If you work on your relationship with money, you will still feel like you don’t have enough,” says Israel. “You can feel like you’re going to lose all your money the next day. What’s the point of having all of this if you still don’t have financial peace? Working on your money mindset is just as important, if not more so, than building wealth.”