In 2018, 23-year-old Israel Tovar, a Yale graduate, had just completed his master’s degree in education from Stanford University. He had also just landed his first full-time teaching job, teaching American history at a high school in Nashville, Tennessee. That’s what he had trained for—or so he thought. He quit within two months.
“I worked at a school that was incredibly challenging for me,” Israel says toptecheasy.com. “I saw it as a prison. I felt really burned out and overwhelmed, and my fear was through the roof – partly because of that job, but also partly because I bought a house at the time. I had no financial knowledge.”
Israel’s older sister, Sunem Tovar, who was earning her master’s degree in 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 Latin siblings who grew up in poverty and faced systemic racism, that was not something they ever had.
“I was like, It doesn’t matter that I went to Yale and Stanford because I don’t have generational wealthIsrael says. “I have these degrees, and I went to very well-funded schools that had access to a lot of resources, and I’ve benefited from that. But at the end of the day, I was still a first-generation graduate who had no generational wealth or social capital.”
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Israel and Sunem were determined to secure that kind of wealth, and they are building it today: together they have amassed more than $350,000 by saving and investing in the stock market. Meanwhile, they help others do the same with The dream teacher projectthe organization they co-founded to empower teachers of color by helping them “get their money right and secure the bag.”
“We, as teachers of color in particular, are overworked and underpaid.”
The wheels started turning for Shunem when Israel had its first job as a teacher. She had recently embarked on her personal financial journey, one that began when she graduated from college with $42,000 in debt and a $20,000 salary to pay it off — plus payments for a new car.
Committed to achieving financial freedom, she began to learn everything she could, and began coaching Israel, unfamiliar with investing at the time, to make smart money moves.
“That’s when the idea [for The Dream Teacher Project] came forward,” Sunem says. “I was like, oh, I’m a money nerd. I like to talk about personal finances. I love teaching women of color about personal finances because it’s very important as a woman to have your own money.”
Sunem became debt free in 2019 and over the following years, the siblings’ project began to take shape. After quitting his first full-time teaching job, Israel worked on numerous side activities, eventually returning to teaching for another four years before leaving to focus on the project full-time. But what he saw, especially in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, reaffirmed the need to equip teachers of color with financial literacy.
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“We, as color teachers in particular, are overworked and underpaid,” Israel says. “There is an abundance of research explaining the specific factors that push us out of the classroom.”
At the root of all this are systemic problems, Tovar’s siblings say. That doesn’t mean that solutions don’t exist – in fact, many do. But they require people with power to act, and teachers have no more time to lose.
“Only last year, teachers stopped left and right,” explains Israel. “And they had no financial security, no financial plans. So Covid made it even more urgent for us to keep pushing for this work because people were suffering financially, especially teachers of color who are at the intersection of all these different systems.
“As a former history teacher [I know] it takes a lot to bring about systemic change,” he continues. “We need to reclaim our agency, because we have the power to deepen our financial literacy, recover our money and organize our money in a way that gives rest.”
“Making that transition can be very, very challenging, especially for teachers of color.”
Israel and Sunem are not waiting for systemic change: With The Dream Teacher Project, they show teachers how to use their money to build the life they deserve, whether they hope to stay in education or step out of the field completely.
What exactly does that look like?
Whatever a teacher’s plans, financial well-being starts 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. “Knowing where your money is going will help you achieve your financial goals.”
Then it pays to organize any debts. You need to know how much you owe to become debt free, Sunem explains.
And don’t skimp on an emergency fund, either. “If you want to leave to go to a better school that won’t harm your mental health, you have that emergency fund there to support you,” Sunem says.
Finally, for those teachers who are sure they want to leave the classroom, having a sabbatical fund is an important extra step. “It’s basically a savings account that you put money in in case you want to take a career break or take up another profession,” explains Sunem, noting that saving three to six months’ worth of living expenses is a good rule of thumb.
When it comes to looking for a new job, Israel warns against a completely “do-it-yourself” approach: “Making that transition can be very, very challenging, especially for teachers of color, because [we’ve developed] a scarcity mentality in the sense of, Oh, we don’t have enough skills to transfer to a corporate job or to another environmentTeachers leaving 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 important, as building wealth.”
But neither Shunem nor Israel is out to discourage teachers from entering the profession. To those who feel this is the calling for them, the siblings suggest having a realistic view of the job and knowing your limits.
What additional advice for teachers (or anyone else) seeking financial security? Start investing as soon as possible and work on your relationship with money.
“If you grew up with a household that lives paycheck to paycheck and are somehow able to build a $1 million investment portfolio” [and you don’t] When you work on your relationship with money, you still feel like you don’t have enough,” Israel says. “You can feel like you’ve lost all that money the next day. What’s the point of all that if you still don’t have financial peace of mind? Working on your money mindset is just as important, if not more important, as building wealth.”