In 2018, 23-year-old Israel Tovar, a Yale graduate, had just earned his master’s in education from Stanford University. He’d also just landed his first full-time job in education: teaching U.S. history at a middle school in Nashville, Tennessee. It was what he’d trained for — or so he’d thought. He quit within two months.
“I was working at a school that was incredibly challenging for me,” Israel tells Entrepreneur. “I perceived it as a prison. I felt really burnt out and overwhelmed, and my anxiety was through the roof — partly because of that job, but also partly because I bought a house during that time. I had no financial literacy.”
Israel’s older sister Sunem Tovar, who was earning her master’s of finance at the time, advised her brother against purchasing the property. But Israel believed it was his only path to generational wealth. As first-generation Latine siblings who’d grown up in poverty facing systemic racism, that wasn’t something they’d ever had.
“I was like, It doesn’t matter that I went to Yale and Stanford because I don’t have generational wealth,” Israel says. “I have these degrees, and I did go to schools that were very well-funded that had access to a lot of resources, and I did benefit from that. But at the end of the day, I was still a first-generation college graduate that didn’t have generational wealth or social capital.”
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Israel and Sunem were determined to secure that kind of wealth, and they’re building it today: Together, they’ve amassed more than $350,000 through saving and investing in the stock market. Meanwhile, they’re helping others do the same with The Dream Teacher Project, the 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 began to turn for Sunem when Israel was still at his first teaching job. She’d recently embarked on her personal finance 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 on a new car.
Committed to achieving financial freedom, she started to learn all she could, and she began to coach Israel, who was unfamiliar with investing at the time, to make smart money moves.
“That’s when the idea [for The Dream Teacher Project] came up,” Sunem says. “I was like, oh, I’m a money nerd. I love talking about personal finance. I love teaching women of color about personal finance, because it’s really important, when you’re a woman, to have your own money.”
Sunem became debt-free by 2019, and over the next couple of years, the siblings’ project began to take shape. After quitting his first full-time teaching job, Israel worked numerous side hustles and ultimately returned to teaching for another four years before leaving to focus on the project full-time. But what he witnessed, especially in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, reconfirmed the need to empower teachers of color with financial literacy.
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“We, as teachers of color in particular, are overworked and underpaid,” Israel says. “There’s a plethora of research that explains the specific factors that push us out of the classroom.”
At the root of it all are systemic issues, the Tovar siblings say. That doesn’t mean solutions don’t exist — in fact, many do. But they require people in power to act, and teachers don’t have any more time to waste.
“Last year alone, teachers were quitting left and right,” Israel explains. “And they had no financial security, no financial plans. So Covid just made it even more urgent for us to keep pushing for this work because folks were suffering financially, especially teachers of color who are at the intersections of all these different systems.
“As a former history teacher, [I know] it takes a lot for systemic change to happen,” he continues. “We need to reclaim our agency, because we have the power to deepen our financial literacy, reclaim our money and organize our money in a way that gives us financial peace.”
“Making that transition can be very, very challenging, especially for teachers of color.”
Israel and Sunem aren’t waiting for systemic change: With The Dream Teacher Project, they’re showing teachers how to leverage their money to build the lives they deserve, regardless of if they hope to remain in education or transition out of the field entirely.
What does that look like, exactly?
No matter what a teacher’s plans are, financial wellness starts with a budget. “A lot of people think budgeting is restricting your spending, but it’s just a way to organize your money,” Sunem says. “If you know where your money is going, you’re going to be able to achieve your financial goals.”
Next, it pays to organize any debt. You have 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’s not messing with 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 additional step. “It’s basically a savings account that you put money into in case you want to take a career break or pivot to a different profession,” Sunem explains, noting that saving three to six months’ worth of living expenses is a good rule of thumb.
When it comes to tackling the search for a new job, Israel cautions against an entirely “DIY” approach: “Making that transition can be very, very challenging, especially for teachers of color, because [we’ve developed] a scarcity mindset in the sense of, Oh, we don’t have enough skills to transition to a corporate job or to a different setting.” Teachers leaving the classroom should consider investing in a career coach or courses, he says.
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“Working on your money mindset is as important, if not more important, as building wealth.”
But neither Sunem nor Israel is out to discourage teachers from entering the profession. To those who feel it is the vocation for them, the siblings suggest having a realistic sense of the job and knowing your boundaries.
Some additional advice for teachers (or anyone) seeking financial security? Start investing as soon as possible and work on your relationship with money.
“If you grew up in a household living paycheck to paycheck and somehow you’re able to build a $1 million investment portfolio [and you don’t] work on your relationship with money, you’ll still feel like you don’t have enough,” Israel says. “You can feel like you’re going to lose all of that money the next day. What’s the purpose of having all that when you still don’t have financial peace? Working on your money mindset is as important, if not more important, as building wealth.”