- I’m a Chicago public-school teacher, focusing on middle-school special education.
- My side hustle is working as a nail technician, and I’m certified to teach cosmetology.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Olga Payne, a 47-year-old special-education teacher in Chicago’s public schools who works as a nail technician on the side. It has been edited for length and clarity.
i‘but a teacher at Chicago’s John W. Cooke Elementary, a public school on the city’s South Side. This year, I’m working with fifth- and sixth-grade diverse learners.
I enjoyed the classroom when I started my career, but I also saw the writing on the wall right before I began student teaching. I was worried about the decline in quality public education, so I planned to teach for 10 years. By then, I thought, my daughter will have finished school, and I can move on.
My daughter has graduated college and is working. I’ve been teaching for 17 years, so it’s definitely time to leave the classroom — and luckily I have other work to fall back on.
In college, I wanted to be a computer major
I was going to study computer science, but then I failed a computer class — twice. I switched to fashion-merchandising classes, thinking that would be a good career.
Unfortunately, by the end of my sophomore year, I was unable to return to school for financial reasons. I owed money and my parents couldn’t help me, so I figured I’d work a semester to pay it off and return in January.
While I was at home, I decided to study cosmetology until I could go back to college, but it was a nine-month program and I was only home for a semester. So instead, I went to school to become a nail technician.
I became pregnant and didn’t end up returning to college after all. I stayed home with my daughter, but when she was about 4 or 5, I returned to school to study education. As a teacher, I could have the same holiday schedule as my daughter and be with her more. I went to Chicago State University and received my bachelor’s in English with a secondary teaching option.
But I’ve never let my nail-technician license lapse, and worked in a salon for a while. Once I became a teacher, I got my cosmetology degree, too.
During my teaching career, I’ve worked at a salon and done home nail care
I charge a flat fee, usually $75, for my home services that usually take about an hour and a half to two hours.
Most of my clients right now are seniors, so sometimes I don’t do a full pedicure. I may soak their feet for a few minutes and give their toenails a trim, depending on their health concerns. Most of my clients don’t even wear nail polish.
I usually do one person on a Friday night and then no more than two or three on Saturday. I make around $175 to $200 per week, but it averages out annually to about $800 a week since I am able to work with more clients, including on weekdays, when school is out for the summer.
That’s my “play” money — if I want to go out to eat or if I want to buy something frivolous on Amazon, that’s what I use it for.
I’ve always been interested in cosmetology. Growing up, my siblings and I didn’t get the chance to go to salons often. I figured it was cheaper if I could do my hair and makeup myself.
I’ve also partnered with someone and become certified to teach cosmetology in Illinois. We offer continuing-education units. We’ve done just a few classes, so we haven’t seen a profit yet, but we’re planning to teach more.
I’m still figuring out what I want to do
Meanwhile, I think the public-school system has made the environment more difficult for long-term teachers.
Years ago, unlimited teacher sick days could be banked. Now they are capped. Personal business days used to roll over to the following school year, too — now they don’t. I teach special ed, and it’s hard to catch students up when they’re more than two grade levels behind.
In 2013, I got my master’s at Chicago State University in special education in a fast-track program, right after I got my cosmetology license. I thought earning the master’s could give me some time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
In the meantime, I can still work in cosmetology. Maybe in the future, I can use the master’s to seek another educational position. I have options, but I’ve definitely figured out I don’t want to be in the classroom.