I remember the first time someone told me that, “You have to have a huge heart to go into teaching.”

I didn’t understand it then. To me, teaching was my passion – an ambition I’d had since elementary school.

Now that I had a classroom of my own, it felt like every part of that dream was coming together.

Teaching may be an honorable profession, but the low pay and long hours often drive teachers out of their chosen career early.

But after a while, reality hit me. Of course, no one goes into teaching expecting to come out a millionaire. Signing up to teach means signing up for the middle class.

Put Your Money to Work, Invest Your Spare Change, and Build Wealth — Download a Free Investing App >>

That’s what D.C. (initials used to protect privacy) thought when she began teaching middle school history and social studies 15 years ago. “It was always just enough to pay the bills, to put food on the table, to get my kids in swim class. But then something changed. It wasn’t enough anymore for me.” For D.C. and for me, the Great Recession forced us to re-evaluate our careers as teaching jobs, once thought the safest in the world, were slashed.

When I graduated from college in 2009, the recession was just beginning.

As a music teacher, I had already started to see my profession being slashed due to budget cuts. Finding a full-time teaching job at a single school took longer than I'd been led to believe.

Meanwhile, despite being a tenured teacher with a great reputation, D.C. lived in fear of the pink slip. For her, luckily, it never came. “Our classroom budgets were basically nothing. Because I taught in a poor community, I was buying supplies with my own money.

Find a Better Way to Work — See How You Stack Up to the Competition >>

Then the activities got cut. But none of us could let the kids not have after school options, so we did it for free. And when the number of our social workers were cut down, we stepped in there, too. We were putting in at least five to 10 hours a week after we were scheduled to leave.”

D.C. estimates that she has spent more than $15,000 of her own money over the course of the last five years and has lost about $10,000 per year in overtime.

Leaving my teaching job was one of the hardest choices I’ve ever had to make. But because of larger financial issues I faced, I had to go. I saw that my paycheck would never be enough to justify my love of the classroom.

So, like an estimated 17 percent of first-year teachers, I quit after one year. And like 37 percent of teachers who leave before retirement, I left because of low pay.

Manage Your 401(k) Today — Start by Getting Your Free Analysis >>

Average teacher pay is $42,665 for elementary school and $46,852 for high school, according to national salary data provided by PayScale.

However, that number is believed to be inflated, as teachers in rural and low socioeconomic areas – such as the school district where D.C. is employed – are paid far less and are expected to work many more hours to make up for the limited resources and the current teacher and staff shortages.

One of the best financial strategies available to teachers who plan to stay in the field is to invest in themselves first.

When possible (especially before starting a family), max out your 403(b) contributions while waiting to be vested into a state’s pension system.

Once you’ve started paying into your teacher retirement plan, look into ways to contribute towards your retirement – like taking on a second job over the summer – and use that money to contribute to a Roth or Traditional IRA.

Lastly, seek expert help. Many states' teacher unions or retirement programs offer free advice.

Come tax time, find an experienced professional who specializes in advising teachers to help you max out all the deductions you may have earned. In a profession where your work is nickel and dimed, it’s important to keep yourself on top of the game to get your fair share back. This is especially important if you plan on enrolling in a student loan forgiveness program for teachers. Or if you are working for volunteer teaching corps such as Teach for America.

Manage Your 401(k) Today — Start by Getting Your Free Analysis >>

Deductions can make a huge difference in a teacher's life.

When asked why she returned, D.C. explains, “I can’t leave the students. They deserve teachers like me who stay. But for anyone going into teaching, I want them to know that you’re going to have to get a second job. You’re definitely going to have to work during your summer break, too …

Every day will be a fight to justify your pay from people who just don’t know what it’s like to be in the classroom every day without getting paid what you really deserve.”