Low pay often puts assistant teachers in Mississippi on financial ropes

Published 7:11 am Sunday, March 24, 2019

Bobbie Robinson has been an assistant teacher in Holly Springs for 25 years. She began working as an assistant teacher to spend time with her children and later, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

“Now, I’m not sure I want to do it anymore,” Robinson said.

Robinson has supplemented her income by driving school buses for the last 15 years and has also worked part-time at Walmart. Like many assistant teachers in Mississippi, Robinson is uncertain a recently proposed pay raise would be enough for assistant teachers to live on.

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It has been more than a decade since assistant teachers have seen a pay raise and during that time, they have taken on greater responsibilities all while earning a salary that does not provide a livable wage.

State lawmakers are now considering a pay raise for assistant teachers, whose current salary is dramatically low.

State law requires that assistant teachers be paid at least $12,500 and though the current bill would increase that amount to $13,500, some assistant teachers say it still would not be enough to help them make ends meet.

The last minimum salary increase for assistant teachers in Mississippi raised the previous base pay of $12,000 beginning in the 2007-08 school year.

But local school districts can supplement that minimum requirement set by the state.

There were 8,282 assistant teachers in Mississippi, making an average salary of $15,939.73 in the 2017-18 school year which included local district supplements, according to the Mississippi Department of Education.

But these supplements vary and are made at the discretion of school districts.

Assistant teachers in the area around Lee County make between $13,010 and $23,578 annually with differing local supplements given either immediately, or based on experience or on education.

Assistant teachers are highly utilized in elementary schools because younger students require more supervision and attention.

Parkway Elementary principal Carmen Gary said assistant teachers provide extra support at an age when it is needed the most.

“It is about having extra support inside and outside of the classrooms; the more hands-on learning, the more teachers or assistant teachers we have to work with students, the more successful they will be,” Gary added.

There are four assistant teachers in kindergarten, three in first grade, three in the second grade and one that works with English Learners at Parkway, which has 440 students.

Gary said it would be ideal to have an assistant teacher posted in every kindergarten classroom, but school budgets do not always allow for the possibility.

Assistant teacher Cathy Sartain of Water Valley recalled several years ago that one assistant teacher was shared between five or six teachers, but now all kindergarten teachers at her school in Water Valley have an assistant teacher.

“They need more hands, the kids are younger and not as independent as older children,” Sartain said. “I work in kindergarten so it is very hands on, one person simply can’t do it. There is not enough of one person to go around.”

Not all assistant teachers are considered interventionists but assistant teachers do often provide interventions for students in need of remedial aid or for those who are ahead of their peers.

Some districts use assistant teachers as interventionists, while other districts employ full-time teachers in that role.

Pontotoc City Schools Superintendent Michelle Bivens said interventionists are usually licensed teachers who do not have a regular classroom, but they will pull students out individually or in small groups.

“Interventionists are not assistant teachers generally, however, we do utilize assistant teachers to provide interventions but they work with a licensed teacher,” Bivens said.

Assistant teachers may provide interventions for students with physical or mental challenges.

“They are important because they help the regular classroom teachers or special education teachers with supervision, monitoring and in many cases with differentiated instruction,” Oxford School District Superintendent Brian Harvey said.

Gary said assistant teachers provide extra support for at-risk students, some of whom might be considered disadvantaged; who may have gaps in their education or behavioral problems.

Tupelo assistant teacher Amanda Johnson agreed that some students need more encouragement and specialized attention to succeed. Johnson has been an assistant teacher in Tupelo for eight years and works with students in need of remedial help as well as special education (SPED) students.

“I honestly believe kids don’t learn the same at the same level, all kids are different,” Johnson said. “Some work better by listening or by watching someone else do it, and some pretty much know what they are doing.”

Assistant teachers have gotten creative with finding ways to make ends meet, from babysitting to tutoring or working part-time jobs. Some assistant teachers have made attempts to move on to bigger and better things.

Johnson has taken advantage of certification workshops to move her career forward. She works at Rankin Elementary and also works part-time in retail, at a Ross department store.

Johnson already works with special education students and just passed both PRAXIS exams to acquire certification to work full-time with SPED students.

But some assistant teachers say educators are stretched too thin across the board and staying in the education field may be impossible without better pay.

Some assistant teachers do not want to become full-time teachers due to how heavy the workload is and how overstretched educators are.

“When I first started I did think about going for my certification, but after being there and seeing how the teachers are pulled out into meetings, they can’t stay in their classrooms and teach and then when the teachers go home, they don’t have a life of their own, they’ve still got schoolwork to carry out, that’s a big deterrent,” Sartain said.

She loves her work, but must supplement her income by tutoring children in the afternoons at Baptist Children’s Village. Sartain said the proposed pay increase would not lift the financial strains that burden assistant teachers.

“It would be a little extra pocket change but it wouldn’t be enough that you would even be able to tell, by the time taxes come out; you would have a few extra dollars but not much.”