‘It’s very obvious that we do not value teachers’: Why educators say there’s a critical teacher shortage

Published 11:18 am Wednesday, February 10, 2021

By Kelsey Davis Betz and Aallyah Wright

MISSISSIPPI TODAY

Three years ago, Kaitlyn Barton taught high school English in the Mississippi Delta, a rural, low income area with a high percentage of non-certified teachers. The Flowood native said she felt undervalued, a result of low pay coupled with limited opportunities to grow. In 2019, she moved to Texas seeking more.

Kaitlyn Barton now lives in Houston, Texas. Credit: Kaitlyn Barton
“We expect teachers to wear every hat, but we don’t pay them well or respect them as professionals,” Barton told Mississippi Today. “The level of respect and pay go hand-in-hand. In our capitalist society, we put our money where our value is. And based on how we pay teachers, it’s very obvious that we do not value teachers.”

Barton, who was forced to work a second job as a waitress while teaching in Clarksdale, no longer struggles to make ends meet. She brings in more than $60,000 a year — about $23,000 more than her Mississippi teaching salary — in her new position as the dean of instruction at YES Prep Public Schools in Houston.

Two years ago, Mississippi Today interviewed Barton and other teachers for an in-depth series that highlighted the state’s critical teacher shortage. As we continue to cover the shortage — perpetuated by little action from state leaders — we followed up with those same teachers this month to ask what they are up to and whether they were still in the profession.

Kaitlyn Barton writes down orders while waiting a table of young students at her second job at Yazoo Pass in Clarksdale Wednesday, October 31, 2018. At that point, she worked both a waitress job and her full-time teaching job to make ends meet. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Vernita Burnett, a former English teacher in Clarksdale, brought in about $44,000 a year when she was teaching. Burnett also had side hustles writing papers and doing hair. Jason Jossell, band director and Mississippi history teacher in Quitman County School District, earns slightly more than teachers with his same level of experience because he’s on a coaching pay scale.

Year after year, Mississippi teachers like Barton leave the state for better pay and opportunities to grow in their profession — two of the many reasons a shortage exists. Mississippi has faced an ongoing battle with the teacher shortage crisis since the inception of the Critical Shortage Act of 1998. The coronavirus pandemic has only heightened the issue.

The Mississippi Legislature is considering a $1,000 teacher pay raise this year to help bring Mississippi teachers up from the lowest paid in the nation. That bill passed out of the Senate earlier along with a similar bill in the House, but the legislation still needs to make it through the legislative process before it is signed into law by the governor.

Teachers received a $1,500 pay raise in 2019, but educators and advocates expressed disappointment in the fractional salary increase. Legislators proposed another pay raise for teachers in 2020, but that bill died when COVID-19 derailed the 2020 legislative session.

When a Mississippi Today reporter asked if there was an increase in the teacher shortage across the state, Carey Wright, superintendent of Mississippi schools, said it “has not been reported” to her in a September 2020 interview. She also said she did not know if the teacher shortage was greater this year than in previous years.

“What I can say is that I think people expected a lot more teachers to retire last year at the end of the year and that did not happen,” Wright said. “I do know that a lot of districts gave teachers a choice of being an in-person teacher versus a virtual teacher. And I think that may have alleviated some fears of teachers about being in the building.”

The Mississippi Department of Education said this month that the department surveys for teacher vacancy information, but individual school districts aren’t required to send it in. This means MDE does not track the number of vacancies for individual districts or for the entire state.

Education experts for years have reiterated that having a firmer grasp on these metrics is necessary to eradicate any teacher shortage. Still, department officials and lawmakers have not made any substantive effort to better define the problem.

Jossell, the band director and Mississippi history teacher in the Delta who Mississippi Today interviewed in 2019, said last month that not much has changed for him during the past few years. This includes how important he thinks teacher pay is in terms of the teacher shortage. He lives near the Arkansas and Tennessee border and said that he could easily cross state lines and make $15,000 more a year.

Jason Jossell, teacher and band director at Madison S. Palmer High School in Marks. Jossell sits in his quiet band hall devoid of students because of COVID-19. He instructs them on practicing their scales and music reading via laptop. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today
So why doesn’t he?

“I didn’t do it (get into education) for the pay. I did it because I’ve always been passionate about this,” Jossell said. He said he’s building a legacy by working in the same position at the same school that his father did.

But that doesn’t take away the need to pay Mississippi educators competitive wages, he said.

“Until we really talk about teacher pay and the lack of (good pay), there’s going to be a teacher shortage in Mississippi,” Jossell said. “We don’t pay teachers enough at all. The simple fact that we’re just now talking about teacher pay legislation, it really shows how far back we are compared to other states.”

And aside from pay, there is also something less tangible that Jossell says educators have historically not gotten from state leadership.

“Teachers deserve more respect,” he said, adding that even though they’ve been essential workers during the pandemic, they haven’t been treated that way.

“I’m not comparing our work load to a nurse at all, but sometimes I feel like we’re not respected like a nurse. Remember, we’re the ones that are cultivating the next nurses and doctors,” Jossell said.

Barton shared the same sentiments as Jossell, stating that lawmakers should not “run on a platform of supporting our teachers” if they aren’t willing to “put their money where their mouth is.” Currently, there are two teachers from Mississippi in her school building. The appeal of being a teacher in Texas is that teachers are paid their worth, she added.

“I don’t have a second job in Houston… I’m also admitting that I have a leadership position. I believe even the starting salary for first-year teachers in our districts is at least $50,000,” Barton said. “In Mississippi, I would have to work for 10 years before I think I would have even broken forty (thousand).”

The 2020-21 salary schedule for public school teachers in Mississippi shows it will take a bachelor’s level teacher a minimum of 27 years to reach a $50,000 salary. For teachers with a master’s degree, that time frame is 20 years and 14 years for teachers with doctoral degrees.

Another issue that needs to be addressed is the pay disparity between district office officials, administrators, and teachers, Barton said.

“You shouldn’t have to leave the classroom to make enough money. We should want good teachers to stay in the classroom,” Barton said. “The reality is if you want to make more money in education, you have to leave the classroom.”

Burnett, the former English teacher who is still in her hometown of Clarksdale, is now an academic coach. Though she earns $6,000 more than she did being a classroom teacher, the extra money didn’t make a “big difference” in her decision to stay, she said.

Vernita Burnett, academic coach at Clarksdale High School, monitors, advises and assists students via Zoom while they attend classes from home. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today
Burnett is finishing up her doctoral program in education leadership, but even then, she won’t make as much as someone with her years of experience and degree level in a comparable state. In neighboring Alabama, the minimum salary for a teacher with a doctoral degree and nine years or less experience makes a little more than $62,000. For Burnett to earn $62,000 in Mississippi, she would need to teach for more than 25 years, according to the state’s salary scale.

It’s not pay that keeps Burnett in the field of education. It’s having the skills and knowledge to be “more effective” by helping teachers to help students in her hometown, she added.

“In the areas where we live, there’s not a big difference in money,” Burnett said. “(Being an academic coach) was more so of a better opportunity and having the chance to take the things I’ve learned or the things I went to school for to help other people.”

This story republished with permission by Mississippi Today.