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Blackboard Jungle

I read that our state Legislature is mulling over a minuscule teacher pay raise and, as a retired, 25-year combat veteran of teaching in Mississippi public schools, including two Lamar County high schools, I feel strongly that salaries need to be raised to at least the southeastern average, especially since our faithful Mississippi teachers are still reporting for class during the pandemic, and other much more highly paid teachers, like in Chicago, are absent.

On the face of it, our public teacher compensation seems almost fair, but I think of it as the “lie of the average.” We read how the “average” teacher salary in Mississippi is $45,574; however, we know that the starting salary is $35,890 (plus varying local supplements, $700 in Lamar County), and that this “average” figure is skewed by longevity raises and administrator salaries, meaning that the “average” teacher makes a whole lot less. It’s even worse when you learn that the “average” new teacher usually lasts about five years in the classroom before finding another way to make a living, consequently never reaching this “average.”  

In 2019, according to figures produced by the National Education Association, there was a $40,000 difference between what the average teacher in New York makes and what the average teacher in Mississippi makes. The NEA further reported that the average salary for a public school teacher in the United States was $61,730, and that Mississippi continues to be dead last in state rankings, almost $3,000 below West Virginia, the next lowest. 

Is it any wonder that college students are bailing out of teacher education programs and going into more lucrative lines of work? Yes, teachers are dedicated, but they can’t live on love; they must be paid a living wage commensurate with their education. State legislators have loaded the traditional teacher education programs with so many tests and requirements (some temporarily suspended) that it is almost a five-year major at some schools. This, combined with the low salaries, has led to a teacher shortage, especially in the so-called “critical,” poorer areas of our state. 

Not to worry, the state department of education keeps rolling out “alternate” routes to teaching certificates, meaning that anyone with a four-year degree can jump through a few hoops and find himself or herself in charge of a classroom. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I have served as a mentor teacher to some of these 90-day wonders, and many have proven to be outstanding teachers. But some haven’t. I remember one young man who didn’t make it through the first period of his first day on the job.

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