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Raising the Pay of Mississippi Teachers Is Essential

By Shelley Putnam

When I started teaching 21 years ago, “I don’t teach for the pay” was the catchphrase I and many of my colleagues used. Inspired by my mother’s fight for my brother who suffers from severe dyslexia, I felt called as an eighth grader to become a teacher who would advocate for students in need. When I began my career, my husband was the main provider and I was fulfilling my life’s calling.

Times have changed and the privilege of fulfilling a calling to become an educator is not always a viable option. There are new catchphrases grumbled now, and Mississippi’s teacher shortage numbers prove they are resonating with a lot of our young people. Seniors in my classroom say, “I won’t teach because of the pay.” Similarly, many teachers with experience say, “I can’t stay because of the pay.”

Teacher salaries in Mississippi lag below the regional average, with a new teacher making about $35,890 in their first year in the classroom. This is simply not enough. By comparison, first-year teachers make $40,873 in Alabama and $46,100 in Louisiana. Meanwhile, talented young people in Mississippi starting out in other professions are thriving. My daughter, a registered nurse, new to the field in her first year, is making what I made after 15 years in the classroom with two degrees and a National Board Certification acquired along the way.

Teachers take on many roles to ensure the growth and development of their students. On any given day, I tweak the day’s lessons and grade papers in the morning; teach a chemistry class before lunch; stand in for bus duty so students can attend vocational training; and then observe how another teacher was using technology in his classroom while sharing what I’ve learned. At points during the day, I also tutor biology students with individualized education plans; prepare study guides for their upcoming tests; and serve as an inclusion teacher for the biology department because we are short an inclusion teacher (she left mid-year due to her inability to afford decent housing for herself and her three children — by this time next year, she will be a registered nurse).

After the students are dismissed, I take care of leadership duties, such as developing behavior plans and interventions for students who are not meeting their potential, that help cultivate a positive environment for the students at our school. Other teachers I work with spend this time calling parents, mentoring new teachers, planning units for their departments, analyzing data to adjust instruction, serving as department heads, and running student organizations. All these extra things are done to benefit students and none are done for extra pay. My school is not the only one where teachers are doing all they can to support students. Teachers are going above and beyond to help the students of Mississippi reach their potential, and the pay needs to be commensurate with the work they do.

The $1,000.00 pay raise proposed by Mississippi legislators is a step in the right direction. However, we need to do more. We must meet the needs of Mississippi teachers by passing a $1,500 raise this year with a commitment to another $1,500 next year. Competitive wages would bring in more highly qualified professionals, help retain early-career teachers, and improve recruitment efforts.

Mississippi’s teachers are charged with preparing our greatest asset for the future, our children. If we want to draw and keep the smart, energetic, and caring professionals, we must increase their compensation. We need a paradigm shift to see educators as we are now: not as volunteers or second-wage earners, but as fully independent and capable professionals deserving of more than a basic living wage. It is my hope that teacher pay will continue to improve so our teachers will soon shout a new phrase, “I am called to teach, and I am so glad I am able to do so in Mississippi.”

Shelley Putnam teaches 10th, 11th and 12th grade physical science, chemistry, and AP Chemistry at Columbia High School in Columbia, Mississippi. She is a Teach Plus Mississippi Policy Fellowship alumna.

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