MOSELLE, Miss. (WDAM) - When you hear the term “essential worker,” doctors, nurses and other medical professionals probably come to mind. But during this pandemic, one group of workers had their profession turned upside down. Many forced to lean on and learn new technology while continuing to work twice as hard. We are talking about teachers.
Lead teacher at Oak Grove Middle School, Sara Stygles, is one of those educators.
“I love it when the students can turn on a light bulb and you can see it on their face when it clicks and they get it,” Stygles said.
Stygles said her reason for her love of teaching my sound cliché, but it’s true. She said that love compels teachers, like herself, to go the extra mile for students. From buying a loaf of bread to making a science project better, to more serious needs.
“I mean, when you have a kid that comes to school without a jacket and it’s 10 degrees outside, you call your mama and ask her to go to Target and buy a jacket for the kid and then that comes out of your pocket,” Stygles said.
Stygles said the state gives teachers EEF cards, Education Enhancement Funds, to help pay for classroom expenses. It comes to about $300 or $400 a year. But it’s not enough, leaving many teachers still having to foot the bill.
“I know that I have spent $150, $200 a month at various times,” Stygles said.
If that doesn’t sound like a lot of money, then consider a Mississippi teacher’s pay. $35,890 is the starting pay for a new teacher with a bachelor’s degree, according to the 2020-2021 Mississippi Department of Education Teacher Salary Schedule.
“I mean, it’s not a livable wage at all,” Stygles said.
According to the salary schedule, at that rate, a Mississippi teacher will have to work more than a decade to reach $40,000 a year and 27 years to make it to a $50,000 salary.
“A lot of them have second jobs, especially if they are single,” Stygles explained.
That’s why the Mississippi Legislature’s anticipated $1,000 raise for teachers and assistants, and $1,110 for starting teachers, is welcomed news.
“But, you know, at the same time if you do the math on that raise, most teachers would be lucky to see $40 to $50 extra a month. Maybe,” Stygles added.
Stygles said this pushes some teachers to search for competitive wages across state lines.
Executive director of Mississippi Professional Educators, Kelly Riley, said Mississippi teachers’ salaries are the lowest in the southern region.
“Our average teacher salary is about $8,000 dollars below the southeastern average,” Riley said. “So, that makes it hard to recruit, and not only recruit but to retain teachers in Mississippi.”
But salary isn’t the only reason that’s lead the state to a teacher shortage.
“While compensation is certainly important, they [teachers] will tell you that it is just as important to have the respect of the teaching profession,” Riley said.
Stygles agreed. She said she thinks the perception of teaching and the esteem the profession once held changed through the years. Stygles said add on the workload that goes home with you and it’s no wonder there’s a problem.
“Teachers don’t stay past the first three to five years,” Stygles said. “They leave at an alarming rate.”
Now, state leaders are stepping in to help. From the awaited pay increase to a bill that would make it easier for teachers to get a license to teach in the Magnolia State, as well as the teacher student loan repayment bill. State Sen. David Blount authored the bill.
“The bill says if you graduate from college and go teach in a Mississippi public school, at the end of one year we will write a check to your loan provider to reduce the amount of money you owe,” Blount said. “If you teacher for a second year, we will write a bigger check. If you teacher for a third year, we will write a bigger check.”
Stygles said that helps new teachers, but what about educators that take on more student loan debt for more pay?
“Most teachers go on and get master’s and specialist degrees because that’s one of the only ways we can raise our pay,” Stygles said.
Both Riley and Stygles said correcting the issues facing the teaching profession will take state leaders and teachers working together.
“It’s got to be a continuous effort, and we’ve got to develop a multi-year plan to address teacher compensation and to make us competitive with our other state’s in the region,” Riley said.
“Teachers need to talk to their legislators,” Stygles said. “They need to call them, they need to write them, they need to email them. They need to say this is the reality that we are facing.”
Dr. Ben Burnett, former teacher, principal, superintendent and now executive vice president of William Carey University, explained districts can add to a teacher’s salary by giving them a “district supplement.”
He said in most places, it is more than the state’s starting $35,000 range, not by much, but it does vary.