Who’s teaching Mississippi’s children? A deep dive into teacher demographics

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/Reporter for America

Kaitlyn Barton takes her dog, Olive, out and watches as she runs around before getting dressed and prepared to work her second job at Yazoo Pass in Clarksdale in late October. Barton, a High School English teacher at Clarksdale High School, works a second job as a waitress to supplement her teacher’s salary.

It may come as no surprise to anyone who’s spent time in a public school recently, but data Mississippi Today obtained show that the majority of Mississippi’s teacher workforce is female.

Data from the Mississippi Department of Education, which tracks teachers by race, gender, school and district, shows the educator workforce has held steady at 80 percent female in the last five years. This means the roughly 27,000 women who have taught Mississippi’s public school students during this time period have borne the brunt of challenges associated with Mississippi’s lowest-in-the-nation public teacher salaries.

In the 2017-18 school year, the average salary for a public school teacher was $44,926. A recently passed $1,500 pay raise will bring a first year teacher’s salary to $35,890 this school year, something many educators called a “slap in the face” when the law was initially approved. Assistant teachers will now make $14,000 annually.

Low pay is a common complaint among educators, many of whom work more than one job to make ends meet. Lawmakers heralded the raise as a demonstration of their appreciation to the field, but educators say it’s another example of the state not taking them seriously.

“For so many years we’ve been ridiculed and not taken seriously,” said Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators. “That’s something that has to change. The teaching profession has to be noted as a respected profession.”

Women representing a disproportionate share of low-paying teacher jobs is compounded by the fact that Mississippi has one of the starkest wage gaps between men and women overall. Here, women earn 77 percent of what men do across all median incomes, according to a 2017 report from the American Association of University Women.

With this in mind, Mississippi Today examined five years of educator demographic data to get a snapshot of who comprises the state’s nearly 34,000 person workforce. In the 2018-19 school year, white men and women made up the majority, with 14 and 58 percent, respectively. Black women accounted for 21 percent, while black men made up 6 percent.

Although the most recent school year saw a slight increase in black teachers, they still make up less than one third of the teacher workforce. There are many possible reasons for the disparity in educators of color, Jones said. Certification exams, for example, can be a barrier for minority candidates who are more likely to attend under-resourced schools than their white peers, she said, but another issue is low pay.

“Until Mississippi does something to address teacher pay we’re always going to lose teachers, especially our teachers of color, to other states,” Jones said. “A male teacher can cross over into Tennessee or drive just a couple hours to Texas and get paid much more money than they would get paid in Mississippi.”

Mississippi Today also examined the racial demographics of school districts.

In districts with where one race makes up the majority of the student population, teacher demographics tend to reflect those of their students. For example, during the 2018-19 school year 93 percent of the student body in the Alcorn School District, in northeast Mississippi, was white. The teacher workforce there was all white, data show. In the Claiborne School District, the student body was 99 percent black and 96 percent of teachers were black.

Here is how students and teachers compare at the statewide level:

Jones said it’s important that the state continue working so that the teacher workforce more closely resembles the students they serve.

“Students relate to teachers that reflect them,” the lifelong educator said. “It’s almost, if you think about what Disney is doing with their movies now, you’re getting a lot of people that are looking at how some of the princesses are becoming African American or Asian or some other ethnicity or background, and there’s a reason for that. People want to see people that look like them and resemble them in a day to day situation or environment.”

Contributing: Alex Rozier