As the Legislature debates how to increase pay for Mississippi’s public school teachers, some educators and advocates say they are surprised and pleased by the proposals.
The House and Senate introduced separate proposals last week. The Senate plan would bring the starting salary for teachers up to $40,000 and includes significant pay raises at five-year intervals as teachers gain more experience. The House plan includes a starting salary of $43,000 and a $2,000 raise for teacher assistants.
“When I saw the Senate plan and then the House plan, I was really pleasantly shocked,” said Klara Aizupitis, a U.S. History teacher at South Panola High School. “I was not expecting anything close to this. I had been expecting more of what we had been seeing, the lip service saying there was going to be a raise and then having it actually be something much smaller.”
Aizupitis said the House plan looks “really wonderful” in terms of making Mississippi competitive with other Southern states and was glad to see it includes raises for teacher assistants, but the five-year increases in the Senate proposal shouldn’t be overlooked.
“To have something every five years to be looking forward to…is actually really important for keeping teachers around, not only attracting them to Mississippi but keeping them here,” she said.
Nationally, nearly 50% of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future.
Aizupitis has been teaching in Mississippi for five years. She coaches varsity soccer and girls powerlifting to supplement her income, as well as teaching at summer school.
“I really want to keep teaching, and at the moment I can’t imagine myself doing anything else. But throughout the year, in the moments when I’ve been working 12, 13, 14, 15-hour days, there’s always something in me that asks ‘is it worth it?’” she said. “That I could be making as much, if not more, to actually have a life outside of my job is always something that is in the back of my mind.”
Tiffany Davis, a kindergarten teacher at Webb Kindergarten Prep in Greenville, called the pay raise plans “long overdue.”
Davis said she appreciated the House plan including a raise for teacher assistants, and had heard some teachers express concern about the Senate’s plan to phase in the raises.
“They’re afraid you’ll get the first year’s (raise) and the next year it will be ‘oh, we ran out of money,’” she said.
Davis, who has been teaching for 25 years, has taught classes at Mississippi Valley State University through a satellite campus and cleaned houses to make ends meet. She is not confident that proposals will make a significant impact, as she believes recruiting new teachers is also about making schools a place where people want to work.
Davis also cited the decrease in new teachers graduating as another point of concern.
According to a report from Mississippi First, there has been a 32% decline in graduates from Mississippi’s educator preparation programs between 2014 to 2018.
“I think (these plans) will be a great starting point, because most people who are in the
profession know going in that this is not a high paying job,” said Athena Lindsey of South Delta Middle School. “So I think (this raise) will help them stay the course, because that’s what we really want. Once you get into the profession and you feel it and you love it and you know that this is your calling, you’ll stay. The problem is getting them in.”
Lindsey said that she likes parts of both plans. She likes the pay bumps in the Senate plan, which she believes will help keep veteran teachers in the classroom, but also appreciates that the House plan includes teacher assistants, saying that they play a vital role in education.
One aspect Lindsey hopes the Legislature will address is student loan forgiveness. She knows many teachers, herself included, who went back to school to see a pay raise by getting advanced degrees.
“But by going back to school, you still put yourself further in debt,” Lindsey said. “So by putting yourself further in debt, even when you get that pay increase, you still can’t really feel it, you can’t see it, you can’t enjoy it.”
Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, also added that she thinks the plans should include raises for all education support staff, such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and facilities management, as well as the raise for teacher assistants currently in the House plan.
“A teacher pay increase at this point will be just what they need,” Jones said. “They have really had to battle going through the pandemic, working remotely, working on a hybrid schedule. As our educators continue to go in every day and do their best, this is the right time for legislators to increase teacher pay.”
Davis and Aizupitis emphasized the essential role that teachers play in shaping society, saying that they are hoping it continues to be recognized after these plans are considered.
“Teachers are the profession that makes all other professions possible,” Davis said.
Clarification 1/19/22: The starting salary at the base level in the House proposal is $43,000, not $43,125.