Jasmine Cleark-Gibson left teaching last month after seven and a half years in the classroom. It was time for a change. The lack of autonomy in her job made her feel like “she couldn’t fix things anymore,” and the myriad of responsibilities placed on her as an educator also left her with no bandwidth to care for her own children.
“I found myself with nothing left to give to the people who are supposed to matter the most to me,” Cleark-Gibson said. “I was looking for a work-life balance that all people are trying to grasp, but nobody is respecting teachers enough to give them.”
Mississippi has suffered from a critical teacher shortage for years, one that has only recently been measured. The Department of Education announced in December 2021 that there were over 3,000 certified teacher vacancies, a staggering figure considering that there are about 32,000 teachers across the state.
Teachers and policymakers have long emphasized the need for competitive salaries to attract more teachers to Mississippi, a goal that saw progress this year when the Legislature passed the largest teacher pay raise in Mississippi history, putting Mississippi teachers above the Southeastern average.
Despite these improvements, teachers in Mississippi are still leaving the classroom to teach in other states or take jobs in other fields. Data from the Mississippi Department of Education shows 5,800 teachers left their district at the end of the 2020-21 school year, or 17% of all teachers. These teachers may have moved between districts or left the profession entirely — this distinction is not captured in the MDE data.
Cleark-Gibson found her way to teaching through an alternate route program at Mississippi Valley State University, and taught English in the Leflore County School District, Midtown Public Charter School, and the Hinds County School District.
She said she loved helping students reach the “lightbulb moment” and building relationships with students, since “they don’t care about the content until they know you care about them.”
But the pressures that are put on teachers — like countless meetings that take time away from lesson planning and the responsibility to be in tune with each student’s social and emotional well-being — left Cleark-Gibson overwhelmed.
For Chevonne Dixon, a fifteen-year veteran of the Mississippi public education system, the time constraints were still a real concern, but the biggest factor was money. Dixon is a resident of DeSoto county but drives across the border to teach in Memphis, where she makes more and gets paid twice a month.
“During the pandemic, I started filling out applications and I saw that I could actually live off of what I would be making in Memphis … so it was an easy choice for me,” she said.
Dixon also highlighted the pressure that student loans put on teachers to seek higher-paying opportunities, something that Mississippi First K-12 Policy Director Toren Ballard has also been researching. Mississippi First published a report in January that found over half of Mississippi teachers were considering leaving the classroom within the next year.
They surveyed 6,500 Mississippi teachers, data Ballard has continued digging into and has noticed some stark disparities. Teachers with student debt are twice as likely to be SNAP recipients and over twice as likely to not have $400 in case of an emergency.
But that student debt also isn’t distributed evenly across the state. Ballard found that one in four teachers in F-rated districts owe over $100,000 in student debt, while only 4-5% of teachers in A and B-rated districts do. Poorly rated districts are also more likely to have teachers not return year-over-year, according to the data from MDE.
“Teaching in Mississippi, obviously everyone’s salaries are low, but it’s a very inequitable profession even given that,” Ballard said. “People are experiencing wildly different financial realities.”
The Mississippi First report found that over 90% of teachers thinking about leaving the classroom cited salaries as their reason, but respect from administrators came close behind. Amelia Watson, who taught for two and half years in the Petal and Pearl Public School Districts, said she was stretching herself thin to be the teacher she, and school leaders, wanted her to be.
“I was meeting the expectations of my administrators, but it was nearly impossible to do so during contract hours,” Watson said. “I wasn’t willing anymore to sacrifice my free time and my mental well-being, unpaid, for a job that doesn’t celebrate our achievements.”
Watson said her husband and co-workers noticed her mental health declining during her third year, which led to her resignation. She has considered going back, but has found a great deal of stability in the boundaries of her current job as a recruitment coordinator, and said she wasn’t sure teaching would ever be able to give that to her.
As for Dixon, the teacher in Memphis, she’s not planning to leave the profession any time soon. When asked if the most recent pay raise made Dixon reconsider taking a job out of state, she said no. She said that the salaries still aren’t where they should be, and that getting paid once a month necessitates being a strong budgeter — but if Mississippi were to fix those things, she would return.
“My (plan) was to teach and retire in Mississippi, but I can’t afford to,” she said.