The white butcher paper affixed to the wall in Reginald Barnes’ office communicates a clear message. The superintendent of Mississippi’s West Tallahatchie school district has meticulously listed the names and employment status of the new teachers in his schools this year. Among them are retired teachers who were convinced to come back, long-term substitutes, and fresh-faced educators just starting their careers. However, it is evident that many of these teachers will not remain in the district. Out of the 85 teachers employed by the 1,500-student district this school year, 38 of them are newcomers to West Tallahatchie. According to Barnes, he anticipates that approximately half of these teachers will leave by August. Thus, he faces a daunting task of recruiting new teachers during the scorching summer, with little to entice them except for his own enthusiasm, dedication, and charm.
West Tallahatchie, a struggling district situated in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, does not have much to offer. The area lacks notable restaurants, entertainment options, and suitable living arrangements for teachers. Many teachers must commute for 30 or 40 minutes through cotton fields along Highway 61, which is renowned as the route often taken by blues singers to escape the Delta, just to teach in this district. Upon arrival, teachers find themselves in an impoverished community where illiteracy, teenage pregnancy, and reliance on welfare are prevalent. Despite their hardships, these teachers begin their careers with a starting salary of $21,420, which can increase to a maximum of $38,340 after 25 years of experience and a master’s degree.
"If you witness what we have here – and more significantly, what we lack – you’ll understand why no one wants to come and work here," Barnes asserts. "We are located 50 miles away from the Mississippi River, and we have students who have never even seen it – that famous river. These students are living in conditions comparable to those in Third World countries." The entire Delta region faces the challenges of ongoing faculty turnover and a shortage of qualified applicants. The situation is indeed disheartening in West Tallahatchie, yet it is not an uncommon predicament. The entire Delta region shares similar problems and suffers from a severe lack of qualified candidates. The Mississippi Critical Teacher Shortage Act was passed by the state legislature last year in response to this dire situation. This legislation offers scholarships, grants, home loans, and relocation expenses to teachers who are willing to work in the Delta and other designated areas experiencing a shortage of teachers.
The Delta, situated in the northwestern part of the state along the Mississippi River, is essentially a fertile alluvial plain spanning 220 miles from Memphis, Tennessee, to Vicksburg, Mississippi. Historically, the region was predominantly planted with "King Cotton," but now it yields soybeans and corn as well. After World War I, many black sharecroppers who resided in the Delta migrated to industrial cities such as Chicago and Detroit. To this day, the Delta remains one of the most impoverished regions in the country. In the West Tallahatchie district, which is centered in the small town of Webb, the average annual household income is a mere $5,800. The Mississippi Critical Teacher Shortage Act was prompted by reports from the Public Education Forum of Mississippi, which is a coalition of business leaders, government officials, and educators based in Jackson. This coalition turned its attention to the state’s teaching workforce in 1996 when a prominent national panel emphasized the pivotal role of teachers in improving schools. The State panel discovered that Mississippi faces significant obstacles in attracting, supporting, and retaining highly qualified teachers and principals. Some of the issues include low salaries, an aging workforce, limited supply of newly qualified teachers, and high teacher attrition rates. Furthermore, it is not beneficial that Mississippi students consistently rank near the bottom in national test scores. As Mississippi addresses this crisis, it must also contend with neighboring states that offer higher salaries and actively tackle teacher quality concerns. At a time when the United States is projected to require over 2 million new teachers in the next decade, Mississippi faces a daunting task.
To fill the vacancies in classrooms, policymakers are now adjusting practices that hindered the recruitment of teachers in the past. Richard Thompson, the state superintendent of public instruction, acknowledges that these changes invite criticism that Mississippi is lowering its standards. "It’s one of the most challenging things in the world," he expresses during a recent tour of West Tallahatchie’s schools. "I am aware that having a qualified, certified teacher in every classroom is the ideal scenario. However, in reality, I am dealing with 420 vacant positions."
During Barnes’ tenure, the graduation rate at West Tallahatchie School District has significantly increased from 43 percent to 75 percent. However, the number of graduates who go on to college is only about 10 percent, and many of them return home during the Christmas break, according to the superintendent. When teachers arrive at the school, they are faced with a community that suffers from poverty, illiteracy, teenage pregnancy, and welfare dependency. Instead of having a qualified workforce, Barnes has to make do with a makeshift lineup of teachers. He brings in retired teachers to help, but they can only work part-time to maintain their state pensions. College graduates teach at the high school in exchange for a free master’s degree through the state’s teacher-fellowship program. Long-term substitutes handle other classes. Sometimes, teachers from states with tough job markets come to West Tallahatchie in search of experience and the opportunity to make a difference before moving closer to home. Barnes acknowledges that the teacher shortage is a bigger problem than people realize and it scares him. He believes that without certified teachers in the classroom, it’s impossible to address any academic issues. Barnes finds himself recruiting teachers year-round. In December, he lost six teachers, which required him to spend his entire Christmas break searching for replacements. A few months later, a 2nd-grade teacher quit in her first year and returned to Tennessee, resulting in a class of 26 children being supervised by a teaching assistant. Eventually, Barnes found Sandra Conway through an emergency license to finish the school year. Conway, who is licensed as a computer teacher, will move to the high school in the fall but had never taught at the elementary school level before. She says she found the job through calling schools listed in the Yellow Pages and Barnes immediately told her to come in. Conway lives in the nearby city of Greenwood and states that she couldn’t bear to live in the local community due to the lack of housing and restaurants. Barnes actively attends job fairs to recruit teachers and that’s where he hired Levi Shavers Jr., a former high school teacher from Arkansas. Shavers had never been to Mississippi before and was aware that the Delta region was a unique place. Nevertheless, he was willing to give it a try. Shavers commutes 30 miles each way from his apartment in Clarksdale to Bearden Elementary, where he serves as the assistant principal. He praises the students at the school and expresses his delight when they moved off academic probation. Bearden Elementary also has a new principal, Willena White. While she is experienced in Delta schools, she understands the challenges that new teachers face. One example is Molly Barton, a recent graduate of Mississippi University for Women who was hired as the school’s first art teacher. White intends to keep Barton at the school and acknowledges that it will take some time for her to adjust to the local culture. Barton was surprised to see inmates from the state penitentiary mowing the school’s lawn and performing repairs, as the school is in desperate need of renovation. The inmates, supervised by the district’s maintenance supervisor, provide free labor. Barton, originally from Louisville, Eastern Mississippi, notes that this is not something she expected in her hometown. However, the job was the best option for her as her husband works as a physical education teacher in Cleveland, Mississippi. Superintendent Barnes admits that he would prefer not to have prisoners around children but explains that the inmates are nonviolent offenders who live in satellite sites of the penitentiary and are part of a government work program during their transition back into society. Paddles are a common sight at the school, with teachers carrying them during recess, and Principal White has one on her desk, wrapped with tape on the handle.
"In our former location, it was common for everyone to have their engagement photo published in the newspaper," Kolbicka recalls. "People with education degrees would typically work as hostesses at Friendly’s or at Wal-Mart. Many individuals, myself included, would substitute teach for up to 10 years without securing a permanent job." Determined to avoid a similar fate, Kolbicka made the decision to turn her first years of teaching into an adventure. The deciding factor was Barnes, who convinced the young teachers that they could make a significant impact and develop their skills in the Delta region. Despite facing competition from 10 other interested renters, the couple successfully secured a house in Webb. They plan on staying for at least another year before searching for positions closer to their hometown. "Due to the high level of need among the children and the frequent turnover, being a good teacher allows you to truly become an integral part of the school," Kolbicka explains about her experience. "We’ve had opportunities to serve on committees and attend various training sessions that we would never have had otherwise.” One aspect that Kolbicka would like to change is the playground area behind the school. Currently, recess takes place on dusty, grassy fields, unless it is flooded by rain. There are no painted hopscotch squares, swings, basketball hoops, or jungle gyms. Teachers have begun raising funds to purchase equipment, but they are discouraged by the high cost. Kolbicka’s colleague, Margaret Turner, oversees recess and uses a paddle she calls her "warning stick." Turner, whose husband manages a nearby farm in Mentor City, considers herself fortunate. "The only teachers we are able to retain are the ones who are settled and reside in this area," she explains. "Teachers from out-of-state do not tend to stay." The high turnover makes Rosemary Wolfe’s role as a lead teacher even more crucial. Wolfe, a 21-year veteran who joined Bearden Elementary this year from a neighboring school district, observes classes, supports teachers, and provides professional development. "When you establish certain structures and then teachers leave," she laments, "it feels like starting from scratch all over again." One staff member who will not be returning next year is Chris Powell, a 26-year-old English teacher from Jackson who has been at Bearden for only one year. Powell is heading to law school, where he won’t have to deal with the classroom invasions from tree frogs, mice, and wasps. For him, the solution to Mississippi’s teacher shortage is simple: increase their salaries. "It truly frustrates me that the people around here talk about holding teachers accountable for the lack of education that these kids receive," Powell remarks while his students immerse themselves in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. "These same individuals strongly believe in basic economics and supply and demand. However, they fail to see that by raising salaries, there would be an abundant supply of teachers—enough to replace those that are unwanted."
Jay Gee, a 31-year-old individual, does not face any challenges when it comes to accommodations. He resides with his family who manages Gee’s grocery store on the main street. Gee, who began college at the age of 16 and holds a doctorate in biochemistry, decided to return home and teach for personal reasons. Superintendent Barnes is thrilled to have him on board. Gee is the only foreign-language teacher at West Tallahatchie High School, where he teaches French 1 and Spanish 1. Despite offering 46 courses, including those necessary for college entrance, West Tallahatchie High School falls short in comparison to wealthier districts that offer up to 170 courses.
Gee admits that dealing with discipline and working with adolescents has been a bit challenging, but he is learning to manage. His teaching routine mainly involves vocabulary and grammar drills. Unfortunately, the Spanish textbook is no longer in print, and there are not enough French books for students to take home. Additionally, there is no language lab available for the students to hear a native speaker pronounce the languages. Despite these obstacles, Gee, who has traveled extensively, took it upon himself to try teaching Spanish.
Attracting and retaining qualified teachers in West Tallahatchie and other isolated, rural districts in Mississippi remains unclear, aside from starting efforts to encourage students to consider teaching careers. However, the Mississippi Teacher Center plays its part by operating a website that lists job openings throughout the state and assists in matching applicants with districts. The teacher center, which is part of the state education department, also oversees the programs established by the teacher-shortage act. Currently, 50 teachers from 27 districts are pursuing master’s degrees in exchange for teaching in areas facing a shortage for three years. Another 278 students have received college scholarships in exchange for a commitment to teach in areas that need it most, also for three years. Moreover, the state legislature recently approved an 8 percent salary increase for teachers as part of an effort to make salaries competitive with other Southern states. Furthermore, the state offers an additional $6,000 per year to teachers who become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which is the highest incentive offered by any state.
Nevertheless, Mississippi still faces a major challenge, according to William Lewis, the executive director of the Public Education Forum of Mississippi. The forum aims to raise awareness of the critical state of education in Mississippi through a series of reports. Lewis emphasizes the severe deficit in compensation for teachers and administrators. The forum found that the average teacher salary in Mississippi is $27,720 per year, compared to $32,947 in the Southeast region and $38,611 nationwide.
Historically, Mississippi has not invested much in teachers, but it is now taking remarkable steps to rectify this neglect, says Barnett Barry, the director of the Southeast office of the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future. Barry highlights the crucial importance of teacher quality, which was highlighted in the commission’s report three years ago. He asserts that pulling oneself out of a deep hole cannot be done instantly, but Mississippi is on the verge of implementing effective strategies for the long term. However, there is still more work to be done, such as providing intensive training for teachers working outside their licensed fields and increasing the pay for teachers willing to work in the Delta region.
Furthermore, Mississippi policymakers are closely examining rules that contribute to the teacher shortage. State law currently prohibits districts from using state funds to pay uncertified teachers, forcing them to rely on limited local funds. During the 1995-96 school year, Barnes had to allocate $111,000 from the local budget, which accounted for one-fifth of his total budget, to cover the costs of long-term substitutes. The West Tallahatchie district has a low tax base, resulting in teachers receiving only a $275 annual supplement above the state’s base pay. In contrast, wealthier districts in Mississippi offer up to an additional $5,000. Additionally, the state’s accountability rules mandate districts to allocate a specific amount of resources towards their libraries and other facilities.
Barnes, on his end, expresses scepticism towards the state’s endeavors to attract additional educators, deeming them "far from foolproof." "Although I strive to maintain a positive outlook," remarks the superintendent of West Tallahatchie, "I am compelled to approach this matter from a distinct perspective compared to districts that do not encounter challenges in securing certified individuals."