They often stand in line to use the phone with little privacy for important calls. Some only have 20-minute lunch breaks, with their charges underfoot. Prep work is often done at night or on the weekend. They’re questioned by parents, challenged by children and endure more social insults than any other profession.
Small wonder than one in four teachers leave the profession after two years and that nearly 40% leave after five years.
“When we do surveys with first-year teachers, we’re hearing that, across the board, teachers are frustrated with the lack of respect in the classroom,” said Judy Beaird, director of recruitment for Mississippi Teachers Center.
According to a recent survey by the Public Education Forum of Mississippi of more than 6,000 teachers statewide, inadequate compensation, followed closely by a lack of support — from the public and from administrators — were top issues that influenced decisions for teachers, said Johnny Franklin, director of special projects for the Public Education Forum of Mississippi.
“A couple of years ago, the forum did a study on teacher workforce, determining if there was a labor shortage in the education arena,” Franklin said. “Some educators had said we had one, but legislators wanted proof so we pulled together a task force and found out that indeed, there was a teacher — and an administrative — shortage. As a follow-up, we wanted to find out what could be done about it so we pulled together another task force to see what attracted and reviled teachers from the profession so we could offer specific recommendations to legislators to remedy those things.”
MENTORING PROGRAM NEEDED
According to the survey, a formal mentoring program is greatly needed for new teachers who are fresh out of school and often have the toughest classes because they lack seniority. If they ask too many questions, they risk appearing inadequate or inexperienced.
“As a teacher, you want to do the right thing, and you want to be sure, but so often, there’s nobody to turn to,” said Pam Meyer Smith, spokesperson for the Mississippi State Board of Trustees of the Institutions of Higher Learning, and former teacher and counselor. “Sometimes, there’s a lot of distance between parents and teachers. A good administrator can stop a bad situation in its tracks, but many times, teachers don’t have the support of their immediate administration they need.”
With teachers taking on multiple roles in the classroom, including that of social worker, they often need a hotline for advice. A former teacher, who declined to be named, requested a parent-teacher conference because of a major concern for a student.
“I had hard evidence that there were some things that needed close parental care and the parents got angry with me for telling them,” she said. “I called my professional organization to make sure I had legal coverage. Teachers’ hands are tied legally, but laws say you have to report abuse or be liable as an accessory.”
Even though many states have formal mentoring programs, Mississippi does not. Some of the state’s more progressive districts have informal mentoring programs, Franklin said.
“We’ve been involved in discussions to improve mentoring programs, with a recommendation of implementing a teacher induction project in each congressional district on a pilot basis,” Franklin said. “One was developed and drafted by the Education Alliance, but never was adopted or implemented. We were part of a resolution asking the Legislature for funding. We asked for $450,000 and they funded $150,000, which allowed the state department, through the teacher center, to develop training modules to help folks design their own district induction program.”
SUPPORT FROM BUSINESS
Private organizations have often stepped in to provide recognition and financial support for teachers.
In the last 34 years, the Mississippi Economic Council has honored more than 8,000 teachers in the state for their contributions to students’ academic success through its Student-Teacher Achievement Recognition Program.
Last year, scholarships totaling $75,000 were awarded to students and teachers at the Swayze-sponsored Education Celebration 2000, said Peggy Howard, senior vice president of the Mississippi Economic Council and CEO of the M. B. Swayze Educational Foundation.
“In our different programs, we have welcomed in-depth discussions between business leaders and classroom teachers,” Howard said. “We have listened to teachers as they have identified problem areas, and we have directly involved teachers in the development of programs created to better prepare our young people for career opportunities within our state’s workforce. In fact, the Swayze Foundation’s newest program, Imagine U — the Quest for Character, is a direct outgrowth of one of those discussions. Teachers and MEC leaders worked hand in hand to develop this character-building curriculum, which has received the State Board of Education’s seal of approval, that challenges the middle school student to develop a strong foundation for dealing with peer pressure and other problems which plague students.”
A national certification program has improved the teaching situation, Smith said.
“A step that the state has taken to greatly improve the teaching situation and mentoring portion of that is to provide a hefty salary increase, maybe $6,000 or so, for teachers who are nationally-certified through the World Class Teacher Program, which gives them a lot of confidence and credibility,” she said.
DOING THE NUMBERS
In the last three years, a federal program for reducing the teacher/pupil ratio in elementary schools has funneled money to states, resulting in hiring more elementary teachers. But the teacher/pupil ratio has not yet been addressed in secondary schools, where a 35 per class maximum exists.
“Most teachers will tell you that 20 to 25 is optimum in any class,” Beaird said.
Mississippi is the only state of 16 states that make up the Southeastern Region Educational Board, funded through legislators in the southeastern region of the country, that doesn’t put state money into early intervention programs for pre-kindergarten children.
“If this were addressed, it could improve many classroom situations early on,” Franklin said.
On the flip side: the No. 1 factor contributing to educators remaining in the profession is the satisfaction of seeing students succeed, followed by a love of children, a calling to the profession and the opportunity to make a positive difference, according to the survey.
“The rewards of teaching can be tremendous,” Smith said. “At any level, a teacher is truly much needed in our society today when there are so many demands on people trying to learn skills and getting the knowledge that they so richly deserve.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at email@example.com or (601) 853-3967.