Mississippi legislators recently approved a pay raise for teachers, boosting teacher pay by $1,500 across the board after rejecting a proposed $4,000 raise. Students looking to teach in the state after graduation said they were disappointed in the progress.
Marcie Koehn is a student teacher at Saltillo High School set to graduate from the University of Mississippi in May with a degree in secondary education. Koehn will soon enter the workforce in one of the states with the lowest teacher pay in the nation and one of the highest rates for child poverty.
The limited pay raise upset Koehn because it was not as much as she and other student teachers were hoping for. She said low salaries for teachers in Mississippi cause good teachers to leave the state to find work in states with higher base pay for education. Koehn was frustrated and felt the state didn’t value the level of education that teachers must attain to be able to teach.
“My mother works at a loan company. She dropped out in the eighth grade and got her GED (certificate), but she has no formal education past the eighth grade, and she’s making as much as I will after having a four-year college degree,” Koehn said. “She’s sitting in an office doing desk work, and she’s making as much money as I will.”
The only personal tie keeping Koehn in Mississippi is her family, and if she could find a job in another state that would pay her more to teach, she would take it, she said.
“Other places are better. They just are, and if there comes a time when I’m not as tied to Mississippi, like once (my boyfriend) finishes school, if there’s somewhere else that is going to pay me better and I think it would be a nice place to live, I’ll probably go there,” Koehn said.
Koehn lived in Brewer and has commuted one hour each way to Oxford to attend the university for most of her undergraduate schooling. She chose to live in Brewer because the cost of living was much cheaper than it was in Oxford.
During her first semester of student teaching, she was placed at Oxford High School, though she did not live in Oxford. She considers gas money to get to Oxford as one of the “hidden costs” of student teaching.
“I had to buy a whole wardrobe of professional clothes. Luckily my clinical instructor got me a bunch of stuff. He got me a calendar and things for my desk, but if you don’t have a clinical instructor who can find you those things, then you don’t have supplies. You’re just expected to buy them on your own,” Koehn said.
Teachers in Mississippi are granted funds to pay for classroom items through the Educational Enrichment Funds Procurement Card Program, commonly referred to as EEF, but student teachers are expected to pay for supplemental supplies out of pocket.
Chris Nichols, a sixth grade special education teacher at Mantachie Elementary School and Ole Miss alumnus, said there are hidden costs that come with teaching, and EEF money helps, but it’s often not enough.
“Whether you’re special education or general education, you get your EEF money, which is typically between $300 to $400 a year, but you’re lucky if that covers even half of what you’re going to spend,” Nichols said.
Ella Williams, a music teacher at Tupelo High School, said young teachers, as well as experienced teachers, are leaving the state to find jobs elsewhere because they can make more money in neighboring states.
“Our good teachers are looking for jobs in other states, and those teachers are the more seasoned ones, leaving us often with brand new teachers. Not that there’s anything wrong with a brand new teacher, but a little bit of experience goes a long way,” Williams said.
Koehn said regardless of the pay raise, she thinks teachers will still work in Mississippi because they want to see students succeed. The teachers in the state deserve more recognition, she said.
“You don’t do it for the pay. I care about my students, I genuinely do. And I’m just a student teacher. They come to me with their problems, and I hear their rants,” Koehn said. “I proofread their college essays, and I give them help, and I really care about these kids.”