Last Thursday morning, the Mississippi Department of Education had 2,120 job openings listed on its website. A day later, five more had been added across the state’s 148 districts.
Comparatively, the need for teachers, coaches, nurses, bus drivers and other school district employees is less severe around Tupelo than the rest of the state. In the 30 school districts in Northeast Mississippi, there were 118 job openings as of Friday morning. That’s 3.93 per school district. The other 118 districts average 17 job openings apiece.
Across Mississippi, superintendents and other administrators are brainstorming plans to attract talented employees to work in schools.
“Currently right now there’s just a shortage of teachers overall,” said former Tupelo High School principal Jason Harris, who is currently the superintendent of Columbia school district.
“We had a Gulf Coast consortium meeting last week with a group of the superintendents on the coast. The number one thing we talked about is the teacher shortage and how we as a whole need to do a better job of bringing in and keeping teachers,” Harris stated.
According to the National Education Association, during the 2016-17 school year, the average starting salary for teachers in Mississippi was $34,780. That was $3,837 below the national average.
Teachers in four of the 12 states with lower average starting salaries than Mississippi in 2016-17 – Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma and West Virginia – went on strike this past spring for more funding and higher wages. Neighbors Tennessee ($36,402), Alabama ($38,477) and Louisiana ($40,128) all pay more than the Magnolia State. Arkansas offers $127 less.
Still, pay isn’t the only aspect of recruiting teachers.
Tupelo superintendent Dr. Rob Picou, who has 20 years of experience working in schools across Alaska explained, “I would always bring some of my students with me on recruiting trips. Potential teachers always feel more compelled to move to a community when they can put a face to the students they would be working with. There’s a lot more to it than salary. We had big salaries in Alaska but still a high teacher turnover rate. Whenever a school is in a rural area that’s simply not where young teachers are going to want to live.”
Although Mississippi school districts often vie for the same teachers, finding a solution will be a collective effort.
“Right now in Columbia we’re trying to find a high school math teacher and Biloxi is trying to find a math teacher too,” Harris said. “But we shouldn’t look at this problem like a competition. We’re all responsible for our individual districts but we’ve got to help each other out for the good of the state.”