The first-period bell brings Murrah High School sophomores to Andrew Garner’s classroom. The Algebra I teacher greets them at the door for the first time this semester. His red shirt sports an image of a right angle and the words, “I am always right.”; students call him “corny.” He embraces this feedback as he introduces himself to the group.
“I’m excited to teach y’all this year,” he told the students. “You have to pass my class to graduate. I’m excited to be that gateway for your graduation. That means we work together.”
Garner, a third-year teacher, is a member of the Mississippi Teacher Corps. He joined the alternate-route program after he spent a year in the classroom and realized that he loved it.
“Before I started at Murrah, I did not want to be a teacher,” Garner told the Mississippi Free Press. “That was the last thing I wanted to do. I kind of switched up at the last minute and just started trying something; I fell in love with it. I’m kind of stuck, and I love being stuck with this profession.”
While teachers like Garner are finding their places in classrooms, teacher shortages are a ballooning issue across the United States. Teacher-preparation programs throughout the nation have experienced declining enrollments over the last decade.
Concurrently, more and more teachers are retiring or leaving the profession due to low pay, the increased pressure of student performance on standardized tests, and government-mandated curriculums. The pandemic further exacerbated the shortage as teachers experienced the challenges of added safety protocols on top of the fear that they or their students may contract COVID-19.
Mississippi’s Fight to Close the Gap
In Mississippi, a state historically known for its struggling education system, teacher shortages compound education inequity. A January report from the Mississippi Department of Education indicated that there were nearly 2,600 teaching positions vacant and almost as many administrative, staff and support roles also unfilled. The shortages result in decreased opportunities for advanced academic and elective courses, larger class sizes, and a higher likelihood of inexperienced and underprepared educators.
In 1998, state legislators began working toward solutions and passed the Critical Teacher Shortage Act, which provides incentives for educators to teach in designated geographical teacher-shortage districts. Those districts include ones with 60 or more teaching positions with 10% or more teachers not appropriately licensed. Districts can also meet the criteria if 15% of their teachers do not have the credentials for the subject they are teaching. Currently, 104 districts in the state are designated as critical-needs districts.
Even with the law’s monetary bonuses and a later law providing stipends for National Board-certified teachers, the shortage has continued to grow. Many education experts are concerned that student enrollment in teacher-education programs is plummeting. Between 2011 and 2020, students completing educator-preparation programs showed a steady decline. Many attribute the waning interest to low pay.
“They use all of these kind words associated with teaching like service and calling,” Joe Sweeney, program director for Mississippi Teacher Corps, told the Mississippi Free Press. “… Basically, you’re proving that you want to do this by how poorly you’re getting paid, which is unfortunate because I think you would find some people that would teach for free, but really you need to pay teachers.”
Mississippi recently increased its base teacher pay. House Bill 530 enacted on July 1, 2023, provides an average increase of around $5,100 per year effective this school year. Teacher assistants also received a $2,000 increase under the plan. The increase brings the state’s base teacher salary above the southeastern and national averages.
“People need to be able to make money and be able to have families and have their needs met, and it’s just really difficult to do that as a teacher,” Sweeney said.
When Traditional Education-Preparation Programs Are Not Enough
Sweeney drove his car to Mississippi for the first time in 2004 during spring break. He learned about the Mississippi Teacher Corps through his Michigan State University history advisor, but he had trouble finding much information, given the layout of the early-days website of the time. So, he decided to just visit. Sweeney and a friend met founder Andy Mullins and then program manager Ben Guest in Guyton Hall. The Michigan State alumnus decided that day on the sunny tree-lined campus that he would teach in Mississippi.
“I enjoyed my visit in Mississippi,” Sweeney told the Mississippi Free Press. “So I applied and I got in. I guess what attracted me to the program was that I would get a chance to teach and work with kids, which is what I wanted to do.”
Through the alternate-route program, he earned a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and an AA Mississippi Educators license.
Mississippi has several alternative paths to educator licensure. These pathways allow persons who already hold a bachelor’s degree in any field to earn a teaching license, through a combination of coursework and mentoring. The Annual EPP Teacher Preparation Performance report the Mississippi Department of Education published showed that almost 20% more of the state’s teacher candidates entered alternate-route teaching programs than traditional ones in the 2020-2021 school year. Many alternate-route programs located within a college or university lead to a master’s degree in education. Others are located outside of a college or university including the Teach Mississippi Institute.
Except for a year spent teaching conversational English in Japan, Sweeney has remained in Mississippi and in education. After his two-year commitment ended at Cleveland’s East Side High School, he spent four more years in the public-school system and worked at the Baptist College of Health Sciences.
“I’ve grown to appreciate the positives of the state while also seeing that there’s still a lot of inequality,” Sweeney said. “There are definitely issues (like) the teacher shortage.”
The Mississippi Teacher Corps, which Andy Mullins and Amy Gutman founded in 1989, is one of the oldest alternate-route teaching programs in the state. The University of Mississippi houses the graduate-level certification program in which corps members commit to teaching for two years in a critical-needs area while earning master’s degrees in curriculum and instruction. Since its creation, MTC has placed more than 600 teachers in critical-shortage districts in the state.
“I feel good about the impact that we’ve had,” Sweeney said. “But I also understand that we are a drop in the bucket when it comes to the teacher shortage.”
The 2023-2024 cohort added 16 new teachers to the state. Presently, current or former members of MTC are teaching in 13 school districts in Mississippi. Program members receive money for classroom supplies and a $1,000 signing bonus. Additional private funds have allowed the program to offer $5,000 bonuses to program graduates who remain in the state for a third and fourth year.
“It was about 10% to 20% that typically stayed. That had been the historical percentage,” Sweeney said. “Once we started offering the bonus for the third and fourth year, over the past five years basically like 50% are signing on to stay, and even those that are leaving end up either doing graduate school or remaining in education.”
Sweeney found that the negative perception that many have of rural and low-income communities affected recruitment and retention efforts.
“I think there’s a stigma attached to teaching in poor communities,” Sweeney said. “It’s been perpetuated by movies and in different articles, and I think that keeps people out of the profession. I also think it is a very unfair situation because when I go and observe our teachers and when I go into their classrooms, it doesn’t reflect that stereotype to me.”
“I sit in a room with kids who are curious and who want to learn,” he continued. “I’m not blind to the issues that they’re dealing with. Some kids are dealing with some very difficult circumstances, but I see a classroom full of kids who are learning. They’re participating. They’re having positive interactions with the teacher. The teacher is enjoying the situation, enjoying teaching and working with kids. The perception of critical-shortage areas and the reality I think are incredibly different.”
Other alternate-route programs in the state are experiencing the same successes and challenges. Teach for America Greater Delta placed 19 teachers in Mississippi critical-needs school districts this school year—more than double the number that they placed in the state last year. Kwanza Williams, managing director of local recruits for Teach for America’s Greater Delta region, estimates that 200 TFA teachers are still in education in the state, many of whom are native Mississippians.
“Every year over 50% of our corps, even when our corps came from out of the state, would stay at least a third or fourth year,” Williams said. “What we are seeing with our individuals who are from Mississippi or Arkansas is that they stay (in Mississippi classrooms) anywhere between 75 to 80%.”
The program started in the greater Delta region in 1991 and placed teachers in West Helena, Ark. Two years later, TFA began placing teachers in Mississippi, primarily in the Delta. Corps members agree to teach for two years in their placement area and may be placed in public or charter schools.
Participants complete an intensive three-week virtual training on the basics of teaching, the culture of learning and the creation of a thriving learning environment. They also complete a three-week summer teaching practicum at Midtown Charter School in Jackson, receive a $5,500 stipend to cover previous educational expenses and a $5,000 summer stipend. Financial bonuses are given to minority participants and those of low socioeconomic status.
“We recognize that money can be a barrier to joining our program, so we make sure that it is equitable across the board for all of the incoming corps members to join Teach For America,” Willams said.
Williams, like Sweeney, is an alum of the program that she now directs. The Pelahatchie, Miss., native joined in 2005 after graduating from Tougaloo College. She spent three years teaching at Ruleville Middle School. She also taught high-school science in Humphreys County and served as assistant principal at Delta Collegiate High School in West Helena, Ark. before returning to Mississippi to work with Teach for America.
The educator has observed a decline in applicants and interest.
“Unfortunately, we have not been able to place as many core members as we’d hoped because of the decreasing interest in education in our program,” Williams said.
Both programs have found that recruits who were already Mississippi residents tend to remain in the state to continue careers in education. Each has shown marked success in recruiting applicants who are already working in schools as teacher assistants or paraprofessionals. However, most alternate-route programs in the state—including Teach Mississippi Institute and the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence—provide teachers with only licensure for placement in middle and high schools.
The Mississippi Department of Education decided to tap into the crop of homegrown potential educators to help mitigate another of the state’s shortage areas. Courtney Van Cleve, executive director of the Office of Educator Continuum said that MDE created the Mississippi Teacher Residency program with the express purpose of certifying teachers for elementary and special-education classrooms.
“The Mississippi Department of Education provided grant awards of over 9.8 million to five Mississippi universities for the Mississippi Teacher Residency Program, which is intended to provide dual certification in both elementary and special education,” Van Cleve said.
The program, which has funding to support up to 200 participants, pays the candidates’ tuition as well as any book fees and programmatic costs. Each resident is also assigned a mentor during their year-long practicum in the classroom, with the program also covering the mentors’ stipends. Van Cleve attributes the program’s success to the professionals that it attracts.
“Most of the persons who participate in this program are former teacher assistants or people who have worked as staff in schools who are now moving into a teacher role,” Van Cleve told Mississippi Free Press. “We’ve also had a good amount of success with career changers, too, for the Mississippi Teacher Residency. Folks who’ve had experience as working professionals but for a variety of reasons have decided that teaching is now their calling.”
MDE has also piloted a performance-based licensure program. Candidates include those who have had years of experience in classrooms as teacher assistants, special nonrenewable licensed teachers, emergency-certified teachers or long-term substitutes. They must also have data to show that they have a positive influence on their students.
“What we found is that when we compared our performance-based licensure candidates to teachers who’ve passed all the required licensure tests, etc., there wasn’t any statistically significant difference in outcomes of our PBL candidate performance versus teachers who passed all required licensure tests,” Van Cleve said. “They did, however, have a marginally statistically significant positive effect on student attendance, and since then, we’ve also seen some statistically significant differences in terms of their performance growth system scores.”
Both the Mississippi Teacher Residency and the performance-based licensure program were initially funded through a $4.1 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and are now being funded through Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds. Participants make a three-year commitment to remain teaching in their respective districts.
“I do think it’s continuing to have a big ripple effect and a big impact even when you look at the numbers, (but) we all know there’s more work to be done,” Van Cleve added.
Still, education advocates recognize these programs will likely not solve the growing shortage issues alone.
“We’re not here to save Mississippi, and we’re also not able to end the teacher shortage,” Sweeney said. “I don’t think any program has been able to do that or will be able to do that until the major issues are addressed.”