Support teachers with better pay

The product of a rural Arkansas school, my mother wanted a future for me she did not see for herself upon her own graduation. I witnessed her grit and determination to lift me out of the cycle of poverty we lived in and into better opportunities than she had.

Mrs. White, my high school English teacher, closed the distances my mother could not go. What I remember now from her class is not the content; it's the way she made me feel valued and worthy of a bright future. My mom's struggles motivated me. Mrs. White's compassion inspired me, and ultimately led me to a future above the poverty line.

Like her, I am now a high school English teacher in an Arkansas public school. My heart is soft for the students who believe success is out of their reach, who, like my mother initially, view a prosperous future as reserved for the elite.

I am not unique; Arkansas educators are motivated, highly qualified professionals with as many as 37 percent holding a master's degree, according to the 2022 Adequacy Report. Most teachers will attend nearly twice the required amount of hours to maintain a license, and frequently work after-hours to meet the demands of the job.

As licensed colleagues leave the field, those left behind are seeing higher numbers of students per class, stretching us thinner than usual and increasing the likelihood current teachers will need to take time off for their own mental health needs. In the lower Delta region, where our high-poverty areas especially struggle to retain quality educators, teachers' salaries ranked 48th in the nation. Our workload-to-salary ratio is not sustainable.

Arkansas' General Assembly is set to reconvene in January. This October, members of the House Education Committee proposed a $4,000 raise to the base salary, making the minimum pay for Arkansas teachers $40,000, but legislation to solidify this proposal has to wait until January.

The $4,000 base increase is the very minimum; teachers in the Teach Plus Policy Fellowship, where I am a fellow, have proposed increasing the statewide minimum starting teacher salary to $46,000 and giving a $4,000 raise to all teachers. If passed, the $4,000 increase to base salary and a $4,000 raise for current practitioners would mimic recent salary increases in neighboring Mississippi, which last spring raised its base salary for teachers to $41,638, surpassing Arkansas' $36,000. Texas, where the base salary for educators is an appealing $60,000, has been known to advertise for teachers in Arkansas.

Being paid less than teachers in neighboring states does not say "we value you here" and should be a cautionary sign to lawmakers.

In addition to these increases in pay, there is work to be done locally to support teachers. At the district level, teachers need opportunities to lead from the classroom; many seek administration jobs due to the significantly higher pay. Compensating teachers for additional certifications and duties should be a requirement in Arkansas districts to encourage dedicated educators to remain in the classroom.

District, local, and state leadership should also proactively involve teachers in important decisions involving funding, and gather input when legislation is proposed that will affect us, our students, and our classrooms. We are the active research experts in our field; consult us.

Come January, it is time to use some of the unprecedented $1.6 billion surplus to increase teacher pay. If teachers are not made a priority, I am afraid we will continue to see rising attrition rates.

Ultimately, our students' potential for a quality education and a better life hangs in the balance as teachers struggle with low pay and potentially better opportunities elsewhere. I know because I was one of those children, living below the poverty line and needing a good teacher to motivate me. I would not be where I am today if it were not for Mrs. White and other excellent teachers in my life.

Make the move to keep teachers here before many more decide the workload is not worth the paycheck. The time is right now to compensate Arkansas teachers with salaries they deserve.

Emily Garrison is a teacher in northwest Arkansas and a Teach Plus Arkansas Policy Fellow.

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