Suzanne Smith sometimes finds herself singing in the hallways without even thinking about it. That’s how she finds her calming state of “flow.” It’s second nature and stress relieving, says the Grenada, Miss., middle school teacher, who is also the music director at her church.
She knows the term “self-care” is overused, and it isn’t a cure-all, but finding a way to divert attention from the negative and focus on something you enjoy helps a lot.
“[Music] puts my mind in a better place,” she says.
But a big raise has given her even more reasons to sing. Last year, thanks to the advocacy of the Mississippi Association of Educators and members like Smith, Gov. Tate Reeves signed into law the largest teacher pay raise in the state’s recent history.
Teachers in the state, long among the lowest paid in the nation, will receive an average increase of more than $5,000 in the 2022 – 2023 school year, which is about a 10 percent pay hike on average. Teacher assistants will receive a $2,000 raise in the same school year.
“It’s huge,” Smith says. “In all the 30 years I have been teaching, this is the largest we’ve ever gotten at one time. I also appreciate the fact that our legislators appreciated us and cared for us enough to push for that.”
Smith, too, has considered leaving, wondering if she needed a change from the strain of teaching. She stayed because it’s what she’s wanted to do ever since she was a little girl, and she couldn’t imagine a career she would enjoy more.
But having her union work with her legislators to finally recognize educators’ value does wonders for morale and the desire to stay. Some educators had been commuting to Alabama to work. Soon after Mississippi’s raise, Alabama raised its own teachers’ salaries to compete and try to ease that state’s shortage.
Under the new Mississippi law, teachers will also receive annual step increases of at least $400, with larger increases in every fifth year and a more substantial bump at 25 years. The increase will not only attract more people to the profession, but it will help keep them there.
“Some teachers are saying it’s not enough,” Smith says. “Is it ever enough? The fact that we’ve come this far is a milestone, and will set a precedent. We’ll only go up from here, and I think we’ve shown what we are worth and why we deserve professional pay. Now the rest of the country is watching.”
Back in Denver, Adams is a member of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association bargaining team. He says the process is sometimes disheartening, but it’s also empowering. He and his colleagues are determined to create an environment that will make educators want to stay—better working conditions, more resources for schools and student mental health, and bigger paychecks.
“That becomes the inspiring thing—working for what it could be in public education,” he says. “The world I want to work in doesn’t yet exist, but the work I’m doing with my union and my colleagues is to create the right systems for teaching and learning, the ones we dream about seeing.”
And so he stays, feeling ever more optimistic as we head back to school.
“Around the corner there’s hope,” he says. “Things get better and change.”