Teachers, school administrators and advocacy groups on Wednesday laid out for a state commission a long list of grueling conditions they say drive educators out of the industry.  

At the third meeting of the Teacher Recruitment and Retention Blue Ribbon Commission created by the State Board of Education — testimony focused on low pay, oppressive student debt and a lack of support for struggling teachers who have weathered the pandemic.

The issue of teacher recruitment and retention “is literally the train coming at us through the tunnel,” said Rebeka McIntosh, a 25-year alternative school educator from south Kansas City and Missouri National Education Association vice president.

Despite some educators driving four hours to share their experiences with a handful of members of the commission in Jefferson City, they were each given just three minutes to provide “specific policy and practice shifts to improve the educator experience.”

The 22-member commission includes mostly business leaders and state lawmakers, board of education members, teachers and staff from the governor’s office and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. It’s tasked with issuing a set of recommendations on the topic to the Missouri State Board of Education by October.

The commission has held two meetings prior, and Wednesday’s was the first chance for educators to weigh in in-person. It previously faced criticism from education advocacy groups and state lawmakers serving on the commission when the meetings were originally going to be closed to the public, raising concerns of potential violations of Missouri’s open records law. That decision was reversed after a threat of a lawsuit.

On Monday, three sets of surveys were opened to garner educator feedback, and as of Wednesday morning, the surveys have received over 7,500 responses from teachers, over 500 from principals and about 230 from superintendents, said Mallory McGowin, a spokeswoman for DESE. The surveys will continue to collect responses until Friday at 4 p.m.

Questions for teachers range from what boosts to teacher compensation are a high priority, like an increase in salary or an expansion of health care benefits, to strategies to increase the only 7% of teachers of color in Missouri.

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Reports have ranked Missouri’s average starting teacher salary at one of the lowest in the nation. The minimum teacher’s salary is $25,000, and for those with a master’s degree and at least ten years of experience it’s $33,000.

Shawn Harris, a Tipton R-VI School District high school art teacher, said new and veteran teachers are often having to find second jobs to make ends meet.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, because there are 49 other states that have done it better than us,” Harris said.

This past legislative session that ended in May, lawmakers included funding in the state budget to raise teachers’ salaries to $38,000 and restart the Career Ladder program to boost pay of experienced teachers. But some districts have expressed reservations with the funding model to boost starting teacher salaries, noting it requires a local funding match and that state funds are not guaranteed after a year.

When Jackee Collins, a virtual coordinator in Delta R-V Schools, shared that she is paid less than $38,000 for her base salary — and that’s with multiple master’s degrees — a member of the audience whispered under their breath: “Jesus Christ.”

Collins said the legislature’s funding increase to boost teacher pay isn’t a workable solution for smaller districts, and can end up paying more experienced teachers the same as new ones just entering the field.

“School districts cannot fund 200 to $400,000 a year to blow up their salaries,” Collins said in an interview. “So what are they doing? They’re giving us stipends.”

Smaller school districts are being left behind, Collins said, funneling families and qualified teachers to larger districts with more resources.

“I work for a small school district and they are the same kids and they deserve the same amount of money and assets,” Collins told the commission. “The buildings are there. Support them.”

Terry Robinson, superintendent of the Tipton R-VI School District, has been in education for 27 years and when he first entered the profession in 1997, his salary was at $21,000 a year. It’s one that’s not sustainable for a profession, he said.

“I still remember interviewing teacher, after teacher, after teacher talking to me about 50 to $80,000 of loans they needed to pay and trying to make that work in their budget and finding a trailer to live in,” Robinson said. “I’ve actually had that happen.”

When schools run into budget issues, essential services for behavioral issues “get cut often and every time,” said Andrew Flett, who taught special education for four years and worked another four in an academic reassignment classroom.

Flett said after an academic reassignment classroom was cut at a high school in his district, those at-risk students were sent to a middle school. 

“And I don’t need to tell you why bringing at-risk high school kids into a middle school is a bad idea,” Flett said, who advocated for federal relief funds to be used to support behavioral health options in rural districts to address students’ mental health issues.

Flett also urged for districts to not be hamstrung in their discipline policies, in order to support teachers by not sending difficult students right back to a classroom after getting in trouble.

“If you can truly support your administrators by allowing them to fully discipline the students and hold them accountable — you can actually change behavior and create a culture of accountability,” Flett said.

Clarissa Brown, a former high school teacher for 11 years who left the profession in May 2021, cautioned against increasing funding for schools or teachers on the basis of whether they’re considered high-performing, noting that it could perpetuate inequity and send more resources to schools that are already well-resourced to begin with.

“There are challenges determining what is a high performance teacher, and how do you determine that?” Brown said. “I don’t know. Good luck.”

Kathy Steinhoff, a former Columbia Public Schools educator for 34 years who retired this past year, said it boils down to allocating more funding to education.

“I know there is resistance to throwing money at a problem, but every good suggestion that was in that survey on the topic of recruitment and retention requires more resources which also requires more funding,” said Steinhoff, who also is running unopposed as a Democrat for House District 45.

Cambria Crabtree, a 13-year teacher who’s taught in both small and suburban districts, urged legislators and members of the community to visit classrooms firsthand and to come back multiple times to get a true sense of what teachers are facing.

“Don’t come and ask to see a dog and pony show,” Crabtree said. “See what it’s really like in the trenches. It’s hard out there.”

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