In rural Mississippi, the geometry teacher is a recording. The chemistry students often teach themselves. Rural and southern states face a crisis.
But there is no one to ask for help in this classroom, where students stare sleepily at laptops amid the din of a portable air conditioner. There is only a teacher’s assistant who can print out additional worksheets if they run into trouble. So Jordan, a top student, decides to wait until she can see Ms. Butler, the high school’s popular math teacher — and its only one.
The virtual session is not a concession to pandemic learning or a stopgap for a teacher who is sick. It is how sophomores are expected to learn geometry this year after the district could not find a teacher. In the Mississippi Delta, where schools have historically been shortchanged, teaching candidates — especially those who know math — are hard to come by.
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The nature and the severity of the teacher crisis differ radically from state to state, district to district and even school to school. Some districts have only recently started experiencing teacher shortages, but in many Southern states, the problem has been long-standing and only gotten worse. It doesn’t help either that the state has shortchanged districts like West Bolivar Consolidated by millions of dollars, failing to fund a program that would send more money to poor districts.
Researchers have found that schools that serve high percentages of minority students and students in poverty have more difficulty finding and retaining qualified educators than Whiter, more affluent schools. The West Bolivar Consolidated School District is 98 percent Black, and 100 percent of children qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Across the country, states and school districts desperate for candidates have resorted to shortening school weeks to make the job more appealing, eliminating requirements and, in nearby Oklahoma, permitting school districts to hire people without any college education.
In the West Bolivar Consolidated School District, keeping schools staffed is a high-wire balancing act that relies on long-term substitutes, virtual classes and hiring educators to teach subjects they have no training in. Throughout the fall, Superintendent Will Smith said, the district had bent so many rules to hire educators that it risked losing accreditation.
“It’s not fair,” he said, “but what else do we have?”
Bolivar County lies just east of the Mississippi River, its pancake-flat landscape dominated by soybean and cotton fields. It is crisscrossed with long, straight roads where traffic is often slowed by large pieces of farm equipment ambling down the highway.
Like a lot of communities in the region, the county is rich in culture, history and community pride but economically poor, having lost population when manufacturing jobs left and agriculture became more automated. Those who remain send their children to deteriorating schools that their districts struggle to run because of a dwindling tax base and a state legislature reluctant to fund schools at the per-student rate the law is supposed to guarantee.
Wanted: Teachers. No training necessary.
It’s how three small-town school districts with rival sports teams merged to become one — West Bolivar Consolidated — in 2014, at the behest of state lawmakers.
When public schools were compelled to integrate here, White students moved to private schools that came to be known as segregation academies — institutions that still stand today and serve a largely White student body. The desegregation fight in the county is hardly history: In 2016, a federal judge ordered two high schools in Cleveland, the county’s largest city, to consolidate into one to better integrate the student body. But at the schools that make up the West Bolivar district, there is nothing to integrate. White students left in the 1970s after courts told schools to open their doors to children of any race.
What’s happening in West Bolivar is common across Mississippi. Researchers trying to understand the teacher shortage could find sufficient data for only 37 states, and among those, Mississippi’s was the worst. For every 10,000 students there, 69 teacher positions are unfilled or filled by someone without traditional credentials. That’s 159 times the ratio in Missouri, according to their working paper, published by Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform.
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It has been difficult to attract teachers to the district, and many of the people who work at the school grew up in the region. Smith, the enthusiastic 36-year-old who took the reins of the district last June, hopes to create an energy and a buzz that will draw people to this part of the state.
One tactic he used to excite people in his previous job, as principal of Utica Elementary Middle School near Jackson, made him a local celebrity: His school’s Facebook page featured videos of him surprising teachers with monthly awards. That reputation followed him to West Bolivar, and teachers in neighboring districts, according to Smith, tried to get out of their contracts to go work for him. He recruited his assistant superintendent from another Delta school system. He also had his own tricks for recruiting, starting his searches in January and locking staff down by February.
Still, six weeks into the school year, he had several teacher vacancies. One of the jobs he was hiring for? Middle-school math teacher.
On a day in late September, seventh-graders got to their seats in a math classroom overseen for the day by a teacher’s assistant at West Bolivar High, where a motivational poster declared: “I can keep going when things are tough.”
Their teacher, 42-year-old Camellia Jenkins, was 18 miles away in a classroom full of seventh-graders at the McEvans School in Shaw, Miss. Jenkins toggled back and forth, teaching two different lessons simultaneously because the McEvans students were behind in the curriculum. Piped into the classroom on laptop speakers, she was difficult to hear over the rumble of the air conditioning.
“The assignment you all are doing at West Bolivar, how are you all doing?” Jenkins asked. Later in the lesson, she asked: “What happens to the 3x now?”
“I have no clue,” a student in the back muttered.
These students, in a sense, are lucky. Two other educators — one who teaches Spanish, and another who teaches high school science — also split their time between the two campuses. But in September there were no teacher assistants available to set up a virtual class and supervise students. So when their teachers were not in the building, students worked on assignments independently. (The district has since lined up teaching assistants, so students learn from their teachers over Zoom half the time.)
Shana Bolden, the high school science teacher, said she worries about the students who are left to teach themselves. Those who are not reading on grade level, for example, will struggle to understand a science lesson.
And a lack of funding means neither school has a science lab, so students who want to study science in college may be woefully underprepared. Bolden said she doesn’t think her brightest students are being sufficiently challenged.
Quintarion Hays, 15, is one of them. With his straight A’s, he aspires to work in cybersecurity or computer engineering — and to be the first in his family to finish college. This year, though, only half of his six classes have full-time teachers. He’s in Spanish and chemistry, where he sees teachers only every other day. Then there’s the geometry class, with no teacher.
For his part, Hays said he actually likes the schedule. It allows him a little bit of a break when his teachers travel to other campuses. And he does not struggle to keep up with the work.
“I’m self-motivated,” Hays said. “I’ve had a 4.0 so far, my whole high school career.”
At the recent homecoming parade, Etoshia Robinson, 28, and her 14-year-old daughter, Sariyah Drake, watched as the queen, wearing a six-inch-high tiara, rode by wearing a dress with blinding red sequins. Robinson graduated from Shaw High School, which has since been shuttered, and remembers having veteran teachers who had been in the district so long that they taught multiple generations of students.
Her daughter’s experience has been different. Just this year, Sariyah enrolled in a band class and had hoped to play trumpet, but the teacher was transferred to West Bolivar High after three days of school.
“The kids were looking forward,” Robinson said. “They hadn’t had a band teacher in years. They were excited.”
You don’t need a teaching credential to know children learn better from an in-person instructor than a computer program. Nafatic Butler, West Bolivar High’s beloved math teacher, spelled out some of the reasons: A computer program is a one-size-fits-all approach, not taking into account that some students may learn differently from others. A computer program can’t detect when a student is struggling because they need to review concepts they learned earlier.
And a computer program cannot see when a student is down, stressed or in need of something other than help with math. A computer program cannot be a confidante or a role model or a mentor.
“If they have [math] questions, I’m there,” Butler said. “If they need me, I’m there. If they need to talk, I’m there.”
Next year, though, Butler won’t be there. She’s planning to move to Texas, where she anticipates she won’t have any trouble getting a job — or a raise.
The importance of teachers cannot be underestimated. Research suggests that they matter more to a child’s learning than any other school-based factor, including the condition of the school building or the principal. Teachers not only affect academic achievement, they can also influence the likelihood a child will graduate from high school and how much they’ll learn over the course of their lives, researchers found. For children whose teachers are underqualified, inexperienced or nonexistent, the stakes are high.
West Bolivar Consolidated has been plagued by high turnover, and many of the teachers it hires are new and lack the training for the classes they’re supposed to teach. Measured on state assessments against other school districts with more resources and fewer vacancies, it came out near the bottom, receiving a D for its dismal test scores.
Mississippi’s teacher shortage is long-standing, dating back to at least 1998, when state legislators passed a law that offered college scholarships for teachers-in-training in exchange for a commitment to teach in a community with a shortage. It has tried a number of initiatives to recruit teachers, including residencies where the state pays the tuition of a prospective teacher and a stipend for them to do long-term student teaching.
Still, it has proved difficult to keep teachers in Mississippi because the pay has been historically low compared with that of other states. Two years ago, Mississippi came in dead last in average teacher pay, according to a National Education Association report, at a little less than $47,000 a year.
Last year, for the first time, the state’s Department of Education surveyed districts to learn just how many teachers were needed. It found that schools had more than 3,000 positions that were either vacant or filled by uncertified instructors. Not long after, the state gave teachers a historic pay increase, boosting salaries by an average of $5,140.
Nationally, experts trace the current teacher shortage to the 2008 Great Recession, when the nation’s public education system lost more than 120,000 teachers. When the economy rebounded and schools started hiring again, they found that many of those who had left were reluctant to return. There have been other factors, too: The number of people entering teacher training programs dropped by about one-third between 2008 and 2019.
One Monday in mid-September, Smith got an email that a U.S. Postal Service employee had applied through the school’s website. The woman had not taught on her own before, but she had a combination of qualities that no one else did: credentials to teach math, and a desire to work in this out-of-the-way school district.
“When you get that email, you’re jumping,” Smith said. “You have to quickly call the candidate and have a talk before they get hired by somebody else.”
He offered her a job over the phone, pending approval of the school board. Then he called an in-person emergency board meeting, and members quickly signed off. Within a week, the woman was in front of students at West Bolivar Middle.
By late December, though, the picture still looked bleak. A woman who had come back part time to teach art at McEvans had decided not to return for the second semester. Smith’s plan to move a long-term substitute to the same school to restore the music class was also derailed when the man called to say he planned to stop subbing at the end of the semester. And Smith had given up on trying to find teachers for Spanish, chemistry or geometry for the current school year.
A month later, the district’s luck shifted: He hired five teachers — two for high school science, and three for elementary school — for the upcoming school year.
Still, there was little he could do for students in classes now. It was hardly fair for the students, who would face state exams just like their peers in districts that had in-person teachers five days a week, instead of a patchwork of instructors who often left midyear, he said.
“At the end of the day, you’re still expected to produce the results,” Smith said. “None of the excuses are going to matter.”
Story editing by Adam B. Kushner. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Allison Cho. Design by J.C. Reed.