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GUEST COLUMN | Arkansas should pay teachers as professionals

Teachers should be paid as professionals they are by Holly Howard Special to the NWA Democrat-Gazette | August 4, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.

No matter how hard I try, it's virtually impossible to get a teenager to laugh at my jokes. But there seems to be one that always lands. The perfect moment comes seconds after my students thank me for helping them accomplish a difficult task. My response: "That's why I make the big bucks." It gets a laugh every single time.

As an 11th-grade teacher, I'm asked one question every year as students begin planning for college: "Ms. Howard, why did you become a teacher knowing you wouldn't make a lot of money?" Ask any teacher and they'll tell you the reason they do this work is because of the students we build relationships with each year. That answer has kept me in this career for 16 years. It's why I've always encouraged students to enter the field of education to make their own impact.

But times are changing. It's becoming more difficult to convince promising students they will be valued if they choose to work in education -- especially when Arkansas teachers are the fourth-lowest paid in the country. Enrollment in Arkansas educator preparation programs has plummeted since 2012, and veteran, licensed educators are leaving the workforce faster than they can be replaced.

But, for the first time in my career, the Legislature has been given a real chance to change that. The state of Arkansas ended the 2022 fiscal year with a record-breaking $1.62 billion surplus. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has proposed using a portion of that money to raise teacher salaries by $4,000 and increase the minimum salary to $42,000 for the special session beginning Aug. 8. While the state has made small, incremental changes to the state minimum teacher salary over the past few years, our public schools are still facing a crisis like we've never faced before. In the wake of covid-19, our love for students isn't enough to keep our families afloat. We want to love this job and be paid as professionals. We deserve it as much as our students deserve to have an invested and passionate teacher in their classrooms.

Being a teacher requires a high degree of content knowledge, the ability to create and develop inclusive communities among a diverse population of students, and continued, rigorous professional development. As a teacher, I earn 60 hours of professional development each year -- more than required by most professional fields. On top of those 60 hours each year, in order to consistently improve my practice, I have worked to earn a master's degree, certification to teach English Language Learners, recognition as a National Board Certified teacher and completed multiple fellowships related to instruction and advocacy. Teachers are invested in the success of our students and the development of our own professional practice. We believe that lifelong learners create a better future for us all. But we can't do it all at the expense of supporting our families.

We see students as more than learners. We see them as humans. Many of us do this work because we hope for a better future. By teaching empathy, compassion, and inclusivity, we're preparing not only a productive workforce; we're creating a community that values humanity. We care deeply for our students and the future of this state that they will inherit. Like our professional development, this work isn't easy either. It takes an emotional toll on all teachers, which often goes unrecognized. Many of my colleagues have decided that although they believe in the work they're doing, the trade-off isn't enough. Last year alone, seven of my colleagues in the English department left my school, many of them to seek jobs that would better support their families. Teachers are leaving because they aren't financially compensated for the work they're contributing to the world. If Arkansas continues to undervalue its teachers, students will suffer the consequences.

Now is the moment for our legislators to step up and fund public education, and to ensure our state's teachers aren't among the lowest paid in the nation. They have a chance to invest a small portion of the $1.62 billion surplus into the education of our children and the future of this state. Show our children that the quality of their education matters. That their future matters.

If legislators let this moment pass, the joke's on us.

Print Headline: A chance for change


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