I read that our state Legislature is mulling over a minuscule teacher pay raise and, as a retired, 25-year combat veteran of teaching in Mississippi public schools, including two Lamar County high schools, I feel strongly that salaries need to be raised to at least the southeastern average, especially since our faithful Mississippi teachers are still reporting for class during the pandemic, and other much more highly paid teachers, like in Chicago, are absent.
On the face of it, our public teacher compensation seems almost fair, but I think of it as the “lie of the average.” We read how the “average” teacher salary in Mississippi is $45,574; however, we know that the starting salary is $35,890 (plus varying local supplements, $700 in Lamar County), and that this “average” figure is skewed by longevity raises and administrator salaries, meaning that the “average” teacher makes a whole lot less. It’s even worse when you learn that the “average” new teacher usually lasts about five years in the classroom before finding another way to make a living, consequently never reaching this “average.”
In 2019, according to figures produced by the National Education Association, there was a $40,000 difference between what the average teacher in New York makes and what the average teacher in Mississippi makes. The NEA further reported that the average salary for a public school teacher in the United States was $61,730, and that Mississippi continues to be dead last in state rankings, almost $3,000 below West Virginia, the next lowest.
Is it any wonder that college students are bailing out of teacher education programs and going into more lucrative lines of work? Yes, teachers are dedicated, but they can’t live on love; they must be paid a living wage commensurate with their education. State legislators have loaded the traditional teacher education programs with so many tests and requirements (some temporarily suspended) that it is almost a five-year major at some schools. This, combined with the low salaries, has led to a teacher shortage, especially in the so-called “critical,” poorer areas of our state.
Not to worry, the state department of education keeps rolling out “alternate” routes to teaching certificates, meaning that anyone with a four-year degree can jump through a few hoops and find himself or herself in charge of a classroom. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I have served as a mentor teacher to some of these 90-day wonders, and many have proven to be outstanding teachers. But some haven’t. I remember one young man who didn’t make it through the first period of his first day on the job.
The missing element seems to be experience in the classroom, what we once called “practice teaching.” The various alternate route programs around the state are helping to fill the teacher shortage, but classroom management is often the new teacher’s nemesis. In my opinion, unless a prospective teacher goes through a traditional four-year teacher education program, they have little face-to-face interaction with live students, and some will get eaten alive in an actual classroom. Experience is truly the best teacher. Let me give you a few hard-learned lessons from my own teaching career, things I would never have learned in the “alternate” route. The names have been changed to protect the guilty, and I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations has expired.
• Never turn your back on the class. I was outlining a sentence on the blackboard, in front of the class, when I heard this loud commotion off to my right. I looked, and there was a student, who was trying to crawl out the pull-down window, but had gotten himself stuck, halfway in and halfway out.
• Park your car in a wide open, visible location. I had a run-in with a senior student, and when I got into my car after school, it wouldn’t crank. Luckily, I knew enough about cars to figure out that he had unhooked my sparkplug wires.
• Walk around the classroom during tests. While giving a test, I noticed that a kid was very interested in the trash can he had pulled up next to his desk. I figured he was chewing tobacco; I went to investigate and found the class textbook in the can.
• When you grade a test and get a series of strange, identical answers, 99% of the time all these test takers are sitting close together.
• Keep your door locked when you are not in your classroom. So far, I have “lost” a gumball machine, a boombox, several coats and lots of lunch money.
• Beware field trips. I once carried a class to Biloxi, driving my own bus, but was late getting back to school because, after we ate lunch at the mall, one student kept hiding in the back of the bus and messing up the count – knowing I couldn’t leave without him.
• Hang’um high. If you decorate your classroom, hang your favorite pictures at least 9 feet above the floor. I made the mistake of hanging my autographed picture of the Blue Angels at eye level. It flew away.
Now I’ll tell a few important things I learned driving a school bus. I think all new teachers should at least have to ride a school bus for a few days, to see how things actually are. Through no fault of my own, I became a bus driver, running a route before and after school. I referred to it as “driving the yellow peril.” If you teach school, never admit that you have a commercial driver’s license because there’s always a shortage of bus drivers, and you will get “volunteered.”
The coaches referred to my route as the “Louisiana” route because it ran almost beyond Baxterville to the edge of the Devil’s Backbone. It took me a flat two hours to run it, door to door. The least little disruption or bad weather would make us late to school. Thankfully, the mechanical governor miraculously fell off the diesel engine (Immaculate Removal), and I could really wind that old bus up on the straight stretches.
The football coach heard that I had a fast bus and asked me if I would start driving the team on Friday night and also film the games.
He was a dear friend of mine, so I said, “sure.” I did this through several lean years. He was a great coach, but our team was always small but slow and severely outmanned. I remember he once told me that “Anytime you have three busloads of band members and one busload of football players, you are in trouble.” I guess this was true, but we always got back home first in our fast bus.
After driving the school bus a few years, I came to realize that there was a synergistic relationship between bus driving and school teaching, particularly regarding issues of good order and discipline. What I learned in one area had application in the other. I also found that the school bus was an excellent “laboratory” for visualizing the classroom management theories that I had earlier taught in college teacher preparation classes. I never had any real problems in either the bus or the classroom, except with the “not quites” – not quite so disruptive I couldn’t drive or teach; not quite so bad that major disciplinary action was necessary.
While I doubt that the so-called experts in the field of school discipline, such as Lee Cantor, William Glasser, and Jacob S. Kounin ever drove a school bus, I found that three of their major ideas had direct application to that unique environment. For example, I found myself intuitively practicing what Cantor calls “Assertive Discipline.” An assertive driver (or teacher) is one who clearly and firmly communicates needs and requirements to passengers (or students), follows up with appropriate actions and responds in ways that maximize compliance.
Knowing all this, Assertive Discipline was the technique I used on a kid, just out of Columbia Training School, that I caught on the back seat of the bus, mooning the cars behind us. I told him to keep his pants on; moved him up to the seat behind me; and never let him out of my sight after that. Problem solved.
I also made use of the Glasser model, which is primarily known as “Reality Therapy.” He believes that students are rational beings and that they can control their behavior if they wish. However, they must often be guided to become responsible individuals able to satisfy their worldly needs. On a school bus, it is the driver’s job to provide guidance so that students can make good choices. Rules are essential to Glasser, and they must be enforced. A bus driver, for example, could post the rules for his or her bus: “Eat Before Getting on the Bus,” “Stay in Your Seat,” etc. Reasonable consequences should always follow misconduct, and no excuse should be accepted for poor behavior.
One day, it came down from on high that the students on the buses were “making too much racket.” I duly posted a sign asking for cooperation in holding the noise down, knowing it wasn’t going to help. My solution was to designate every Friday as “Scream Day.” As soon as we got out of sight of the school, the students could scream their little hearts out. They would scream for four or five miles; they got it out of their systems, and then the bus would be quiet until the next official scream day. We had basically followed the rules, and everyone was happy.
The principles of the Kounin model, which stresses the “ripple effect,” also found expression on my bus. He found that when teachers correct misbehavior in one student, it often influences the actions of nearby students. According to this theory, one should clearly identify the misbehaving student, point out what the student is doing wrong and what the student should be doing instead. Other students in the class will observe and take heed. Kounin also speaks of teacher “withitness,” that is, the ability to know what is going on in all parts of the classroom at all times. Granted, this is a problem on a school bus where you are trying to drive and monitor as many as 60 students by looking through your rear-view mirror.
We always had strict rules about throwing things out the window, so one day when I saw a first-grade girl throwing a piece of paper to another first-grade boy who had just exited the bus, I decided to correct her by speaking loudly enough to use the ripple effect. When I reminded her not to throw things out the window, she looked hurt and told me, “I was just giving him my phone number.”
I always tried to pass the above “lessons learned” to alternate route teachers and others who might be interested; some were, and some were not.
Being a public school teacher in Mississippi reminded me of a conundrum I felt as a junior officer in the Navy: responsible for everything but in charge of nothing.
It’s true that teaching is a rewarding profession, but you still have to feed your family and live a dignified life. The idea that those who can’t, teach, is garbage. I’d like to see how long such naysayers would last in a classroom of 30 rambunctious, hormone-driven high schoolers and under the pressure of a state testable subject.
If you are smart enough to survive that, you are smart enough to learn to pass anybody’s bar exam.
I never knew Phil Specter, the music impresario who died in prison a few weeks ago, but I did meet someone who was the subject of one of his “wall of sound” songs: Mr. Lee (“One, two, three, look at Mr. Lee; three, four, five, look at him jive; Mr. Lee.”). A New York City school teacher, Mr. Lee so impressed his students that they wrote the song about him, and it hit the Top 40 back in the late ‘70s.
After he retired, he became a motivational speaker, and I hired him to speak at a Navy school where I was teaching. After his presentation, I asked him what was the secret of his success? He said, “Two things: never see teaching as a zero-sum game, everyone has to be a winner; and never send anyone to the office; solve your own problems.”
It worked for Mr. Lee, and it worked for me.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby of Oak Grove is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Visit his website, bennyhornsby.com, or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.