Hymethia W. Thompson was happily retired after 46 years as an educator when she saw a television news conference last summer that changed her life.
The interim school superintendent of Jackson, Mississippi, where Thompson lives, issued a plea to retired teachers to come back. The Jackson Public School District was experiencing a shortage of certified teachers and there was a desperate need for qualified former instructors.
“I hadn’t thought about returning to the classroom, but when I heard they needed certified teachers that badly, I had to help,’ said Thompson, who won numerous awards during her career as an English, speech and drama teacher in Mississippi and Wisconsin. “I called and got the information and a few weeks later I was back in the classroom.”
Thompson, 70, is among a small cadre of retired educators who returned to Jackson classrooms for the 2017-18 school year to teach science, math and English, the courses for which the school district has the direst need. She is currently teaching 11th grade English at Jackson’s historic Lanier High School, marking the first time the school has had a licensed 11th grade English teacher in four and a half years, she said. Thompson teaches three 90-minute periods per day — equal to six classes.
Freddrick Murray, who has been serving as Jackson Public Schools’ interim superintendent since November 2016, said he issued the call for retired teachers because the school district has had difficulty attracting adequate numbers of certified instructors. The problem is so significant, educators said, that many of Jackson’s schools depend on long-term uncertified substitutes to augment the teacher rolls. The school district has 58 schools, 1,800 teachers and about 26,000 students. There are 184 long-term subs working in Jackson schools this year, according to JPS spokesman Sherwin Johnson.
“Even with the retirees coming in, there is still a serious shortage,” said Bishop Ronnie Crudup, senior pastor of New Horizon Church International of Jackson and a member of the Better Together Commission, a group formed to spur school improvements in Jackson. “It’s a huge challenge and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight.”
Forty-eight retired educators are working in the schools this school year, according to Johnson. The school district wants to hire dozens of teachers.
Rural school districts across Mississippi and around the country are facing similar staffing challenges, often made more difficult by their remoteness. Alvin Thornton, former chair of the Maryland Commission on Education Finance, Equity, and Excellence, said bringing back retired teachers may be a good temporary fix for urban and rural districts alike, but it should not be considered a solution. The Maryland group, known as the Thornton Commission, was created to equalize educational opportunities and funding for students in Maryland’s 25 public school districts.
“What states have to do is invest in more well-funded teacher colleges,” he said. “There need to be incentive programs that offer people who go teach in low-income or rural areas inducements starting with [free] tuition and subsidization of expenses such as housing, etc.”
He added public school districts also need to get back to the basics that will make them successful: well-paid teachers who live in the communities where they work, small classes and parents and community members who are involved in children’s education.
In Jackson, Geraldine Bender, president of the Mississippi chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), said the district loses teachers to better-paying neighboring school districts and nearby states such as Texas, Georgia and Tennessee.
Among the reasons why pay is not competitive, she said, is a state legislature that “does not care a whole lot about funding inner city schools.” Suburban school districts are growing as Jackson families leave the city, in part because of concern about the underfunded schools, she added.
Murray, the interim superintendent, said JPS has been underfunded for years. According to JPS spokesman Sherwin Johnson, “the current [Mississippi Adequate Education Program] formula uses a base student cost of $5,381.52; at the current funding level … our actual funding is at $4,882.77 base student cost” — a difference that puts the district $498.75 in the hole for every student enrolled, a deficit that runs into the millions.
The shortage negatively impacts students and teachers alike, said Bender, of the AFT.
“For the students, it’s a situation of ‘Am I getting the best education because I have a sub in the classroom instead of a certified teacher?’” Bender said. “For the teachers, it’s class overload. You are working without an assistant and you have 35 students in a classroom, for example a French class or a math class or a science class. You are expected to reach each of those 35 students every class period. That’s an awesome task.”
JPS has recruited retirees by increasing financial incentives. The district pays them $225 per day, up from $125 per day previously. But hiring retirees is an imperfect solution to the district’s staffing woes; some retired teachers can only work for half a year or they’ll lose their retirement benefits. Others, like Hymethia Thompson, came out of retirement to teach, trading their retirement pay for a regular salary based on their education level and years of experience.
That’s why Murray said Jackson is also stepping up efforts to hire new teachers by increasing starting pay and offering curriculum support and professional development opportunities. The school district offered a signing bonus of $2,500 for teachers who were hired this school year, he said. School district officials are also attending job fairs and aggressively pursuing students coming out of college education programs, he added.
The teacher shortage resulted, in part, from the retirement of a number of teachers in recent years, Murray said. At the same time, the number of new college grads with degrees in education has been declining, so many positions are left unstaffed when veteran teachers leave. About 1,000 of the district’s 1,800 teachers have worked in classrooms for three years or less, Murray said.
Crudup, of the Better Together Commission, said he is eager for the teacher shortage to be resolved. “I believe one of our tasks will be to create a better environment that will be more attractive for people to want to come to Jackson and be part of the public schools,” he said.
In the interim, the district has conducted a multi-media blitz to entice retired teachers back to the classroom. Officials took their campaign to the public, doing interviews with local print and broadcast news outlets, purchasing billboards, advertising and spreading the word any way they could.
Murray even made phone calls to retired teachers he knew, asking if they were interested in coming back and requesting names of other retirees who might want to work with students again.
“It was a major priority for us,” Murray said. “We found that the pool of retired teachers was extensive.”
Viola Owens is one of the retired teachers who came out of retirement to help. She taught English for 33 years — 14 of them in Jackson Public Schools — before retiring in 2014 to take care of her disabled son. She was widowed in 2013, and lost her son in 2015. At loose ends after this double loss, she looked for volunteer work, donating her time to local police and other groups.
So, when she heard veteran teachers were needed, going back to school seemed ideal. Like Thompson, she teaches full time on a salary. A former educator of the year in Canton, Mississippi, who retired from Jackson Public Schools, Owens now works at Provine High School teaching three classes of 10th grade English per day, with one planning period.
“I like helping the young people,” she said. “Some of them need so much help and guidance. Things have changed quite a bit since I started teaching. A lot of the kids are behind socially and educationally.”
Indeed, the Jackson Public Schools serve many students with great needs, and many are behind academically. Many of the students hail from economically disadvantaged households; 78 percent of the students in the school system qualify for free or reduced meals. Just over 20 percent of JPS students scored proficient in reading, and only 16.9 percent were proficient in math based on assessments for grades three through eight.
Even though it’s not easy, Owens said she has been “delighted” to see some of the students she taught at John Powell Middle School before she retired.
“They know that means they are going to have to work!” she said.
Eric Knapp, is one of those teachers deeply embedded in his community that Alvin Thornton, of the Maryland Commission on Education Finance, Equity, and Excellence, suggests districts should be trying to attract. He taught Language Arts in Jackson for 29 years before retiring in 2009. He returned to Jackson schools as a substitute three years ago. “I guess after working with children, walking away was kind of boring,” he said. “I made the decision to go back to help out.”
Knapp said he’s had a positive response from students and parents since he joined the faculty of Brinkley Middle School in northwest Jackson as a retire/rehire. The best part is “seeing the smiles on their faces” when students master a task.
“Teachers are generally concerned about kids and that calling never leaves you,” Knapp said. “So, you go when there is a need.”
Shimelle Mayers, principal at Brinkley Middle School said having retired teachers in the building has been a positive experience all around. She has two retired/rehired teachers among 38 staffers teaching the school’s 465 students.
“Good tactics stand the test of time,” she said. “They are good at looking at the diverse needs of the students, their strengths and weaknesses, and working with them to address those needs.”
She said the retired teachers also bring “structure, order and discipline” that beginning teachers may not have mastered.
Mayers said the veterans and beginners learn from each other. The retired teachers share their knowledge of classroom management while the younger teachers help them understand new technology.
Retired Jackson Public Schools teacher Anne Johnson, who now teaches students at her church and volunteers for the Jackson chapter of the NAACP, said the educators who have returned are committed to education in a school system in which good teachers have the potential to make a big difference in children’s lives.
“Teaching is a ministry,” said Johnson. “You teach because you are interested in helping children be the best they can be. Sometimes it’s not something that you can just put down, especially when you know there is a need. You have spent years helping children to learn and thrive. It’s difficult not to respond when you hear there is such a significant need.”