After two years of masking, social distancing and online learning, Arkansas teachers say they’re excited to move past pandemic restrictions and return to normalcy this school year.
But as the new school year begins, teachers still have plenty of worries. Seven educators shared with us their optimism for the 2022-2023 school year, but said they can’t shake worries about school security and low teacher pay.
‘Safety first, learning next’
Cara Maxwell has taught for eight years in the Springdale School District and is a National Board-certified teacher. She’s also a senior fellow with Teach Plus Arkansas, an organization with the goal to empower teachers statewide and take leadership over policy issues that impact student success.
“Personally, I feel frustrated,” Maxwell, who teaches pre-K, said. “I’m excited because I’m always excited this time of year to go back to school, but I do feel frustrated. I feel that has a lot to do with [the Arkansas legislature being] very reactive instead of proactive.”
Maxwell said that the drafted recommendations from the Arkansas School Safety Commission are reactive, pointing to the effort to put more firearms on school campuses. She also said that while she thought the push for mental health was good, the services don’t have proper funding. She suggested that a more supported and preventative approach would help students in the long run.
Teacher Romana Mathews echoed these thoughts, and said she wanted more of a solid plan from policy makers — “give us the blueprint,” she said. “I would like for some actual strategies; everybody is not a fighter.”
Training in Mathew’s district, which she chose not to share for fear of repercussions in her community, has so far been limited. She said there were conversations about rules for once a threat enters the building, but there were no hands-on training or talk of security methods to create peace, such as teachers locking their doors.
“That’s our first job as educators. Safety first, learning next. It’s scary to think that,” said Perla Andrade, who supports elementary teachers on a guiding coalition team at Baseline Academy in Little Rock.
Springdale teacher Amanda Ladish said it was “astonishing” that teachers aren’t trusted to teach a book or theory that some consider to be controversial or upsetting, “but I’m supposed to just trust in me and my co-workers with learning to use and carry a firearm safely all day?”
Teachers are returning to school in 2022 with the prominent school shooting of 19 children and two adults at Uvalde, Texas, on their minds. “It seems like we have one a year almost, that just rocks us all,” said Emily Garrison, a teacher in Northwest Arkansas.
Garrison said she’s been involved in numerous mental health conversations and district training sessions that made her feel encouraged to start a new school year. She said she feels safe with the presence of a school resource officer and doesn’t feel like the responsibility to carry a weapon should fall on the teachers’ shoulders.
This seemed to be the trend with every educator interviewed — they felt mostly refreshed and ready for the school year, but held reservations about some details of their profession.
“Of course you want to protect, but then there’s another burden on the teacher,” Mathews said. “Teachers are already underpaid, under-appreciated, but then put [carrying weapons] as an additional layer on them — I don’t think that’s the solution, either.”
An unsuccessful push for increased teacher pay
Arkansas educators said they’re feeling unsupported from their state leaders. Nationwide, the starting pay of $35,803 in Arkansas ranks 48th, according to the National Education Association. The Arkansas legislative special session in August reaped no increase in teacher pay, though Democratic leaders pushed for it.
While the push for teacher raises failed statewide, the Russellville School District took matters into its own hands, raising base pay salaries to $45,000 and approving a $1,000 bonus for all staff.
“In order to address the shortages, you’re going to have to raise the pay,” Russellville Junior High teacher Brian Canard said. “We are not just people out there you can just hire and say, ‘OK here’s your job.’ No, we have specific skills, we go through hours of training every year. It’s not just something where you can put a body in a classroom.”
Teachers build the future; they tie shoes in the hallways, celebrate birthdays, create a safe environment, build literary foundations and spend extensive overtime supporting and working for their students. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, they stood on the front lines and made sacrifices to continue teaching — all while pushing their personal stressors aside.
A raise in teacher pay is “Less about the amount of money and more about holding our professions to the same standards as other professions and getting paid as such,” Andrade said. “Here, we’re at the bottom of the barrel in many cases.”
Andrade said she moved to Arkansas after applying for a program called Teach for America, which recruits educators and places them in low-income communities. Originally employed in Texas, Andrade took a significant cut in her pay to transfer — her first year in Arkansas paid $15,000 less than her first year in Texas, she said.
After years in the district, “the community in my school is what has kept me here,” she said. The support that I get here, the community that we have just within my building, has been incredible. It’s hard for me to leave a place that I love to be in.”
Leron McAdoo, an art teacher at Central High School, said the reason he’s going back to school is for the kids who have nowhere else to go. McAdoo has taught in the Little Rock School District for three decades and has been a voice for change among Arkansas teachers.
“There are students in this district, in public school, that have no other place to go, that have no other person to turn to. I know there are children who need a positive outlet,” McAdoo said. “We live in this world together. We can’t divorce ourselves from everybody else.”
Hope for a new normal
Bonding with students and the feeling of a classroom family are factors that keep teachers in their lower-paying profession. It is this care that also propels teachers’ concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
McAdoo said he thinks schools are a “reflection of everything that happens” in America, and the impact of the pandemic has never been unpacked or reflected on in a way to process how to move forward.
Canard said his biggest worry about the upcoming year is meeting the students where they are, especially after two weird years of schooling. He wants to make sure they know his classroom is a safe place, he said.
“I think the biggest issue that we’ve seen from what has happened with COVID is the isolation that the students faced,” he said. “Coming back into that school environment, I think that was stressful for them. In that respect, they didn’t have the same boundaries.”
Mathews said the pre-pandemic normal “wasn’t good enough” and she worries about the extensive problems the pandemic highlighted in her community.
“I feel like that’s the only time our students felt like we cared about them,” she said. “That’s the first time most people are learning the term ‘social and emotional learning.’ In reality, we have so much other stuff we haven’t dealt with and we’re trying to act like it just went away.”
Maxwell said that for her, “last year was the most emotionally draining year.” COVID-19 guidelines were a jumbled mess and her young students were not eligible for vaccination. Looking to the coming year, she said she is worried that infections will rise and now, educators will not have the support for sick leave.
The start of a new school year still brings excitement in these Arkansas educators, despite overhanging safety concerns. In the end, it seemed to be more about the kids’ success than the teachers’ worries.
“I do know I’m making an impact, and so that is what makes me go back,” Maxwell said.