Teachers’ impact ‘is forever.’ Kentucky lawmakers must do what it takes to support them.

Teachers filled the Kentucky House gallery on April 13, 2018. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

“I am firm in my belief that a teacher lives on and on through his students. Good teaching is forever and the teacher is immortal.” — Jesse Stuart.

Thirty-six years ago, I began my beloved teaching career at the now-torn-down Greenup Elementary, with my classroom being in Jesse Stuart’s old office.  During my two years there, I learned a great deal about this literary and educational giant.  His life, quotes, poems and books permeated the atmosphere of this small school.

Coach Bob Sparks. (Photo provided)

One particular book of Stuart’s, “The Thread That Runs So True,” has helped to shape my career.  In fact, I often give this book to new teachers, always highlighting the following quote, “I thought if every teacher in every school in America — rural, village, city, township, church, public, or private, could inspire his pupils with all the power he had, if he could teach them as they had never been taught before to live, to work, to play, and to share, if he could put ambition into their brains and hearts, that would be a great way to make a generation of the greatest citizenry America ever had.”

When I consider this quote, several educators come to mind. At the top of my list is Coach Bob Sparks from Boyd County and my fourth-grade teacher at Pine Acres Elementary, Mrs. Edna Collins.

Always the encourager, Coach Sparks had the knack for bringing out the best in people. His loving guidance, kind words and goodwill left a mark not only on his students, but his colleagues as well. The long and winding line of visitors at his funeral held at the Boyd County gym bore witness to his positive influence.

Edna Collins

Fifty years later, I still fondly recall the encouragement from Mrs. Collins. Despite my academic weaknesses upon entering her classroom, she made me feel welcome, valued, and above anything else, competent.  Her patience and determination resulted in me being academically on level by the end of the year, something I had never been before. Experiencing her love inspired my own decision to become an educator.

Coach Sparks, Mrs. Collins and many other teachers like them have helped to mold young minds and hearts, making Kentucky a better place one student at a time. We need more teachers like them.

Unfortunately, the teaching profession in Kentucky has faced many challenges resulting in shortages. To its credit, the Kentucky legislature passed a few bills during this past session to address the situation, but those are only the tip of the iceberg. Sadly, despite having the largest budget surplus in Kentucky history, funding for 5% teacher raises, as proposed by Gov. Andy Beshear, was denied by the Republican supermajority in the legislature.

 Currently, there are close to 2,000 certified educational positions open in Kentucky, with thousands more yet to be posted.  The supply of teachers is just not there to fully meet the demand, especially with the yearly 20% attrition rate.

As reported by Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass during the 2017-2018 academic year, the Education Professional Standards Board (EPSB) granted 383 one-year emergency certificates. This year, EPSB approved 1,156 emergency certificates.  This trend does not bode well for quality education within our state.

Research gathered by the Center for American Progress reflects that “the teacher labor market is responsive to changes in pay just like other occupations” and that “changes in pay can affect not only teacher attrition, but also the pool of candidates choosing to enroll in teacher preparation programs.”

According to the National Education Association, Kentucky’s average teachers’ salary of $54,139 a year is 36th in the nation. The state is 44th in the country for starting teacher pay, with the average first-year teacher making $37,373 a year.

The author’s tuition, room and fees at Morehead State University in 1984 cost $855 for a semester. Her mother supplied her with a package of food for the week and sometimes $20.

In addition, teacher pay has become less compatible with the cost of college. To compare, when I went to Morehead State University in the mid-1980s, the price of a four-year degree was around $13,000, and my beginning teaching salary in 1987 was just above $16,000.  Today the cost of a four-year degree from Morehead is close to $80,000UK is $126,760.  While most students receive financial aid, it is not enough. The average student loan in Kentucky is $33,300. Nationally, that amount is over $37,000.

Jesse Stuart (Jesse Stuart Foundation)

On top of student loan payments, teachers’ take-home pay has been reduced in Kentucky due to higher pension and health care deductions leaving too few dollars to live on, making the middle-class dream less of a reality.

Jesse Stuart had it right, teachers do live on through their students.  To protect the future, the Kentucky General Assembly needs to further address what can be done to attract, retain and empower high-quality teachers, including paying them what they are worth.

Ultimately, all Kentucky students deserve teachers as good as Coach Sparks and Mrs. Collins.

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Suzanne Barker Griffith
Suzanne Barker Griffith

Suzanne Barker Griffith is a retired Kentucky teacher, current Boyd County justice of the peace and community activist.