Good teachers are key to a successful future

The fourth of four articles
For the past three weeks this column has been devoted to the Lawrence County School System (LCSS): its efforts in the aftermath of COVID; physical improvements at every facility; and academic achievements of the system and individual schools.
I’m concluding this series with a look at the future of a resource more crucial than any other. Qualified and dedicated teachers are essential to the success of this county, our school system, every family, and each child.
Director of Schools Michael Adkins says LCSS has not experienced the serious teacher shortage issues facing systems across the state and nation, but there have been minor challenges filling vacancies in high school math and science.
The U.S. Department of Education reports positions in these areas, and special education, bilingual education, technology, engineering, career and technical education, and early childhood education are increasingly hard to fill. Remote learning during the pandemic increased challenges and decreased morale. Tennessee is experiencing a decrease in college students choosing education as a major, and in 2021, nearly 30% of the state’s educators were eligible for retirement within the next five years.
Thankfully, Tennessee and LCSS are working hard to support current teachers and make it easier for others to enter the field. “The goal is to continue to emphasize the value of educators in LCSS and to attract talent to our system,” Adkins says.
Locally, a new Dean of Students process gives teachers who wish to serve in a leadership role leadership experience. Currently, LCSS has three positions in this program and will be adding two more in the fall.
A Teacher Mentor program now provides compensation to experienced teachers who work closely with new ones, in a variety of ways. A new Tennessee law also allows retired teachers, with years of invaluable experience, to return to the classroom and still get most of their retirement benefits.
PLC (Professional Learning Community) days have been provided to teachers for a few years, but the calendar will include more in the future. These offer a chance for teachers to learn from professionals and collaborate with one another.
In partnership with the state Department of Education and UT Southern, the “Grow Your Own” program allows LCSS Educational Assistants to earn a teaching degree at no cost to them or the school system.
The Tennessee Department of Education provides a free Master’s program in school leadership to applicants recommended by their local systems. Following the retirement of longtime Leoma Elementary principal Kathy Burns at the end of this school year, AP (Aspiring Principal) program graduate Kane Weathers will take the helm of that school.
Another program allows anyone with a B.S. or B.A. degree to earn a teaching certificate online quickly and inexpensively. The iTeach Tennessee website states that candidates “could be teaching with full pay in a matter of weeks.”
Finally, there is funding. Adkins says state leaders “have an opportunity to correct years of financial neglect” that occurred under the BEP (Basic Education Plan), which was based on a school’s average daily attendance. With TISA, (Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement) the state has committed to an additional $1 billion investment in K-12 education every year.
TISA takes effect this year and provides a base of $6,860 per student and additional funds based on factors including a student’s economic condition and unique learning needs. Direct allocations will also provide fourth grade tutoring for students not proficient in English-Language Arts on the TCAP; CTE programs at varying levels, and ACT testing and retesting.
Governor Bill Lee also hopes to see entry-level teaching salaries raised to $50,000 across the state. That’s a goal LCSS and the County Commission have been working on a few years, Adkins says, and is on track to meet in 2028. Teachers will see another step toward it in 2023-24, and support staff are projected to get an hourly increase. Both groups receive step raises for years served, and the caps (currently 20 years for teachers) are being increased this year.
Lawrence County has been fortunate to have a County Commission and Board of Education who value and support our school system,” Adkins says. “Not every county is that fortunate nor willing to make decisions that have both immediate and long term impact on our county. I am thankful for the County Commission, Executive Morgan, previous Executive Williams and the leadership of Kevin Caruso, Chair of the Board, Vice Chair Daniel and the entire Board for their support of the Lawrence County School System.”
I must add that one of the best things that’s happened in our school system in recent years is the hiring of Michael Adkins as Director of Schools. As a Lawrence County native, graduate of our school system and longtime employee of it, Adkins knows what needs work and what doesn’t. His calm, assured leadership style puts everyone at ease and gets a lot accomplished. He is still the perfect choice for the job.
Finally, I want to ask you all to do what you can to encourage Lawrence County teachers. Appropriate salaries are important, but there are other factors as well. “We’re driving people out of the profession faster than we can replace them,” states J.C. Bowman, Executive Director and CEO of Professional Educators of Tennessee.
“Lack of respect, inadequate administrative support, and the need for student discipline are frequently cited as reasons why teachers leave the teaching profession, often as much as low salaries and poor working conditions.”