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In the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, Teachers Are Finding Their Voices on Education Policy

February 23, 2022
In a region where high-quality teachers are in high demand, Teach Plus helps educators advocate for changes so they – and their students – can thrive

As schools across the nation struggle to address growing teacher shortages, what can policy makers do to keep frontline educators in the classroom?

Nelvia Johnson has one solution – provide them with greater on-the-job support at the beginning of their careers.

“We're losing good teachers because there is a lack of in-depth preparation programs,” says Nelvia, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at KIPP Delta College Preparatory School in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas.

“If we had stronger programs to prepare teachers, fewer of us would be leaving the profession. I've seen a lot of good teachers come and go because of a lack of support.”

Nelvia Johnson is a Teach Plus fellow and social studies teacher at KIPP Delta College Prep in Helena-West Helena, Arkansas.

Nelvia’s belief that new teachers need better preparation for the realities of the classroom has grown during her five years on the job. But until recently, she was unsure how best to raise her voice and be heard.

That’s changed since Nelvia earned a fellowship with Teach Plus, a national non-profit organization working to empower teachers with the tools needed to take leadership on education policy and practices so they can better serve their students.

“I just love what I do. I love my students. I love this area," Nelvia Johnon says of teaching in the Arkansas Delta. "And hopefully I can improve things for another teacher."

Teach Plus recently opened an Arkansas chapter after launching in Mississippi in 2018. The expansion reflects an acute need to address the challenges facing teachers in rural regions like the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, which often face greater struggles attracting and retaining qualified teachers than urban areas.

“We are simply not producing enough teachers and, for the teachers we are producing, it’s becoming more difficult to get them to start their careers in places like the Delta,” says Sanford Johnson, executive director of Teach Plus in Mississippi.

Sanford Johnson is executive director of Teach Plus Mississippi.

The Walton Family Foundation supports Teach Plus’s work as part of our 2025 Strategy in the Delta, which includes efforts to improve education for all students by elevating teacher voice and supporting teacher development. The work also advances the foundation’s commitment to support community-driven change and advance solutions that are guided by the voices and needs of the people closest to the region’s challenges.

To ensure an inclusive group of educators, Teach Plus chooses its fellows using a multi-stage process that emphasizes racial diversity and diversity in teachers’ years of experience. Once selected, fellows receive training in policy research, the education policy-making process and how to communicate with officials in positions of authority.

Teach Plus opened its Mississippi chapter in 2018 and recently expanded across the Mississippi River into Arkansas.

“Teachers are the experts. Nobody knows as much about what's happening on the ground in classrooms, in schools, than the practitioners who are there every day,” Sanford says.

“Through our fellowships, we want to make sure teachers have a greater say in how they can better serve students. That includes figuring out how to get more teachers to come to the Delta and creating an affirming environment that will ensure they stay once they’re here.”

As part of her one-year fellowship, Nelvia is conducting a survey among teachers to determine specific supports that would provide the greatest benefits for novice educators. From the information gathered in the survey, Nelvia and other fellows in her Arkansas cohort will develop detailed policy recommendations to share with decision makers.

“I think our voices are loud, but it seems like it's hard to be heard sometimes even though we are loud,” says Nelvia. Among the solutions she believes can improve teacher retention: Greater access to structured mentoring from more experienced educators.

Nelvia Johnson says Teach Plus is helping classroom educators gain a greater voice over school policy. “I think our voices are loud but it seems like it's hard to be heard sometimes even though we are loud."

Improving teacher preparation is just one leg of the stool needed to support teachers in the Delta. Teach Plus fellows are also researching ways to increase teacher pay, improve teacher licensing, address shortages of classroom resources, improve technology and broadband access for students and confront teacher burnout, a problem that became more acute during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If we're talking about teacher retention, we need to hear from teachers about why they're leaving and what would allow them to say,” says Sanford. “If we're talking about teacher preparation, then we need to ask teachers, what do you need?”

Nelvia Johnson believes fewer teachers would leave the profession if they had access to stronger preparation training during their first years in the classroom.

Joe Greenberg, who teaches at J.W. Stampley High School in Clarksdale, Miss., credits Teach Plus for opening his eyes to the need to do more advocacy with local school boards and decision-makers.

During his fellowship in 2021, Teach Plus helped arrange meetings with local and state representatives to hear the concerns and solutions being offered by teachers.

Joe Greenberg teaches at J.W. Stampley High School.

“It was really powerful for me as a teacher to have those opportunities,” Joe says. “Before, I didn't understand the systems at play in education decision making. Now I feel connected not only to those in positions of authority, but to stories about Mississippi teachers.

In the Delta, “it's hard to compete for teachers with other states that have double the amount of resources that we do,” says Joe, who has studied chronic issues confronting Delta schools. Those include lower salaries for educators, lack of access to state-of-technology and limited funds for educational programming that teachers sometimes pay for out of their own pockets.

“We need to invest and focus more on student learning,” he says.

Teach Plus Mississippi executive director Sanford Johnson meets with Meghan Tooke, a Tinkering Lab teacher at Clarksdale Collegiate in Clarksdale, Mississippi. “Through our fellowships, we want to make sure teachers have a greater say in how they can better serve students," Sanford says.

Nelvia and Joe say their involvement with Teach Plus stems from an abiding love for their profession, their students – and the Delta itself.

“It's a place that, once you're here, you realize why so many people love living here,” says Joe, a Washington, D.C. native. “It's this great community of people.”

For Nelvia, originally from a small town in rural Missouri, the Delta is “reminiscent of home.”

“I just love what I do. I love my students. I love this area,” she says. “And hopefully I can improve things for another teacher. If I do that, then I've done my job.”

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