Solving Arkansas' Teacher Shortage: Resilience in Wynne
(WYNNE, Arkansas) - The city of Wynne, the largest in Cross County, is plopped between the Delta and Crowley’s Ridge, typifying the warmth and beauty of Eastern Arkansas. Spring, as it does, leaps into Wynne with an emphatic green, an optimism elegantly dotted by dandelions throughout the grid of its neighborhoods, into the heart of its downtown area, and all along the country highways headed in and out of town. It brings with it the expectation of an even greater warmth yet to come.
The unexpected, however, the unpredictable: this is what builds a definition, what forges an identity. Jessica Williams, a lifelong Wynne resident, has been shaped by it. She never expected, for example, to become a downtown shop owner, to run a store she wandered into one mild Wynne afternoon.
“We’re fixin’ to leave,” the owner said, “any chance you’d be interested in buying the place?” Williams only wanted one t-shirt. Suddenly her whole life was t-shirts.
“We didn’t even mean to,” she explains. “It just happened.”
The pandemic, which closed the shop, of course gave no one a heads-up. It had been a successful ten years, but there they went, and that chapter was suddenly over. “Nobody cared about new clothes or jewelry anymore,” she laments.
One of her regulars, however, was an assistant principal in the Wynne School District. Williams suddenly found herself back in her old stomping grounds, in the hallways of her youth, turning the page. “I had always wanted to teach, and I asked if anything was opening-up,” she explains. “I was hired as a library aide, and I had never worked in a school…”
The unexpected continues: “I hadn’t even been there for two weeks, never taught a day in my life, and all of a sudden they said you now have to sub, to take over a whole third grade classroom for a couple of weeks.” Williams knocked the first pitch out of the park. “I learned real quick though: everyone here helps everyone, and you don’t really have a set job title.”
That was last year.
This year? Spring, in its suddenness, brought Wynne a significant storm. On the evening of March 31, a tornado ripped through Wynne, killing four, leveling homes, and leaving several businesses, as well as the high school, in a pile of ruins. It was as abrupt as it reads, and the winds came in at 165 miles per hour. The unexpected required a response, and there’s no better teacher than experience. Williams, naturally, was up and moving. Everyone helps everyone.
“If you were out there, you were getting fed,” Williams explains. “My husband had already left. He works in natural gas, which was blowing, and if someone lights a match… so he had to go immediately, and we still didn’t even know if more tornadoes were coming.”
Williams ended up at the Intermediate school, trying to link-up with co-workers, trying to find a way to help. “We ended up grabbing a short bus. We were out there in the neighborhoods with food and hygiene kits. Houses were just gone.”
The 31st was a lifetime in the making for Williams. A hometown is often a place you can’t wait to leave, and then can’t wait to get back to. But Williams has adored Wynne since childhood. She was called to serve long before any sirens.
She tried Arkansas State (ASU), up in Jonesboro, for a year after high school. She talks about it now as if her prompt return to Wynne was always a foregone conclusion. “This is just my spot,” Williams says. “It’s me. My daughter doesn’t feel that way; my best friend in high school didn’t feel that way. But you could not pay me to leave,” she says, “unless someone wins the lottery, and maybe I end up on a beach somewhere, this is it for me.”
While staying might have always been understood, the path to teaching at Wynne Intermediate School (Home of the Yellow Jackets!) was not a particularly well-executed vision. Williams is very open about her, “fraught” we’ll call it, relationship with education. “I was not a good student,” she admits with a laugh. She adds: “My dad was forty when he had me, I was the last of four kids, and he was over it. They said ‘This one is going to raise herself.’’’
Still, Williams knew she wanted her degree. Jonesboro was her first at-bat, but it did not go well. Again, she’s not describing an outcome that confuses her. Not in the least. “I was seventeen when I graduated high school. So at ASU, whatever the lowest GPA is, I had it,” she laughs. “So my butt got sent home.”
Williams was down, yes, but not out. She’s from Wynne. Fall down nine times, stand up ten.
“I did end up getting my associate’s from EAC (East Arkansas Community College) over in Forrest City. And then I got accepted back at ASU. I was actually accepted into the education program there. I decided I wanted to teach. But then…”
Of course “but then”: of course! The page turned, all of a sudden, and a new chapter was unexpectedly beginning.
Williams had found her person, and so Arkansas State never happened: no second trip up Highway 1 was meant to actualize. It’s how she ended up in a t-shirt store in Wynne, her happy place, instead of raising her hand in Jonesboro. “My oldest was five when we bought that shop,” she explains. “I literally went in there to purchase a t-shirt.”
Fast forward to now, and Williams has found a pathway to her bachelor’s degree, one suited perfectly to her life’s particulars. The opportunity appeared, naturally, in the continued suddenness of ongoing life, and she now finds herself in a position to offer Wynne the same hometown spirit that she’s always cherished. She attends Reach University through a remote, job-embedded curriculum: a paid apprenticeship en route to her degree. Following a mad scramble to meet last year’s application deadline, Williams was admitted on June 3rd, her birthday.
Wynne, like the rest of Arkansas, like the rest of America, is faced with a teacher shortage. In a 2022 study, the National Education Association indicated that the ratio of hires to job openings is now .5, meaning America is replacing only half of the teachers it’s losing. The NEA also indicated that education has not kept pace with inflation, and that teachers are now making 6% less than they did ten years ago.
What Williams is doing, however, is a response. The apprenticeship degree is a true engine for upward mobility, and calls into question whether or not education has a labor shortage, or an imagination shortage. At $75 per month, Williams climbs the ladder without accruing any debt. “I can get everything done and still be everywhere I need to be,” she says. “I’m even back to making extra money from t-shirts. Bookwork alone doesn’t prepare you for the classroom, anyway. You have to get in there and see how the kids respond.”
As May makes its way to June, Wynne looks nothing like it did in March. Time marches onward, school marches onward, awkwardly so, and in such a way that has Williams questioning whether or not she’s fully processed the tornado. “I don’t think it’s really sunk in,” she says, looking away. “We just kept going, going, going. But you know what,” she adds, looking back, “I have to say this: I don’t know if it’s the South, if it’s a Southern thing, or if it’s all over, but the way all the different towns came into help… we had schools in from all over, helping with the demolition, bringing truck loads of food, water, you name it.”
“I can’t recall a nearby town that hasn’t helped us.”
Yes, Wynne looks nothing like it did in March. It’s important to note, however, upon consideration and reflection of Wynne’s enormous resolve, of the togetherness the community has shown through its trial, of the response from its neighbors, it's important to note, and to contemplate, the progression from Wynne in March traced all the way back to Wynne at its very beginning.
Back when there was no Wynne, the Iron Mountain Railroad had laid its tracks between Memphis and St. Louis. A train derailment created Wynne, a suddenness in the middle of an open, primordial America. The description is actually literal. A derailed boxcar was propped upright, and suddenly there was a post office, then suddenly there was Wynne Junction, and then, all of a sudden, Wynne Junction begat Wynne. Suddenly.
It’s important to know that, and to remember it. Everyone in Wynne has stories like Williams, times when they fell down, but then got back up, and somehow pressed forward. A visit to the city, even in the mayhem of a half-miserable, half-inspiring May, is a remarkable showcase of love’s ability to power the impossible, to consecrate tragedy en route to triumph.
Yes, next spring will bring storms all its own, but mercy is new with each morning. Next year will be simpler, unbothered, less sudden: a slow and quiet buzz. A kind sun will harmonize an uncomplicated warmth, a gift for the town to open, and the dandelions will announce peace to the yellow jackets.
Kaley Boeckman (left) and Jessica Williams (right) of Wynne Intermediate School.