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'All of that costs money': Solving SC's teacher crisis is going to be expensive

Why are SC teachers fleeing at record rates? Here’s a look at the crisis by the numbers

SC teachers are leaving the SC public school system at a rapid pace, deterred by factors from low pay to discipline issues in the classroom.
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SC teachers are leaving the SC public school system at a rapid pace, deterred by factors from low pay to discipline issues in the classroom.

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Classrooms in Crisis

S.C. teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers. Here's why and how it can be fixed.

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South Carolina's classrooms are in crisis as a growing number of teachers leave their jobs each year and fewer college graduates choose education as a career.

What changes would retain teachers and attract new ones? S.C. teachers and education leaders weigh in.

Boost their salaries

Before Teresa Schlosser became a teacher, she usually worked two jobs. "But this is the first time I've ever been required to work for free," said Schlosser, who left her job as a Richland 1 elementary school teacher in Columbia last fall.

"There are certain expectations of things that have to be done to make the job work. If you don't do those, what are you doing? You're not doing your job."

While working more than 40-hour work weeks, S.C. teachers also are paid about $600 less a year, on average, than their peers across the Southeast and start out with salaries as low as $30,000 in some districts.

A little bit of good news awaits them. Lawmakers are expected to give teachers a modest raise in the budget that starts July 1.

The only question is how much. The state House and Senate proposed 2 percent and 1 percent raises, respectively. Both chambers are considering raising starting teacher salaries by about $2,000 to $32,000. The S.C. Department of Education requested the pay increases, saying that entry-level pay is hurting efforts to attract and keep teachers in the classroom.

Pick up the tab for teacher education

Teachers must open up their wallets every time their teaching certificate requires renewal — paying with their earnings and their time for more training and college coursework. Additionally, many must go back to school to qualify for pay raises.

“If I want to move ahead in the teaching profession, I must obtain multiple degrees," said Charlene Sales-McMillian, a Midlands high-school English teacher with 21 years experience.

Several legislative proposals would ease the financial burden on teachers looking to renew their certification or increase their pay. Among them are forgiving more of their student loans, increasing state scholarships awards for education majors, giving bonuses for putting in years in one district and pushing for the state to pay for new hurdles teachers must clear for certification.

But none have gained any legislative traction.

Train, mentor and assist

In her first year teaching, Susan Barnes got great results from a class of 15 third-graders in Darlington County. That's because she had a great mentor and a manageable class size.

Her second year did not go so well. That year, she switched grades, lost her mentor and her class size doubled. She said she might still be in teaching if she had kept the same level of support.

State Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman said master teachers, hired specifically to mentor young teachers, could help provide that support.

SC Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman file photo Columbia

Some teachers also say an extra set of hands in the classroom would be a world of difference, especially as teachers are expected to teach each student based on their individual needs, including children with special needs learning in a mainstream environment.

Residency programs that allow aspiring teachers to embed in a classroom with an experienced teacher for a year would help keep teachers from leaving early in their careers, said Bernadette Hampton, a high-school math teacher on sabbatical to serve as president of the S.C. Education Association. Those programs would give teachers a "more realistic perspective of the day in the life of a teacher before they become a teacher," she said.

The state has no plan to help pay for additional mentors, residency programs or teaching assistants.

"All of that costs money," Spearman said. "The people of our state have got to step up to the plate to say we'll do whatever it takes."

Stronger leadership

Pete Stone's first try at teaching in South Carolina ended with him quitting and going to medical school. His administrators stifled creativity in his teaching and were not supportive of him or his students, he said.

"I was set up for failure, basically," said Stone, who eventually found his way back to the classroom and now teaches at Lewisville High School in Chester County, where he is happy and has supportive administrators.

Expanding leadership training opportunities for school administrators is one goal set by a teacher recruitment panel last year. Realizing the need, the S.C. Association of School Administrators, an advocacy group for school leaders, recently launched a professional development program for existing and aspiring school and district leaders. More than 1,000 school leaders have participated, SCASA director Beth Phibbs said.

Local communities also must do their part, Spearman said.

“We’ve got to have a well-skilled (local school) board who hires a great superintendent and hires great principals who know how to support teachers," Spearman said, adding “That is not happening everywhere."

No more mandates

Teachers are overrun with state and federal mandates and the latest district and school initiatives.

"Nobody goes in thinking it’s going to be easy," but when teachers realize how hard the job is, they sometimes look for the exits, said Vickie Brockman, a retired S.C. teacher who teaches aspiring teachers at Winthrop University.

“I see teachers really having that look in their eyes, ‘I'm not sure how much longer I can do this.’ We're wearing them out," Brockman said.

Will the load get lighter? Perhaps.

Spearman says she's trying to cut back on testing and paperwork requirements. As a result of her efforts, third- through eighth-graders now rotate years they are tested in science and social studies, rather than taking both tests annually.

She also has asked lawmakers not to pass any more laws requiring anything else of teachers. The latest sweeping education mandate was the 2015 Read to Succeed Act, which requires some teachers to get training in teaching reading.

"I believe that the Legislature is waking up to that," she said, adding lawmakers and education leaders need to be asking, "Is there anything that we can take away?"

Jamie Self: 803-771-8658, @jamiemself