Why this aspiring SC teacher fled the classroom
A high school English instructor who also teaches at nights at the county technical college. A speech teacher who, after working with students in public school, does in-home therapy for a home health company. A once-aspiring teacher who bailed on her education career because, she says, she could make more money as a cosmetologist.
South Carolina’s teaching profession is in crisis, and these current, former and once-aspiring S.C. teachers say they know one big reason why.
“I’m making almost double what they’re making in two weeks,” West Columbia’s Jessica Tronco said, comparing working in a salon, where she brings home $800 to $1,200 a week after taxes, to being a first-year teacher, bringing home about $500 a week and working many more hours.
State lawmakers are on notice that teacher pay is an issue.
The state’s superintendent of education is pushing to give teachers a 2 percent raise next year as one way to curb a worsening teacher shortage.
Several factors are contributing to the problem, teachers and education officials say:
▪ Despite working in a once-venerated profession, many teachers say they must work side jobs to make ends meet.
▪ Increasing demands on teachers – in and out of the classroom – lead to long school days as well as weekend hours spent grading and planning, making the pay per hour even lower.
▪ To make more money as a teacher requires more education. But to get an advanced degree requires spending more money or going deeper into debt.
▪ Average S.C. teacher salaries are below the Southeastern average, and starting pay for certified teachers – who must have at least a bachelor’s degree – pales in comparison to what other professions pay
No wonder teachers are leaving the classroom in search of higher-paying, less stressful jobs, advocates say.
“It’s a house of cards in which I live,” said teacher Carol Dawkins.
Dawkins said she loves her job as an English teacher at York Comprehensive High School. But if one part of her seven-day-a-week schedule of teaching, grading and planning falls apart, everything will.
“We teach because we care about our future, our democracy. ... But you have to take care of your teachers if you want to take care of your kids.”
Classroom vacancies could spike
The crisis is getting worse.
Last school year, 6,500 S.C. teachers did not return to the same teaching position they had the year before, a 21 percent increase from the previous year.
Thirty-eight percent of those teachers left in their first five years of teaching; 12 percent left after a year or less in a S.C. classroom, according to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement at Winthrop University.
Meanwhile, S.C. college education programs are not producing enough new graduates to keep up with classroom vacancies, forcing school districts to recruit more and more teachers from other states and countries.
That will worsen next summer when thousands of veteran S.C. teachers are expected to quit with the end of a popular retirement program that has allowed them to continue working. That program will impact more than 3,000 employees working in public schools, officials say.
Facing an impending crisis, S.C. Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman says she will push lawmakers in January to raise all teachers’ salaries by 2 percent. Teachers got the same raise this school year, an incremental increase that some teachers say is too small, given other rising costs.
Spearman, a Republican, also wants to raise the minimum teaching salary for first-year teachers to $32,000 from $29,900. About a quarter – or 20 – of the state’s school districts now pay starting teachers below that mark.
Those raises would cost the state roughly $54 million.
However, they would help narrow the gap between South Carolina’s average teacher pay – $48,769 last year – and the Southeastern average of $49,363 that year.
Wanted for cheap
Coloring a client’s hair recently at High Maintenance, a West Columbia salon and day spa her mother owns, Tronco said she thought she wanted to go into teaching because she loves kids and enjoys teaching young children at her church.
“I really had a calling for it,” said the now 23-year-old, whose early childhood education degree and $270-a-month student loan payments are all that remain of her plans to be a teacher.
During her student teaching stint, Tronco started thinking she did not want a career in the classroom. It felt like a job that would make her burn out quickly.
“Everything must be approved,” she said. “Everything must be in a lesson plan. It wasn’t about the kids anymore. “It was about ‘Let’s make our school look good.’ ”
Tronco said she also did the math and figured she would make a lot more money doing hair than teaching.
On average, the starting salary for a first-year S.C. teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience is about $33,150 a year, based on what all school districts pay.
After paying state taxes of about $1,690, federal taxes of about $2,900, health insurance premiums of about $1,200 and state retirement contributions of about $3,000, that first-year teacher would have about $2,000 a month – or roughly $500 a week – to pay rent or a mortgage, a car payment, insurance bills, out-of pocket health care expenses, groceries – the list goes on.
Tronco said she makes more as a hairstylist.
She considers it a mediocre week if she brings home $800 after taxes and the salon’s 40 percent cut. In a great week, she’s earning $1,200 or more, she said, adding it’s a relief she can pay her bills, including her student loan.
“I would struggle to pay my loan if I was teaching.”
Not about ‘second homes’
Emily Dyches, a 20-year veteran speech therapist who works at Sandy Run K-8 School in Calhoun County, said her situation has improved from a decade ago.
“Right now, I have two jobs,” Dyches said, adding she once worked “as many as four jobs at one time just trying to make ends meet” – including selling products, babysitting and two teaching jobs.
“So many people believe – and it is a fallacy – that we get to leave school when our students leave, we get our summers off and we make good money,” she said, adding working a second job is commonplace among teachers.
“I know people that waitress, bartend; they do retail,” she said.
Dyches arrives at school by 6 a.m. so she can leave by 3:30 p.m. to make her speech therapy appointments with in-home clients. She says she works an average of 50 hours a week for her school job and about 10 to 12 hours more as a in-home therapist. While not doing therapy, she spends a lot of time billing Medicaid for her students’ therapy, and writing lesson plans and reports for each student she sees.
“I have been documenting exactly what I have been doing during the day just to see: Are there ways I could manage my time efficiently?” she said.
Dyches, who has a master’s degree and 30 more hours of education credits, said her teaching job is extremely rewarding, which is why she has stayed in the classroom. But it is frustrating to have to work a second job just to pay basic bills.
“I’m talking about putting gas in the car, buying groceries,” she said. “I’m not talking we are out there trying to buy second homes.”
‘Getting a little frazzled’
One day recently, Dawkins, the York English teacher, said she decided to buck her weekend responsibilities.
“I refused to grade and plan, and went horseback riding instead,” she said, adding, “Honestly, I was getting a little frazzled.”
She later had to work double time to catch back up, but the break from the daily grind was good for her and her students, she said.
Dawkins left a career in the business world at age 28 to become a teacher. She now has 30 hours of education credits beyond her master’s degree and is nationally certified, which has increased her pay. But she is still paying off a student loan, which costs about $300 a month.
Most days, her job doesn’t feel like work because of how much she loves teaching, she said.
“Even after 13 years and all of the mandates (most often without funding) that the state and federal governments place upon educators, I still can’t express how much I love my school, my principal, my colleagues or my students,” Dawkins said. “I truly have the best of all jobs. Teaching makes all other careers possible, and it keeps America free.
“But we simply value other professions ... more than we value service jobs like teaching and law enforcement.”
Dawkins blames poor pay for fewer people wanting to become teachers.
The idea that teachers are willing to sacrifice their personal time and decent pay just to teach “has got to stop,” she said.
Most days, Dawkins is at York Comprehensive from 7 a.m. until about 4:30 p.m. After school, two evenings a week, she teaches at York Tech until after 8 p.m.
While she sees herself as a passionate teacher willing to work long hours, her students see her job as a profession in which already low hourly pay is diminished by the long hours a teacher works, she said.
“It’s very hard for me to get them interested in going into education because they know how much I work.”
Wanted: Clothes for SC teachers
Want to help aspiring S.C. teachers? Help them dress for success.
The Palmetto State Teachers Association is collecting professional clothing to give to aspiring teachers.
The teacher advocacy organization is requesting professional clothing for men and women that is new or gently used and free of stains, holes and tears.
Donations can be dropped off at the PSTA office on 220 State St. in West Columbia, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Fridays. Call 803-256-2065 for more information.