Classrooms in Crisis
Why SC teachers are leaving in record numbers
The year Teresa Schlosser decided to quit teaching, she had a first-grade student who panicked over simple tasks and lost his temper.
Frustrated, he hit himself in the head, threw himself against the sink in the class bathroom, jumped off desks and shelves, threw pencils and crayons at his classmates and tossed backpacks from their cubbies.
Schlosser attemptedto talk him down while hurrying her other students to safety — gathering them into a tight huddle on a classroom rug or ushering them out into the hallway. Books in hand, the scared students and teacher would wait for an administrator or a guidance counselor to get the child.
It was "complete mayhem on a daily basis," Schlosser said, adding that little teaching or learning happened because the troubled student remained in her Richland 1 class in Columbia for the entire school year.
Increasingly frustrated that school administrators didn't — or couldn't — do more to help her troubled student despite her requests, she quit the following school year.
Average annual pay that is below the Southeastern average, heavy workloads that require far more than 40 hours each week, a teach-to-the-test culture and a lack of support from bosses and parents are driving S.C. teachers away in record numbers.
Last year, 6,705 teachers quit their jobs. Nearly 5,000 of those — or 1 in 10 — left teaching in S.C. public schools altogether.
The teacher shortage is alarming parents, employers and lawmakers in a state heavily dependent on its public school system. More than 92 percent of the state's K-12 students attend public schools.
The shortage is expected to worsen as potentially hundreds of teachers leave the classroom with this summer's end of a popular program that has allowed them to continue working in retirement, baby boomer teachers retiring and fewer aspiring teachers graduating from the state's colleges.
By the 2027-28 school year, South Carolina is projected to be short by about 6,000 teachers, or 11 percent, including guidance counselors and other specialists. Hardest hit will be math, science, special education and social studies classes where 2,500 teacher vacancies are anticipated.
South Carolina is not alone in struggling to recruit and retain quality teachers. All 50 states started this school year short teachers, many just in critical subject areas, according to a U.S. Department of Education report.
What sets the Palmetto State and some others apart is the rapid spread of their teacher shortages.
A lack of S.C. teachers, once limited to just special education teachers and a few other teaching fields in the early 1990s, now affects dozens of other fields — ranging from art and music to math and science.
Some parents fear that the quality of their children's education will suffer as the burdens heaped on teachers drive them out of the classroom.
"They're so tied up and worried about all the paperwork that needs to be done that they're unable to actually do the job that they applied for, which is educating children," said Natasha Jefferson, a Charleston mom worried about the education her eighth-grader is receiving. Two of his classes are taught by a rotating cast of substitute teachers.
Teachers must be held accountable for their performance, but they also need support, said Jefferson. As a volunteer with the grassroots organization, Charleston Rise, she helps local teachers by laminating documents, prepping class materials and doing any other housekeeping tasks to free them up to teach.
"What time do they really have to engage and really get to know these children on a one-to-one basis?" she said.
As their teaching ranks thin, school districts are increasingly turning to teachers from other states, other countries and other careers to fill classrooms.
That alone is not a good solution, some education experts argue. Instead, South Carolina must persuade current teachers to stay in their jobs, they say.
“We're not going to recruit ourselves out of this teacher shortage,” said Jennifer Garrett with the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, a teacher professional development group studying the shortage. "Statistically, it's not possible to fill the gaps.
“Keep them there. Support them, value them, respect them, and maybe they'll stay," Garrett said.
That's a tall order, many teachers say. More than three dozen current and former educators were interviewed by The State newspaper for this series. Many asked not to be named.
Elizabeth Walen, a fourth-generation S.C. teacher, left teaching in York County in 2016 after six years because of the emphasis on testing.
At one point, Walen said she was giving students practice standardized tests monthly. Each test stole time from teaching and took hours to grade.
"And then what do you do with those tests? You've been practicing for a test that you haven't even learned the stuff for," she said.
Often, it's a toxic mix of reasons that leads teachers to leave.
Schlosser, for example, said it wasn't just one troubled student she felt powerless to help that convinced her to quit. (Richland 1 spokesperson Karen York declined to comment specifically on Schlosser's claims, but said when a student's extreme behavior or mental health are concerns, the district may observe the child and offer support in the school setting.)
She also was required to attend a seeming endless stream of training classes and meetings instead of getting time to plan lessons and figure out how best to reach — and teach — her students.
An administrator saying, "'Don't worry, you'll teach them how to pass the test.,'" pushed her over her limit one day, she said.
"I had to go out in the hall and cry," Schlosser said, who is now a stay-at-home mom. "I didn't sign up for this, to teach somebody to pass a test."
Asked for a solution, Schlosser struggled to say what could have kept her in the classroom, adding the problems facing S.C. public schools “might be too hugely systematic.”
“If I didn’t feel like I was set up for failure?”
An exodus of retirees
This summer, the number of teachers leaving their jobs is expected to spike.
The state's Teacher and Employee Retention Incentive program, which allows teachers to continue working while drawing retirement benefits, is ending June 30. As of last July, 1,955 teachers were participating in the program, which allows state employees to work their jobs, earning a full salary, while their state retirement collects in a bank account.
After June 30, state law limits the amount of money a retiree can earn to $10,000 while still drawing retirement, unless those teachers want to work in critical subjects or geographic areas. Lawmakers are considering lifting that cap for one year, allowing teachers to continue working without the restrictions. But that proposal has not been adopted into law yet.
Without intervention by lawmakers, the program's conclusion likely will force many of the remaining teachers in the program out of the classroom, hurting small, rural districts the most, some say. A legislative proposal to extend the program by one year has failed.
Leaving the classroom will be "older, veteran teachers that have grown up in that community and have been teaching there their whole lives," said Garrett with CERRA at Winthrop University.
"Those districts with high poverty, out there out in the country, there's not a lot around them. To get a 20-year-old to move there to teach is nearly impossible," she said.
Many veteran teachers who are not retirement age also are considering leaving because making more money would require them to pay out-of-pocket to go back to school.
“It’s not just about money, but compensation is a factor,” said Charlene Sales-McMillan, an English teacher in a Midlands high school now in her 21st year of teaching.
“If I want to move ahead in the teaching profession, I must obtain multiple degrees," she said. "In other companies and corporations, if you want to move ahead, you must prove yourself to be worthy ... I understand the need for more education, but I don’t see the equity in that."
'Fundamental failure of our state'
As though the teacher exodus is not alarming enough, South Carolina's classrooms face another problem: fewer aspiring teachers to hire.
Consider Lexington's Caleb Surface, who mentally shelved his education degree before he received it.
Now a political operative working on becoming a financial adviser, Surface said he learned quickly while student teaching in a Lexington high school that the job was not for him.
“Being able to enact change in the education system is not a task remotely accessible inside the classroom,” he said, adding that teachers have no authority.
It was typical, he said, that "a student would be sent out (of class) five times and would return with no consequences."
“I didn’t blame it on the administration, because they don't get the support they need," he added. "It’s the fundamental failure of our state to give support to any type of education official.”
While Surface gave education a try, fewer and fewer college students are even considering the career.
Enrollment in South Carolina’s teaching colleges, the largest source of new S.C. teachers, is dropping rapidly.
Four years ago, 2,415 graduates from state education programs were eligible for teaching certificates. That number fell 30 percent to 1,685 at the beginning of this school year, according to the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.
Asked the greatest impediment to recruiting teachers, leaders of those education programs cited a factor that will be difficult to conquer: High school graduates are losing interest in the teaching profession.
And it's no wonder, say teachers reflecting on a profession once venerated and now attacked by public officials and disrespected by society.
"I don’t feel like most teachers are treated like true professionals," said Pete Stone, who left teaching after just two years to attend medical school.
He, too, was "set up for failure," he said. His administration stifled creativity, did not approve of his "out-of-the-box" approach to teaching poetry and gave him low marks for classroom management instead of encouraging his innovation.
But on his way to becoming a doctor and entering the clinical rotation, Stone felt called back to the classroom. He's now a Lewisville High School English teacher in Chester County.
"The reward of seeing someone become self-liberated is beyond the financial payoff," said Stone, who credits a supportive principal for his ability to stay happy and successful as a teacher.
But to some, he chose the lesser of professions.
"People were so happy when I told them I’m going to be a doctor."
Reporters Cody Dulaney and Maayan Schechter contributed.
South Carolina's teacher crisis, by the numbers
22 — Percentage of first-year teachers hired in 2016-17 who left teaching in S.C. schools altogether during or after the school year
6,705 — or 13 percent of 2016-17 teachers — left their teaching positions, up from 9 percent who left after the 2010-11 school year
4,914 — or 1 in 10 of 2016-17 teachers — left and did not return to any S.C. teaching position
38 — Percentage of teachers who left their jobs in their first five years of teaching
1,685 — Graduates from S.C. teacher colleges in 2016-17, a 30 percent drop from a high of 2,415 four years earlier in 2012-13.
Source: The Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement and the S.C. Commission on Higher Education
Helping SC teachers
State lawmakers are weighing few proposals to help curb the crisis in the teaching profession. A look at what they are considering:
- Pay raises:Teachers can expect a raise next year. But how much is still up for debate. State lawmakers are weighing whether to give teachers the 2 percent raise the S.C. House approved in its version of the state budget or the 1 percent raise the S.C. Senate adopted. Both chambers also have tentatively approved raising starting teacher salaries to $32,000 up from about $30,000. The state budget, once it becomes law, will take effect July 1.
- Teacher recruitment: The state budget is expected to include almost $10 million to help attract teachers into districts with the highest turnover rates.
- Helping retirees keep working? Lawmakers are considering a temporary one-year extension of the state's TERI program, which allows retirement-age teachers to keep working while collecting retirement pay. The program is set to expire June 30.