More from the series
Classrooms in Crisis
S.C. teachers are leaving the profession in record numbers. Here's why and how it can be fixed.
Teaching might not be their first career choice. South Carolina might not be their home state. English might not be their first language.
They are the future of South Carolina's teacher workforce.
Facing large teacher shortages and dwindling numbers of aspiring teachers graduating from S.C. colleges, the state's school districts are looking elsewhere for teachers.
Increasingly, they're recruiting them from other countries and other states and through programs that, for example, take professionals in other careers and turn them into teachers in a matter of months.
Red flags are being raised that the quality of the state's education could suffer in the long run, hurting students.
Most jarring, critics say, are the increases in the number of international teachers — citizens of other countries who can only be in the United State for a limited time.
These teachers experience a "cultural barrier here," said Kate Walsh with the teacher advocacy and research group National Council on Teacher Quality, that is "especially problematic when you're dealing with kids who are poor."
Assuming recruitment trends for the past six years continue without any change in approach, the state's teacher workforce would look very different in a decade. Consider:
▪ International teachers, now just 7 percent of newly hired S.C. teachers, would grow to roughly 13 percent. These teachers are intended to be part of a cultural exchange, not to fill permanent teaching vacancies.
▪ Teachers with alternative certifications — including those who have left other careers and gone through a short four-to-six-month process to become a teacher — would make up 30 percent of new hires, up from about 12 percent now.
▪ Graduates from S.C. teaching colleges would make up fewer than 1 in 20 new S.C. teachers, a dramatic drop from now, when they make up about a third of all new hires.
▪ Experienced teachers from other states would jump to 30 percent of new S.C. hires from 24 percent this year. And out-of-state college graduates would remain roughly the same at around 10 percent. Out-of-state teachers could leave for teaching jobs in other states with higher salaries or union representation, critics add.
The shortfall of teachers will hit critical subject areas of math, science, social studies and special education the hardest.
S.C. school districts reported 190 vacancies at the start of last school year in those critical areas. According to a recent study of the state's teacher supply and demand, that shortfall is expected to jump to more than 1,800 in the 2021-2022 school year and to nearly 2,500 in a decade if current trends continue.
Wanted: Teachers from overseas
International teachers, 822 of whom currently work in S.C. schools, are supposed to be a perk.
Hailing from all over the world, with the largest number coming from Jamaica, the Philippines and India, these teachers give their S.C. students a glimpse into another culture and exposure to another language. Meanwhile, these teachers benefit by gaining teaching experience in America.
The cultural exchange teachers, "when used appropriately, can be very beneficial to schools and students," said U.S. Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown. He cited Richland 1's immersion program, in which students learn multiple subjects from a teacher speaking another language, as an example of how international teachers are intended to be used.
But international teachers are increasingly becoming a go-to for districts looking to fill vacancies. This year, S.C. school districts are employing nearly double the number of international teachers than two years ago.
The trend is most pronounced in small, rural districts that struggle the most to recruit teachers and hold on to talented ones who can make more money in wealthier districts.
"I've talked to many personnel directors this school year, and the number of international teachers they're having to hire, they never thought they'd have to be in that situation," said Jennifer Garrett with the S.C. Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, a teacher advocacy, research and training organization.
Spanish is the most popular subject taught by international teachers in South Carolina, totaling 187 this year, followed by math with 136 teachers and elementary education with 123.
The dependence on international teachers in rural communities is alarming, said Kathy Maness, director the Palmetto State Teachers Association, a professional group for teachers.
"There are some students who live in Marion County and have never seen the beach, and yet they live one county over from the beach," she said. "On top of that, their teacher is somebody who doesn't look like them, and with these foreign teachers, they don't talk like they do."
The language barrier could create real problems for learning, said an education professor whose college program produces many new teachers who go on to work in the state's high-poverty, rural communities.
"I can’t see how (a reliance on international teachers) can be successful," said Evelyn Fields, an education professor at S.C. State University in Orangeburg. "My (college) students say to me, 'I cannot understand a thing my (international) chemistry professor says. Nothing.'
"This is not to say we’ve got a prejudice or bias, but in order for the student to learn, they’ve got to be able to understand what (the teacher is) saying," Fields added.
Proponents of international teachers say they are high-quality educators, who are fluent in English and carefully screened by the U.S. Department of State.
Additionally, international teachers must have the equivalent of a bachelor's degree and be teachers in their home countries with at least two years experience, said Katie Crews, who oversees the state education department's sponsorship program for cultural exchange teachers.
Their visas allow them to stay one to five years, depending on extensions.
It's tough work, say successful international teachers like Myriam Grandjean. A French citizen in her fifth year teaching German in Lexington 1, Grandjean was her school's teacher of the year last year, exposing her students to two languages and cultures.
The leap from being a veteran German teacher in France to teaching in the United States was a huge challenge, Grandjean said, adding she could not have been successful without training from the district and the unfailing support of her colleagues.
"My first day ... I (was) told, 'OK, Mrs. Grandjean, you have homeroom coming at 8 a.m. I said, 'I'm sorry, what's a homeroom?'" she recalled.
"I thought I was an experienced teacher, but I realized I really had to relearn. I had to step back and say, 'I need help.' It's not the same place, not the same country, not the same way to work."
She also faced cultural challenges in the classroom, noting, "You have to know your students better here. You have to connect with them before you can teach them."
And although she was fluent in English when she arrived, she still struggled. An email that took her a solid hour to write five years ago takes her 10 minutes now.
"I imagine that for other international teachers whose language is not as good, it could be a struggle. For students, for parents, you have to be able to communicate clearly," she said.
'A viable option'
With 21 international teachers out of 58 total teachers, Hampton 2 School District, located in the rural town of Estill, employs the highest percentage — 36 percent — of any school district in the state.
Citing "cultural gaps" as the only drawback, Hampton 2's Superintendent Martin Wright said the district "is doing whatever it takes to get the best candidates in our classroom who are licensed to teach and ready to connect with our kids and community."
In Lee County School District, 22 percent of its 129 teachers are international. Natives of Jamaica and the Philippines, most are math, science and elementary school teachers.
"We have a hard time filling positions in the core areas," said Lee Superintendent Wanda Andrews, adding the district competes with neighboring ones that pay teachers more.
"We try hard (to recruit teachers)," she said, adding they host their own teacher fair and some teachers get a mileage reimbursement to drive into Lee to teach if they live elsewhere.
The district also has embraced international teachers, hosting cultural activities where parents and students meet the international teachers and learn about their culture. The kids love the Jamaican teachers, who can "turn on" their accents, which the students try to imitate, she said.
"They are hard workers. Their first year, they have to hit the ground running and it is a different experience, and we work with them as well," said Andrews, who added the district watches videos of the teachers speaking before hiring them to ensure students will be able to understand them.
Eventually the teachers leave, creating a vacancy and contributing to the district's turnover rate. Lee loses about 1 in 4 of its teachers each year, according to an average of recent years.
"That’s a serious drawback," Andrews said. "But based on where we are and the number of teachers out there, competing with teachers for them, that’s a viable option."
Teacher quality at stake?
S.C. school districts also are capitalizing on career changers to fill teaching vacancies — a trend that has its critics.
This school year, districts hired 436 teachers from the state's Program of Alternative Certification for Educators, which allows career changers to become middle and high school teachers in a matter of months. That's more than triple the 129 hired from PACE in the 2011-12 school year.
PACE teachers are a high-quality way to address the teacher shortage, producing successful educators, say the district officials who hire them and the S.C. Department of Education. Two PACE alumni were finalists for this year's S.C. Teacher of the Year.
It's a trial-by-fire approach.
The program puts new teachers in the classroom in about four to six months. Most of that time is spent on paperwork, passing a background check and taking tests on the content that they'll teach. They receive just two weeks of training on how to be a teacher before they begin teaching students.
"I don't think we do any teacher any favor by putting them into the classroom without some solid preparation," said Walsh with the National Council on Teacher Quality.
The state's PACE program does not accept everyone. Only 10 percent of applicants since last March cleared the first set of hurdles, said Laura Covington, who coordinates the program for the S.C. Department of Education.
Those who land teaching jobs receive three years of on-the-job training and most — 80 to 90 percent — go on to complete the program and join the ranks of certified teachers who graduated from traditional preparation programs.
Some education officials say alternative-certification teachers are not always the best choice for districts.
“Yes, they are a solution. But are they producing the best teachers? It’s debatable in the research and, I would argue, debatable in communities,” said Ann Nutter Coffman with the National Education Association, adding, “They’re basically learning how to teach on the backs of the kids in those classrooms.
“You can know all the content, but there’s an entirely different set of skills to teach that content to little humans," she said.
PACE graduate Nicholas Sargent knows that to be true.
His first experience in the classroom was teaching Spanish at Richland 1's Columbia High School where his rambunctious students pushed him to his limits.
Despite plenty of guidance from his principal and fellow teachers, he found himself "mentally broken down, crying on the weekends in anticipation of Monday morning" and making plans to return to the corporate world.
Sargent now lives in Virginia, designing corporate education materials — with "a new appreciation for teachers and the challenges of classroom teaching, especially to high school students."
Have job, will travel to recruit
Several small colleges in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania produce a lot of teachers, making them attractive places for South Carolina and other states to recruit teachers, the NEA's Nutter Coffman said.
But as the tank of out-of-state teachers increases, the question of whether those teachers will stick around grows more important.
One factor: S.C. teacher pay is less, increasing the odds new teachers will only stay a few years. Thirty-five states paid their teachers more than South Carolina in 2016, according to a National Education Association study.
Additionally, teaching in South Carolina can be a culture shock for educators coming from school systems where teachers have union representation.
For example, take Sherry Oakes, a retired New York state teacher who moved to Lexington and taught eight years in Lexington 1. She left teaching for good in 2016.
Without any strong teacher unions in the state, "there is no one to back you up," she said. "You go in completely naked. You have no recourse."
Dealing with administrators is what ultimately drove Oakes out of the classroom.
Once, Oakes said, she was ordered to apologize to her students and their parents after she raised her voice and "made the mistake of slamming the door" to get a rowdy bunch of eighth-graders, mostly boys and athletes she taught right after lunch, to settle down.
Oakes said she felt "completely impotent" after that. "It took away any sort of authority I had, any sort of respect I ever could have gotten from these kids."
Now, Oakes discourages teachers from coming to South Carolina.
"I would tell anybody, and I have told anybody who is contemplating teaching here, 'Forget it, you're not going to be happy. It's not going to work for you.'"
South Carolina's teacher recruitment crisis, by the numbers
6,057 — Predicted shortfall of needed teachers in all subjects and specialist positions by 2027-28 if trends continue
2,462 — Predicted shortfall of needed teachers in math, science, social studies and special education teachers by 2027-28 if trends continue
1,685 — Graduates from S.C. teacher preparation colleges in the 2016-17 school year, down from 2,415 in 2012-13
International teachers in South Carolina
822 — International "cultural exchange" teachers working in South Carolina schools, up from 430 two years ago.
Subjects with the most international teachers: Spanish — 187; math — 136; elementary education — 123; special education — 101.
Districts with the highest percentage of international teachers: Hampton 2: 36 percent; Bamberg 2: 32 percent; Williamsburg 1: 30 percent.