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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.
Thomas McAuliff is the guy running the cash register, restocking shelves and changing out sales tags at Sears.
That's during evenings and weekends, anyway.
By day, he's Mr. McAuliff, a fourth-grade Taylors Elementary School teacher — and the school's Teacher of the Year. He also was a top-10 finalist in the Greenville School District's Teacher of the Year contest.
His two identities collide when students and parents run into him while shopping, McAuliff, 28, said.
"You’re a teacher and you work here? I couldn’t do that," parents have said when they recognize the full-time educator on the sales floor.
Teachers with second jobs are surprisingly common across South Carolina, both in the beginning years of their careers when pay is low and later on, too.
Average teacher pay in South Carolina — $48,769 — falls below the Southeastern average and Georgia's $54,215 average pay. And starting pay for those fresh out of college is about $30,100 — about $19,000 below the state's median household income.
That's bad news for all South Carolinians, say teacher advocates, noting that educators have the all-important task of educating the state's future citizenry and workforce.
Multiple jobs means teachers' classroom performance can suffer.
"What's lost is you have no balance between work and life, and that creates burnout," said Bernadette Hampton, president of the S.C. Education Association, a teacher advocacy group. "What's lost is your ability to do extra research and plan. ... What's lost is your ability to keep parents abreast of the progress or challenges that your kids may have in your classes and time with your own family."
Teachers interviewed by The State agreed. Working multiple jobs sometimes leaves them exhausted when it's time to head to the classroom, strapped for time to recharge and anxious that illness, or any other little blip, will make their house of cards collapse.
"It's an eat, sleep and work kind of world," said S.C. teacher Joe Cusano. In addition to his job as a computer and technology teacher at Indian Land High School in Lancaster County, he teaches homebound students in the evenings and works as a restaurant consultant.
And while critics point out that teachers have the summer months off, educators say it doesn't work out that way.
“What people fail to realize is … teachers must take classes. We have training. We have to get ready for the next year," said Charlene Sales-McMillan, a Midlands high school English teacher. "To say we come in a week early to get ready for 180 days (of teaching), that’s asinine. We are constantly working.”
Despite working close to 80-hour workweeks with no days off, McAuliff and teachers like him aren't getting rich.
At $8.75 an hour, McAuliff earns about $250 every two weeks. He picks up five shifts, give or take.
"It’s a bill; it’s a car payment,” he said, adding that he could survive off his nearly $46,000 salary alone. But he would not be comfortable, paying his new mortgage, a $300 monthly student loan payment along with health care and retirement expenses.
Search: SC teacher salaries
It pays better to work at a gas station
Teachers' low pay creates a recruitment problem. That's particularly true for male teachers who may want to be the breadwinners for their families, said Kathy Maness, executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association, a teacher organization.
"We've got to make the profession a livable wage," she said.
Cusano, a single dad, feels a sting when he sees other jobs' pay, including a recent ad for a $41,400 assistant manager job at a gas station convenience store.
One of his students coming out of his business and technology program could land the job — making $2,000 more than Cusano does. And he has worked various jobs in the business sector for two decades before becoming a teacher, including stints managing a Chick-fil-A restaurant and two fitness clubs.
“That’s where the struggle comes,” he said. “Not so much with the school system or the district, but more so as to why legislators aren’t putting more into the structure of our education."
S.C. teachers likely will receive a modest raise in the state budget that begins July 1, but how much of a raise is still up for debate. House lawmakers included a 2 percent teacher pay raise in their version of the budget while the Senate included a 1 percent one.
Veteran teacher, losing money
Sometimes, second jobs are career-long affairs.
Sherry East, a Rock Hill science teacher, has spent 22 of her 27 years as a teacher who works weekends as a cashier at Advance Auto.
Educated beyond a master's degree, East, 49, now makes a comfortable living at about $60,000. But she needs the extra money from her retail gig now more than ever.
That's because her take-home pay has been dropping for the past few years. She has reached the maximum allowed pay on her district's salary schedule, which pays teachers based on years experience and education. While her salary remains stagnant, health insurance, retirement and other taxes withheld are costing more and more, she said.
"Every year I stay in education, it will drop," said East of her income, noting she's far from the point she wants to quit working and is weighing her options for her next move.
Worth 'a million bucks'
With a master's degree and in his seventh year teaching, McAuliff now earns nearly $46,000 and says he's doing better than many S.C. teachers.
Still, living off one income would be better, given all the time he spends outside of his classroom, planning lessons and attending conferences.
“Obviously, when you go into teaching, you’re not doing it for the money,” McAuliff said. "But support would be an extra blessing and help."
McAuliff says his Sears boss understands that he's a full-time teacher and gives him a day off when he needs it.
But in a normal week, he has no days off, working three evening shifts after school and shifts on Saturday and Sunday.
A typical day starts with a 5:30 a.m. alarm and a snooze or two before he'll "pop up and get stuff started for the day."
By 6:30or 7 a.m., he's at school prepping for class up until students arrive and the 8 a.m. bell rings. Some days he teaches without a planning period at all. Sometimes he gets one, "which is nice, just to have time to think, reflect, plan a lesson."
At 2:30 p.m., classes dismiss and McAuliff gets a little time to prep for the next day.
"From there, I run out the door with papers and stuff in hand, normally," to start a 5 p.m. shift at Sears.
Wrapping up around 9:30 p.m., he then heads home to Greer, where he grades assignments, answers emails and plans lessons.
By 10:30 p.m. or 11 p.m., it's lights out. McAuliff usually sleeps well, except for the occasional 3 a.m. anxiety wake up, when he thinks to himself, “Oh my gosh, I need to do this, this and this before I get my day started," he said.
On weekends, an afternoon power nap can fuel him through more school work or dinner with friends. But his social life sometimes is missing in action.
"My friends sometimes are like, 'We haven’t seen you in weeks!'" To which McAuliff replies: "I know, I’m still here."
"A day off feels like a million bucks."
Reporter Cody Dulaney contributed.
SC teacher salaries
S.C. teachers are paid based on years of experience and education level. While most of that money comes from the state, wealthier districts can pitch in local money to increase teacher salaries, leading to vastly different paychecks for teachers across the state. For example, a Greenville teacher with 29 years experience and a doctorate earns the most of any S.C. teacher at $83,314 a year. Meanwhile, teachers with a bachelor's degree and no experience earn as little as $30,113 a year. Here's what first-year S.C. teachers with no experience can expect to earn:
With a bachelor's degree
Highest starting salaries — $37,922 in Aiken, $36,124 in Dorchester 2 and $36,094 in Richland 2
Lowest starting salaries — $30,113 in Barnwell 19, Dillon 3 and Dillon 4 school districts
With a master's degree
Highest starting salaries — $43,651 in Aiken, $41,464 in Horry and $41,154 in Richland 1
Lowest starting salaries — $34,480 in Barnwell 19, Dillon 3 and Dillon 4
With a doctorate
Highest starting salaries — $51,583 in Aiken, $47,285 in Beaufort and $47,028 in Greenville
Lowest starting salaries — $40,503 in Barnwell 19, Dillon 3 and Dillon 4
Source: S.C. Department of Education