Opinion Extra

A student told him, 'We’re gonna break you.' And they did.

Former S.C. teachers Nicholas Sargent, Charlene Diorio and Reed Patterson.
Former S.C. teachers Nicholas Sargent, Charlene Diorio and Reed Patterson. Submitted

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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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Last year, nearly 5,000 teachers — or one in 10 — left their teaching jobs in S.C. public schools. The state is facing a statewide teacher shortage that is expected to get worse.

Three former teachers explain why they left.

Nicholas Sargent

Guest Columnist

A student told him, 'We’re gonna break you.' And they did.

‘If this ain’t your cuppa tea, we don’t want you teaching here.”

That was broadcast advice from a Richland 1 administrator at a district-wide teachers rally. Even then, after my first week or so of teaching Columbia High School Spanish, my tea was going down harder than liquor.

Fast forward just a few months to November 2010: Mentally broken down, crying on the weekends in anticipation of Monday morning, I made plans to quit my job and return to the corporate world.

What had happened? I liked teaching people as a BlueCross corporate trainer and speaker. So I had earned a master’s degree in teaching English as a foreign language in 2008. When our family’s plans to move to China to teach English went on hold, the S.C. PACE program offered me a plan B to fulfill my call to language education.

But. Teenagers. Classroom management. Cultural backgrounds different than my own. Multitasking. First-year teaching. Shenanigans! These ingredients poisoned my tea.

How could I teach when half of my students were talking to each other, ignoring me? Others distracting my attention, while ringleaders hid my flashcards or wrote the F word on the whiteboard behind my back? Or even standing up on the desks and rapping out loud? One girl, who I learned was part of a gang, told me and the class my first week, “We’re gonna break you.“

Maybe you’re thinking: Well, you must have just been a real meanie to them to deserve that kind of retaliation. Or, you’re just a pushover. I wasn’t a pushover, but I may have presented as “too nice.“ Before the semester began, I was shocked at a three-day teacher training, when seasoned teachers helped with a mock first-day classroom role-play. Their kind, professional tenor turned to rude, obnoxious and untamable as they pretended to be the students I would live with for the next semester. Surely, they’re just overacting. Not so.

One fellow teacher warned me, “Don’t smile for the first week.” This was a compassionate guy. Was he kidding? No, I told him and all the others: “I just can’t do that. That’s not me.” (Not my tea.)

Now, there were teachers who had that perfect chemistry of kindness, counter-sassiness and skill in classroom management to pull it off. These teachers and the administration tried to help me stomach the tea. Good advice, a consoling pat on the back when I cried my eyes out, and the principal even came in to co-teach a class with me twice.

Ultimately, I left with a new appreciation for teachers and the challenges of teaching, especially to high school students. I even decided not to pursue classroom teaching for adult learners, at least for now. I just found myself not to be that extroverted.

Happily, for the past seven years, I have thrived as an instructional designer of online courses and videos, fulfilling my call to education. Not always violated by the constant chaos that tore me down in such a short time, but restored and contributing in a tranquil, solitary way, I reflect on at all, as I sip on a warm cup of tea.

Mr. Sargent was an S.C. PACE program teacher who left the profession; contact him at nfsargent@gmail.com.

Charlotte DiOrio

Guest Columnist

Columbia, SC

‘Standardized Test Scores.’

Those three words head the list of reasons teachers like me give up their dream of relishing those joyful, “I get it!” moments with students — when we open their minds to the knowledge and critical thinking so crucial to their success.

The “No Child Left Behind” preoccupation with such scores led to a “teaching to the test” academic sinkhole, dumbing-down an America too cheap to pay for competent teaching talent. Crushing paperwork, time-crunches, absurd curricula and unrealistic expectations only accelerate the resulting exodus of high-quality teachers.

George W. Bush’s witless test-and-punish program is not the only cause. “Libs and Lawyers” took away the proverbial whip, thus ceding classroom control to incorrigibles. (Ceiling-mounted, facial-recognition video automatically streamed to misbehaving kids’ parents would help.)

Add a litany of silly regulations, pointless meetings, worthless data collection, poor judgment (remember the seventh-grader suspended for doodling a stick figure of a rifleman?), chronic-complaining parents, and we get predictable results: Universities now remediate, rather than augment. Comedy shows street-interview college students for ignorance-entertainment. And private schools siphoning off students exacerbates de facto resegregation.

Why would any sane teacher stay?

That question took me to an emotional place far from my childhood dream of becoming a teacher, when I played school every afternoon with my stuffed animals and toy chalkboard. Far from my realization that there was never really a question of what I would do. And far from the pride I took in my love of children, my organizational skills and my ability to stimulate analytical thought.

I’m grateful that I still work with children, but in a less controlling setting.

Ms. DiOrio worked in the Beaufort County School District from 1993 to 2016. She now works as an early interventionist for the S.C. School for the Deaf and Blind, coordinating services with local providers for children ages 0 to 3. Contact her at charlottediorio@gmail.com.

Reed Patterson

Guest Columnist

5 changes in society and government rules that made teaching tougher

Columbia, SC

Teaching is a mission chosen by few. Teachers adjust to different situations imposed upon them and continue on their life quest to make the world a better place through education.

The classroom setting is a reflection of the community. Society has changed over time, and so has the classroom. The youth are obsessed with political correctness driven by social media.

Here are a few of the changes in the past 50 years that have made it more difficult to be a teacher:

1. Educational experts periodically require changes in the learning dynamics. For example: new math, outcome-based education with student-directed learning, block and flex scheduling, subject coverage dictated by a strict timeline (which leaves no time for reteaching), repeated retesting of subject matter not mastered, grading methods dictated by the administration, the abolition of homework.

2. Some parents do not hold their children responsible for failing grades. Teachers are blamed for the child’s failure.

3. Teaching morals and good character has been de-emphasized.

4. The state’s end-of-course exams are tyrannical. When teachers receive the tests, they are required to sign a nondisclosure contract with the threat of termination. If students ask about a question on the state test, the teacher can read the question to the student, but no discussion is allowed. Teachers are not allowed to challenge any question on the state test, nor are they allowed to discuss any question with other teachers. Teachers are required to report any teacher in violation of this rule to the administration.

5. Organized prayer is no longer allowed in school.

Mr. Patterson is a retired high school teacher who taught 30 years in Georgia and 19 in Lexington County; contact him at reed.patterson@yahoo.com.