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.
IT’S NOT NEWS that South Carolina has a teacher shortage: Students in 540 classrooms started the school year without a regular, full-time teacher, and with education-school enrollments plummeting and a legislatively created one-time retirement wave cresting this summer, it’s only going to get worse if we don’t take the problem seriously. Yet another legislative session is about to end without much of a fix.
Yes, there will be modest pay raises. Emphasis on modest. As in, maybe, maybe enough to keep things from getting a lot worse. Right away. Not enough to dig us out of the hole.
Enough to dig us out of the hole would cost a whole lot of money — or a lot of changes. Frankly, the money would be easier to come by, given the sorts of changes we’d have to make in order to turn teaching back into an attractive profession.
As The State’s Jamie Self explains in a series that kicks off today, teachers are fleeing the classroom in record numbers because of a combination of below-market salaries, lack of discipline, lack of support, lack of respect, a teach-to-the-test culture and a job that demands a lot more than 40 hours a week.
Aside from the money, and perhaps even including the money, the teachers’ complaints involve larger societal problems — problems that we seem unwilling to address even if we could agree how to address them, which we can’t.
Our whole society used to respect teachers. Whether we had kids in school or not, we honored teachers for the sacrifices they made to do the crucial work of educating the next generation. If we had kids and they got into trouble, we backed the teacher, thereby teaching our kids to respect, or at least obey, them.
A lot of us, probably most of us, still respect teachers, and teach our kids to respect teachers and education. But too many don’t.
Inside the school, helicopter parents at the upper end of the economic spectrum and disaffected parents at the lower end side with their children when the children cause trouble. Administrators either back down when parents object to disciplinary action or else won’t even let action be taken, for fear of being sued, or arrested, or losing state funding if they expel the students. So the teachers are stuck with problem students, who feel more empowered than ever.
Outside, a whole political movement has grown up around convincing voters that the public schools are worthless and that we’d all be better off defunding them and paying parents to send their kids to private schools. No matter how much the architects of this movement deny it, their drumbeat has the inevitable effect of draining public respect for teachers.
That criticism is also what created the teach-to-the-test mentality: Reasonable efforts to hold schools accountable for educating children (which can only be monitored through standardized testing) got whipped into overdrive to meet the hyper-politicized demands of people who will never be convinced that the schools can succeed.
Ditto the too-heavy workloads: Teachers, like any professionals, will always work more than 40 hours a week if they’re dedicated to their profession. But the mounting paperwork and non-teaching tasks are driven by a combination of that same relentless criticism of the schools and a society focused more on individual rights than collective good, or even sanity.
The fix? No, to answer some of my critics from the past week, it’s not arresting students for being “obnoxious.” It is changing our attitudes — and insisting that our legislators change their attitudes.
I can’t tell you what particular laws we need, but I can tell you this: We all have to agree that the state of South Carolina has no more important job than educating the next generation.
We have to understand that every single time we fail to do that, the result is more South Carolinians who will consume government services — whether it’s food stamps or Medicaid or space in prison — that the rest of us will pay for. And will produce another generation that follows in their footsteps. And as a result, fewer businesses will expand or move to our state to provide good jobs for us and our children.
We have to recognize that the best way to make sure children get a decent education — even if their parents don’t care a whit about education — is by giving them a good teacher.
And we have to acknowledge that we’re not going to attract and keep those good teachers unless we value them — whether that means reducing their paperwork or offloading their non-teaching duties or giving them more flexibility to teach creatively or supporting their decisions about grades and discipline or, if all that is too difficult, paying them more.
If we will do all that, finding the particular laws we need to pass will be child’s play.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.