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Columbia Business Monthly

Why Johnny Can’t Teach

Sep 05, 2018 01:05PM ● Published by Emily Stevenson
By Chris Haire

Mev McIntosh has returned to teaching after a six-year absence after spending 12 years as a teacher at Goose Creek High School. McIntosh didn’t leave the education world, exactly. During those six years, she served on the administrative side of the education sector as a teacher evaluator for the Berkeley County School District. This year, McIntosh will return to her roots, joining North Charleston High School as 10th grade teacher in English Language Arts and Advanced Placement Language and Composition.

But returning to the classroom comes with a cost—one that is quite literal.

So far, McIntosh has spent close to $800 on school supplies. “I’m still purchasing classroom supplies,” she says, adding that she’ll likely spend another $200.

A classroom supplies check for $275 from the Charleston County School District will offset some of that, but the bulk comes from her own pocket.

Fortunately, as a high school teacher, she doesn’t have to rely on the teaching aids and manipulatives that grade school instructors do. For them, that $275 doesn’t go far.

“When it comes to elementary school teachers, that’s a drop in the bucket,” McIntosh says.

Admittedly, some of her supplies are the result of a fire that destroyed her home, but that makes her situation similar to that of first-year teachers.

“I’ve been blessed with teachers donating stuff to me,” McIntosh says.

When it comes to teachers just starting out, donations can be vitally important.

Recently, the Palmetto State Teachers Association (PSTA) held a Teacher Clothes Closet event at Mauldin High School in which the public was encouraged to donate clothes to give to student teachers. After all, a classroom-appropriate wardrobe is something that many student teachers simply don’t have.

“When you are student teaching, you have to dress professionally for five-day weeks,” says Kathy Maness, executive director of PSTA.

Not that the financial situations of full-time teachers are much better, especially those who are just starting out. “They’re having to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet,”  Maness says.

And that’s not easy to do given the demands that are already placed on teachers.

“It’s not an 8-to-3 job,” Maness says, adding that teachers work somewhere between 60 to 70 hours a week. “They are there before school starts. They are there after school starts. They are at football games. They are at band competitions.”

And increasingly, these teachers not only have to provide for themselves—they have to provide for their students in ways they shouldn’t.

Richland County District 2 teacher Patrick Kelly says some teachers buy food for their students who don’t get enough to eat at home.

“Our students have needs that are not being met beyond instructional materials,” says Kelly, who is also a coordinator of professional learning at Richland County 2 and a board member for PSTA. “If you are having to pay out $500 of your own money for classroom supplies and the needs of your own students, that’s a big factor.”

Kelly adds, “We as a society should be able to fund what a child needs.”

Currently, there is no hard data on how much teachers spend on their students. It varies by teacher to teacher, school to school.

But there is plenty of data illustrating the dire state of teaching in South Carolina. One needs to look no further than this year’s S.C. Annual Educator Supply and Demand Report from the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement (CERRA).

For the 2017-18 school year, the percentage of South Carolina students graduating with a bachelor’s degree and able to become certified public school teachers in the state dropped 30 percent over the past four years, the Winthrop University-based CERRA notes.

Meanwhile, 550 teaching positions were unfilled at the start of the school year, a 16 percent increase from 2016-17.

Of the nearly 5,000 teachers who left careers as public school teachers, 35 percent had five or fewer years of experience, while 12 percent had only one year or less. The previous year showed similar numbers, with 37 percent having five or less years of experience and 13 percent having one or less.

As for salaries, first-year teachers earn $36,070 in the Charleston County School District, $35,400 in Greenville County Schools, and $35,532 in Richland County School District 1 and $36,094 in Richland 2, according to information from the Education Department. Of Lexington’s five districts, no salary for first-year teachers was above $34,000, while in Spartanburg County’s seven districts, the salary was $34,028.

But while low salaries are an issue, Jennifer Garrett, ​CERRA’s coordinator of research and program evaluation, says pay isn’t the central problem facing teachers.

“A higher salary for teachers would, however, make a tough situation a little easier to swallow at times,” Garrett says. “I don’t think anyone can say that one particular thing has caused this, but I do believe that a lack of respect is at the core. Teachers are often asked to do the impossible and when they don’t perform, they are not valued as effective practitioners.”

“So many teachers view education as a ‘calling,’ and many of these teachers stick with it. Many others, however, do not feel that the profession is worth all of the disrespect, unrealistic expectations, and red tape.”

Another possible reason new teachers abandon the profession: culture shock.

“In various interviews, focus groups, and surveys with pre-service and beginning teachers, we’ve found that they are often not prepared to differentiate their teaching styles for diverse groups of students,” Garrett notes. “A new graduate who has no experience in a high-poverty setting, for example, is often ill-equipped to effectively teach students whose basic needs are not being met at home. In these situations, the teacher is dealing with much more than just educating the child.”

Ryan Brown, chief communication officer with the S.C. Department of Education, says there is a possible solution to that problem: More effort should be made to “give your teacher candidates experiences outside of what they have normally been doing—for example, teaching in a Title I school.”

He adds, “That’s just one way we can combat the shock when they go into the classroom.”

As for the low number of teachers entering the workforce, Brown says, “Whenever the economy is doing well, we see a dip in the number of people going into the teaching profession.”

Brown points out that teacher salaries have gone up 6 percent over the past year, a move that might help retain and attract more teachers. “What we really need to focus on is getting our starting teacher pay up,” Brown says. “We don’t want to be competing with North Carolina and Georgia.”

Be that as it may, Garrett says making the profession more enticing to would-be teachers won’t solve the problem completely.

“We cannot recruit our way out of this teacher shortage. It is statistically impossible to fill every vacant position with a new teacher,” she says.

Garrett adds, “While recruitment is absolutely necessary, retention is the key. Let’s work on retaining the teachers who are already in the classroom and have proven themselves as effective, caring educators. Let’s value them, let’s respect them, let’s allow them to plan and teach as they have been trained, and let’s pay them a livable wage.”

McIntosh for one thinks that in some ways, the power to make the profession better could be in the hands of teachers themselves.

“I think the teachers in South Carolina have waited way too long to unify, to use their collective strength to put pressure on our Legislature,” McIntosh says. “ I feel like if we all voted, we’d all have so much more power than we realize.”

But simply voting isn’t enough. “Educators must run for public offices including school board to shape the policies and legislation that impact them,” she says. “This is crucial.”