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Teachers huddle before the start of classes at Liberty Hill Academy on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. Lauren Petracca/ Staff

COLUMBIA — Constant student testing and abysmally low pay are preventing teachers from helping their students, educators told state senators Wednesday.

As the state's teacher shortage crisis worsens, legislators are seeking teachers' input on what the General Assembly can do to improve their jobs and keep them in the profession.

The goal is to "remove useless paperwork, overbearing procedures and bureaucratic overkill that hinders our teachers from teaching our kids," said Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, who's leading the panel. 

While low pay may not sound like a barrier to instruction, it's requiring teachers — particularly those saddled with college debt — to take on additional jobs outside the classroom, said Patrick Kelly, a history teacher at Blythewood High and teacher training coordinator for Richland 2 School District.    

"Money is not the most important thing or what entices you to the profession, but when teachers are working second jobs," it's a problem, Saluda High Principal Sarah Longshore said.

She recounted crying when she opened her first paycheck 16 years ago, which barely covered her rent and car payment. 

"I seriously contemplated quitting. I stuck it out but had to work part time at O’Charleys (restaurant) for two years until I got married," she said. "The money I made as a starting teacher 16 years ago is not very different than what teachers start at today." 

She urged legislators to fund 5 percent pay raises for teachers, plus incentives for teachers in rural areas. 

State Superintendent Molly Spearman also advocates a 5 percent salary increase for teachers, which would bring their average pay to the Southeastern average.  

Every educator who testified Wednesday also complained about incessant student testing.

It's "gotten out of hand," said Chesterfield County Superintendent Harrison Goodwin. "We’re constantly walking students back and forth to the computer lab to take this assessment or that assessment. ... We haven’t taught them anything since the last time we assessed them." 

Add to that the stress put on poor children who must take tests on computers they don't know how to operate because their only internet connection at home is a cellphone, he said. 

The state requires more end-of-year high-stakes tests for third- through eighth-graders than needed to meet federal requirements. Even more tests required by state law include four days of testing for students who can't speak English well and five days of screening for every second grader to assess whether they qualify for gifted and talented classes.

All second graders spend at least 20 days of the school year taking tests, said Aimee Fulmer, principal of Bowen's Corner Elementary in Berkeley County. 

She suggested a direct correlation between third graders' poor reading scores on standardized tests and the "sheer number of days second graders miss on instruction due to testing."

Even kindergarteners spend a good portion of class time testing. A 2014 law that was supposed to ensure students read on grade level by fourth grade requires kindergarten teachers to spend the first weeks of the school year testing students one-on-one to gauge their skills entering school.  

That means as the teacher tests each kindergartner, an aide is handling the rest of the classroom, for up to the first 45 days of school. 

"The time when teachers best need to build a foundation for students' learning, we're assessing," Goodwin said.    

The 2014 law also required teachers to get additional certifications by taking reading courses that Goodwin called "an exercise in futility" that don't add much to classroom skills.

The Senate panel will hold another hearing before drafting legislation for the session that starts in January. 

"I heard you loud and clear the two main barriers are time and money and the lack of both," Sheheen said, thanking the educators for their insight. "You think we know what goes on. Truth is, we don’t unless you tell us."

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.