At a June 2017 Berkeley County School Board meeting, a young history teacher at Summerville's Cane Bay High School approached the podium in a dress shirt and tie and boldly announced his career in education was over.
"I will not be returning to the classroom," Jeremy Cantrill told the school board, reading from a typed speech he had prepared and practiced at home. "After four years, I no longer have the motivation or willpower to teach."
Cantrill, 29, is now a graduate student at Ohio State University, studying for his master's degree in human resources management and hoping to work in corporate America. When he left Cane Bay last spring, he joined the growing ranks of former South Carolina educators leaving public schools for greener pastures, and causing the state to scramble for qualified teachers for a slew of vacancies. And it wasn't just about money.
Like many states, South Carolina faces an acute teacher shortage that experts warn will only get worse when the Teacher and Employee Retention Incentive retirement program expires in June.
About 6,700 teachers left their positions at the end of the 2016-17 school year, according to new data from the state's Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement.
More than a quarter of these teachers moved on to other school districts, but about 4,900 no longer teach in any public school. More than a third of these teachers, like Cantrill, had five or fewer years of experience.
"If you’re ever going to see true growth when it comes to student performance, if we’re talking about implementing programs with fidelity, it takes time," said Jesulon Gibbs-Brown, superintendent of the rural Orangeburg Consolidated School District 3, where annual teacher turnover rate tops 14 percent.
"Anytime you have a revolving door of teachers, there’s not enough time to actually go through the phases it takes to actually master your pedagogy," she said.
Part of the problem lies in the teaching-training pipeline: Fewer college students are pursuing teaching as a profession.
Data from the Commission on Higher Education shows South Carolina's colleges and universities have seen a 30 percent drop in the number of their graduates eligible for teacher certification — in just four years.
"The problem has increased significantly in the last four or five years," said Jane Turner, executive director of CERRA. "And a lot of it is fueled by the fact that we don’t have enough young people who view teaching as a desirable career path."
Last summer, the state Department of Education convened a committee of lawmakers, superintendents and school principals to identify the causes fueling South Carolina's teacher shortage and propose solutions for improving retention and recruitment.
In December, the committee released 29 recommendations for the Legislature and various state agencies. These included raising the base salary in the current teacher salary schedule, offering home down payment assistance as an incentive in rural districts, where shortages are worse, and adding education as an enhancement to the state LIFE scholarship.
"We're really having to work hard at the public perception of the teaching profession and the benefits of being a teacher, because salary is not really one of them," Turner said. "That doesn't mean salary shouldn’t be addressed as well, but teaching is never going to pay the same as certain other professions."
New and better financial incentives might not be enough to attract more teachers and keep them in the classroom.
The Education Department committee solicited feedback from educators about why teachers leave the profession. Among the 197 responses, the most common complaint, after teacher pay and a lack of classroom support, regarded the demands of assessments and accountability.
"What we know from having taught is not valued, and they’re constantly changing what they think should be taught in the classroom," said former first-grade teacher MaryEllen Woodside, who ended her 40-year teaching career at the Charleston County School District in June. "There's less and less time to do the things that we know matters most at that age."
For Cantrill, teaching was never about the money. He started working for the Berkeley County School District in August 2013, his first teaching gig after earning his master's in secondary social studies education from the University of South Carolina.
A Goose Creek native who attended Berkeley County schools, Cantrill never wavered in his commitment to become a teacher — until he actually started the job. Teaching, Cantrill had long assumed, was a creative profession where instructors had autonomy within their classrooms in what and how they taught their subject areas.
Instead, Cantrill felt increasingly bogged down by competing state and district standards. He found himself spending a lot of time preparing students for an array of standardized tests when he would have rather been teaching material that interested them.
He said he had assumed "the role of robot." By his third year at Cane Bay, Cantrill was weighing different options for his future and perusing job boards online.
"That was really disheartening to me," Cantrill said recently, "and I definitely could not do that for another 30 years."