Sariah McCall

Sariah McCall participates in Montessori teacher training during the summer of 2018. McCall resigned from the Charleston County School District in November and recently had her resignation letter published in The Washington Post. Provided

The quote was supposed to inspire teachers, but Sariah McCall couldn't stand to read it any longer.

"A good teacher is like a candle. It consumes itself to light the way for others."

The words were printed in a day planner on McCall's desk when she taught in the Charleston County School District, before she quit in November. Like thousands of teachers who drop out of the profession in South Carolina every year, she left early in her career, at age 28, part of a mass exodus that continues to grow more dire.

On Tuesday, McCall explained her decision to the world. The Washington Post published a copy of her resignation letter to CCSD Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait, and teachers far and wide have shared it as a document of their ongoing frustrations.

"I cannot set myself on fire to keep someone else warm," she wrote, transforming the candle cliche into her own retort.

McCall's letter struck a nerve with some teachers as lawmakers in the Republican-controlled state Legislature continued to whittle down a proposed overhaul of South Carolina's education system this week. Teachers have been more outspoken than usual in the Statehouse this year, in part thanks to the statewide activist network SC for Ed, which McCall helped lead in the Charleston tri-county area last summer. 

Some of teachers' rallying cries, like smaller classroom sizes and more mental health counselors for students, appear nowhere in the bills currently up for consideration. The more strident teacher activists were calling for an across-the-board raise of 10 percent or more to make up for stagnant wages since the Great Recession, but many could end up seeing a 5 percent raise instead. The state education funding formula, which the S.C. Supreme Court has identified as a bedrock problem underlying massive inequities for poor, black and rural children, will likely go untouched this year.

South Carolina Education Superintendent Molly Spearman read the letter, too. She said in an email Thursday that teachers across the state list the same complaints.

"They need competitive pay, dedicated time to teach and plan, and comprehensive support and wraparound services that lighten their load and responsibilities while in the school building," Spearman said. "I am fighting to make teacher support and pay the state’s top priority and encourage all of South Carolina’s citizens to thank our teachers and speak up for them whenever they can."

McCall now lives with her fiance and a golden retriever named Hoover in Savannah, where she waits tables at a bistro near the river. The hours are shorter and the pay is better than in the career she earned a master's degree to pursue, she said.

"I don’t have to go home and call my tables’ parents and discuss how they tipped me. I don’t have to analyze the data of the appetizers my table has been ordering to see what I could be more effective at selling," McCall said, laughing in a phone interview Thursday.

McCall was in her fifth year of teaching when she quit. Her story is not unusual. Of the 5,340 teachers who quit teaching in South Carolina schools last year, about 1,750 had five or fewer years of experience, according to the Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement.

After a stint working in schools in Savannah, she taught third grade at Sanders-Clyde Elementary in Charleston before taking a lower elementary teaching job at Murray-LaSaine Elementary, a public Montessori school on James Island. Unable to make ends meet on a teacher salary, she worked nights at Snapper Jack's on Folly Beach, taking papers along to grade on the hostess stand.

McCall said she hand-delivered her letter to the school district office on Nov. 5. She wrote about long, unpaid work hours after the school day ended, unrealistic expectations, and a lack of time for planning or basic bodily functions like bathroom breaks.

In an emailed statement Thursday, Postlewait said she remembers meeting McCall while visiting her school on the first day of the academic year. 

"Later, she scheduled a meeting with me to discuss the ways in which we might work together on educational reform. I was surprised when I received her letter, and I called her asking her to reconsider and even asked if some time off would help her," Postlewait said.

Postlewait wrote that many of McCall's concerns are shared by other teachers, and she said teachers are often not appreciated or paid "at a level that would speak to the important job that they have."

"I wish we could have saved Sariah for the teaching profession and for the young students she would have impacted," Postlewait said. "To the best of our ability, we simply must find a way to change the conditions that teachers face in order to have any chance to change the lives of the students we serve."

McCall said she sent her letter to The Washington Post but waited a few months before giving permission to publish it. It ran Tuesday in a column by education writer Valerie Strauss.

Sarah Jacowitz, a fellow Charleston County teacher who resigned in June, said she was proud to see her friend voicing a familiar set of concerns. Her own resignation was brief and terse, and she said no one from the district gave her an exit interview to explain her departure.

"I love teaching, and they made me hate it," Jacowitz said Thursday.

Jacowitz came to Charleston County after teaching in Connecticut, taking a $15,000 pay cut despite living in an expensive real estate market. Coming from a state where teachers were represented by unions, she said she was stunned by how afraid South Carolina teachers were to advocate for their own profession.

This week in Savannah, McCall says she sat down with a former teaching colleague to reminisce and look at photos from their old classrooms. They laughed and cried, and she missed the children.

But she said a lot would have to change before she considered returning to the classroom. That old chestnut, "A good teacher is like a candle," would certainly have to go.

"It’s like an idealistic martyrdom that isn’t helping anybody," McCall said. "The way that some people looked at the job, they said, 'You know, you have to do this in order to be a good teacher,' and I can’t. I can’t completely burn out, because then who’s going to teach the kids? What happens to me and my family?"

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.