A recent article by Deanna Pan in The Post and Courier noted the remarkable shortage of teachers across the state. As the article accurately explains, the reasons for teachers evacuating the profession or failing to sign on go much deeper than salaries.
The average teacher salary in our state is $48,375, which ranks us 39th in the nation and leads to a considerable wage gap between teachers and other college-educated professionals. But that figure is for 9 months of work. Take away the three months of vacation time (a nice benefit), and the salary would be closer to $64,500, a figure that is well in line with the average college-educated professional ($59,124). By comparison, the average S.C. police officer makes only $37,260. So can we really say that salaries alone are driving teachers into other professions?
Perhaps we can in one sense. An under-reported fact is that the wage gap between teachers and other college-educated professionals widens considerably for more experienced teachers, and that presents a fundamental problem with teacher pay: whenever officials raise salaries, they send most of the money to first- and second-year teachers to aid in recruitment. Meanwhile, teachers who have been loyal to the profession for years get nothing. In most districts, once a teacher has 20 years of experience, there will be no more salary increases even if he or she puts in another 20 years of service. What one would logically expect to see under these conditions is teachers putting in a few years of service, realizing their work is undervalued, and jumping ship to more lucrative professions. In fact, this is exactly what is happening.
However, it is difficult not to notice that some schools seem immune to the teacher shortage, yet the teachers at these schools receive the same pay as they do elsewhere. These are the schools with the fewest discipline problems, the highest level of parent support, and the highest levels of academic freedom. This is in line with the reasons teachers across the state consistently give for why they are leaving the classroom early. And it should surprise no one that bad word of mouth regarding these issues is also having a negative impact on teacher recruitment. The three reasons are as follows:
1. Student discipline. In too many classrooms, student conduct is out of control, and teachers have not been given the power necessary to instill order and focus. Every day teachers are yelled at, sworn at, threatened, assaulted and terrorized by their own students. They get blamed for bad behavior management while misbehaving students are rewarded. Focus is placed on the feelings of the few students who constantly wreak havoc while the rights of the hard-working students and teachers are ignored. Because teachers have so little power, teaching in many schools has devolved by stages from instruction to day care to containment to survival. Until teachers are empowered to instill a culture in their classrooms of order and focus, well-behaving students will continue to suffer in silence and quality teachers will continue to leave the profession.
2. Parental support. Many people blame teachers when students fail to succeed, but in reality it is parents who have the greatest impact on student achievement. While most parents are supportive, there are too many who are not. They do not make their children behave. They do not make them do homework. They sometimes don’t even make them go to school at all. And when a student earns negative consequences for poor conduct or academic indolence, they blame teachers and the system for failing their child. Districts must take a cue from those charter schools that have found a way to mandate parental support. Otherwise, teachers who are forbidden from being successful by parents who are antagonistic to their efforts will search for success elsewhere.
3. Administrative power and teacher discretion. Teachers today have to trade too much of their instruction for meaningless testing, manage overcrowded classrooms packed with the neediest of students, and teach on nonstop schedules that barely permit them time to go to the bathroom. Mistaking bureaucracy for a solution, districts now hire almost as many administrative personnel as teachers, and this bureaucracy often frustrates the teaching process by mandating expensive and unsuccessful cookie-cutter methods. Teaching is an art, not a science, and when you exchange a teacher’s palette and canvas for a dollar store paint-by-numbers set, teachers will seek other arenas to utilize their skills.
The picture should now be clearer. The problem isn’t necessarily that teachers are underpaid in the main, but that they are woefully underpaid in proportion to the number of daily obstacles they are forced to overcome just to teach a simple lesson. One answer to this might be, of course, to pay them enough money to stay. But if you really want to keep teachers in the classroom, perhaps a better option is to actually address the reasons why they’re leaving in the first place.
Jody Stallings is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. He teaches English at Moultrie Middle School.