A lot of kids will start school this week with a substitute teacher, or sharing a teacher in a too-crowded classroom. Again.

It’s become a recurring and growing problem across South Carolina and much of the nation, as the number of teachers leaving the profession continues to climb and the number of students completing teacher-education programs continues to fall. We probably won’t have official numbers until January, but school started last year with 621 vacancies statewide, and the S.C. Education Department expects that number to be higher this year.

The teacher group SC for Ed put the number of vacancies statewide at 991 as of Monday, but that included reading coaches, counselors and others who aren’t in the classroom. And the numbers can change dramatically as the first day of school approaches. Charleston County schools were down to just 14 classroom vacancies as of Friday. So that’s encouraging.

What’s new in the Charleston area school districts for the 2019 school year

But even schools that manage to get a full-time teacher in every classroom are having to rely increasingly on out-of-state, international and alternatively certified teachers to fill these vacancies, according to Winthrop University’s Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention and Advancement, which tracks the state’s teacher supply. We don’t object to alternatively certified teachers, but we do believe it’s important to have teachers who are committed to and part of the communities in which they teach, and not just helicoptering in for a year.

That means that beyond the immediate need to find teachers, we need to do a much better job of encouraging people to become teachers, and to remain teachers.

The Legislature took a small step this year when it approved a 4 percent pay raise for all teachers, with 10 percent raises for starting teachers, and legislative leaders made a commitment to continuing to provide annual raises until they get average teacher pay to the national average. They have to follow through on that commitment this coming year and for several years to come.

But South Carolina will never be able to solve this problem with money alone, because money isn’t the only thing that’s driving teachers out of the classroom.

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Fears about teacher retention are shared with neighboring districts in Berkeley,Charleston and Dorchester County. It comes amid a recent statewide shortage in educators. In an effort to combat the hemorrhage, districts are attempting to raise base teacher pay, provide stipends to rural areas and under served areas and cut down on mandatory testing. 

Among the biggest complaints are excessive paperwork, a “teach to the test” mentality, a lack of discipline and an overall lack of respect for teachers as professionals, which manifests itself in everything from being denied an opportunity to use the restroom during the class day to administrators refusing to support their decisions about grades and discipline when parents complain. We have to address all of those problems.

With a quarter of new teachers leaving the classroom after a single year, we obviously have to provide them with more support and better prepare them while they’re still in college. And all teachers, regardless of how long they’ve been teaching, need time to plan and collaborate, rather than being forced to devote more and more time to administrative and other non-teaching duties.

Our state has no more important job than educating the next generation. And there’s no surer way to make sure children get a decent education than to make sure they all have good teachers. Having enough teachers is the first step. But it is far from the last one.

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