Mid-year transfers latest example of disrespect causing SC teachers to quit

Raising salaries alone won’t fill shortages. State and district leaders must improve working conditions.

November 16, 2023 6:00 am
Nearly 900 South Carolina teachers left their jobs mid-way through the school year in 2022-23, according to a state survey.

Despite substantial increases in state-allowed minimum salaries for teachers, the number of vacant teaching positions at the start of the school year is up 165% since 2019. (Mary Ann Chastain/Special to the SC Daily Gazette)

The fall tends to be a slower time for education policy debates in South Carolina, but that has not been the case this year.

From book selection policies to superintendent contracts, school districts across the state have been roiled by conflict.

I have been especially concerned by the ongoing controversy in Richland School District One resulting from the mid-year reassignment of 11 teachers across 14 different elementary schools. At a micro-level, the unprecedented scale and scope of these staff transfers has resulted in significant disruptions to school operations and student learning.

While the specifics of the personnel actions in Richland One are unique, the reassignments also fit into a statewide macro-level trend of insufficient support and respect for the work of educators.

It may seem like a memory from a different era, but less than four years ago teachers were being described as “heroes” and “essential” for their work to support student learning and well-being during the chaotic initial weeks of school closures resulting from the pandemic. The teachers I know worked around the clock to develop entirely new platforms and formats of instruction on the fly.

At first, teachers did this out of necessity and a desire to provide the highest quality experience possible for students. But, rather quickly, teachers found themselves working well beyond the school day as a result of district-level mandates that were almost always well-intentioned but frequently poorly implemented.

For example, in 2021, numerous districts across the state required teachers to deliver “dual modality” instruction by teaching students online and in-person at the same time. The resulting strain on teachers — and detriment to student learning — was so great that the General Assembly had to step in to outlaw the practice.

In spite of that policy action, teacher working conditions continue to deteriorate. Nationally, the 2023 RAND State of the American Teacher Survey found that teachers reported working 15 hours more per week than required by their contract, meaning roughly 1 in every 4 hours worked was unpaid.

Similarly, the 2023 Palmetto State Teachers Association Member Survey found 52% of educators working more than 50 hours per week, a 7% increase over 2022. Such work hours are also reflected in the 2023 SC-TEACHER Working Conditions Survey, which found “student behavior” to be the only working condition rated lower than “available time” by teachers.

The deterioration of educator working conditions is especially notable in light of historic commitments by state leaders to increase teacher salaries. Minimum teacher pay is up nearly 20% over the past four years. The governor supports another 20% increase by the time he leaves office in 2026.

However, pay increases alone have not reversed the state’s enduring educator shortages. The number of vacant teaching positions to start the school year is up 165% since 2019.

The continued growth of vacancies in spite of increased salaries points directly to the poor working conditions referenced in repeated testimony to the state’s Teacher Recruitment and Retention Task Force in early 2023.

Educators shared stories of teaching classes with more students than what is allowed under state regulations. They were required to give up their job-embedded planning time to participate in recurring meetings or to cover staffing vacancies. Or they received administrative directives to perform after-school tasks ranging from working the ticket booth at an athletic event to baking cookies for a school fundraiser. In each of these instances, the additional duties were uncompensated with no corresponding reduction of workload in other areas.

Ideally, local school districts would look at growing teacher shortages and realize the need to improve working conditions. Several have taken important actions in these areas. But as demonstrated by the recent actions in Richland One, too many districts continue to take actions that will drive teachers from the profession, leaving students without consistent access to the high-quality teachers that rest at the heart of educational success.

As a result, the General Assembly, with its constitutional obligation to provide for the “maintenance and support” of public schools, will have to take the lead.

The recommendations found in the report issued by the Recruitment and Retention Task Force are a starting point for action, including providing teachers with “meaningful planning time” and greater administrative support. The Educator Assistance Act, with its removal of cumbersome paperwork requirements, would also be an important step forward. This bill awaits Senate action after passing the House last spring.

Improving educational outcomes in South Carolina requires enhanced teacher retention through improved working conditions. Mid-year staff reassignments do not deliver those conditions. Instead, state and local leaders must reassign their focus to prioritize improving work environments in schools.

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Patrick Kelly
Patrick Kelly

Patrick Kelly is the director of governmental affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association. He has taught in Richland School District 2 since 2005, and he served on the 2023 South Carolina Teacher Recruitment and Retention Task Force.