The way we, as a nation, educate our children and prepare them to enter the adult world as professionals has changed over time, sometimes merely reflecting the core ideas of those in power. But one change over the past few decades has less to do with how we educate, and more with how we treat those who do the educating.
“Teachers are often on the frontlines,” says Trever Etminan, an educator at Ashley Ridge High School and representative of SC for Ed. “Teachers often have the best information, and unfortunately, they are usually the people we listen to last when it comes to education.”
Etminan has been with SC for Ed, a statewide education advocacy group, for about a year. He saw the things they were doing in Columbia and began thinking of ways he could bring that level of support for education into the Lowcountry.
Since a Reagan-commissioned education reform group published “A Nation at Risk” in 1983, which put focus less on practices and more on individual schools and educators, teachers have been asked to do more and more to fix so-called “failing” schools.
“For a long time, they placed the onus of learning on the schools,” Etminan says. “Our students not really being able to compete on a global scale was because of poor teachers [the report said], and teachers doing things that were not linked to assessment, that being the measure of education at that time.”
This focus on testing is one thing that has not changed since 1983. Across S.C., schools continue to use expensive and outdated end-of-course exams to assess students.
The state’s Education Improvement Act of 1984, according to Etminan, set the trend of testing into play. And now, more than 30 years later, the state legislature spends nearly $2 million each year on the Education Oversight Committee and close to $30 million on end-of-course assessments for high schools alone.
“The irony in all this is what we measure with that can be measured with other tests,” Etminan says. “The state has the ability to file a waiver that says they will not test these subjects separately, and use cheaper, more accessible exams like the ACT or SAT. All we have to do is file a waiver. We do not, in fact, do that, and we instead spend lots and lots of money.”
Some things have changed since “A Nation at Risk” was published, but not necessarily for the better. Teacher pay has remained relatively stagnant, leading to many teachers feeling disrespected and underpaid.
“The responsibilities that fall on teachers have gradually increased over time, and their pay, when you adjust for inflation, has largely decreased,” Etminan says. “It’s not uncommon for people to be working two jobs, and if they aren’t working outside jobs, then most teachers are picking up afternoon school, weekend school, or coaching positions in order to make enough money to make ends meet.”
South Carolina is well below the national average for teacher pay, ranking 39th. These shortcomings were the spark for the flame that was the teacher walkouts and strikes earlier this year, when thousands of S.C. teachers marched at the state capitol.
To one Charleston education professor, the strikes were a chance for the rest of the world to get an up-close look at the issues teachers face.
“I think we are always looking at things,” says Anne Gutshall, a professor of teacher education at the College of Charleston. “Those are big, zoom-out lenses of what’s going on, and now I hope we have folks going, ‘Oh gosh, we got a problem here. Teachers are leaving the classroom and going on strike. Are our kids ok?'”
Gutshall and Etminan are of one mind about the significance of this movement for increased recognition for teachers. He says that it was the first time that members of the community were able to see how strong educators were outside of the classroom.
“We are starting to see that as a state. Whoever would have thought that in the state of S.C. that teachers would be able to shut down school districts and self-advocate at the Statehouse?”
This movement led at least some lawmakers to take action, resulting in a pay increase for teachers just this year. The General Assembly raised the state minimum for starting teacher pay from $32,000 to $35,000 and approved a four percent raise across the board. Despite this progress, the conversation about teacher respect is ongoing.
“This issue of teacher respect in and out of the classroom is still immense,” Etminan says. “One thing that the legislature has said continuously is, ‘How do we legislate respect?’ I think part of that goes back to the element of pay. We have to elevate that profession.”
Etminan points to other highly trained, traditionally respected professions which carry with them high levels of respect but also pay well.
“We have doctors teaching in classrooms, and they don’t make what doctors in the medical field make,” Etminan says. “I would go toe-to-toe everyday to argue that both of these people are playing roles that are equally important in our community.”
Low pay tends to dominate arguments around education reform, but Etminan says there are other things that can be done in tandem with increasing salaries.
“Not increasing teacher pay is not an option,” he says. “But a Band-Aid fix that makes things better is offering teachers duty-free lunch periods. We can’t leave the building — we can’t have a lunch free of student interaction. In most places, we have a working lunch. Just to have a period where you can step away from your daily duties is important, particularly for elementary and middle school teachers, because they are the ones who are with students at every point in the day.”
While compensation may seem like a one-sided argument, teachers advocating for themselves, the issue can also impact students.
“The thing that I think is deeply ironic is that our students see this, and our students know,” he says. “Ultimately the ones that suffer are our students. If I have to work a second job to pay my mortgage, the one that suffers truthfully is my student. Some people would argue, ‘Well, maybe you shouldn’t live above your means,’ but I don’t necessarily think that I do.”
Gutshall sees firsthand the struggles of young educators in the Lowcountry as a part of CofC’s teacher training program. Not only that, but she also sees how many future teachers the community loses to career fields that simply offer more.
“You’re 20-something, and your day begins at 6:30 in the morning,” she begins. “You have to be here, stay all day, usually late, and so many jobs now have so much more flexibility than being in a classroom. The career has more limits than others. We have to think about compensating people with, if not money, then some kind of autonomy, and we are taking that away, too.”
Not only is the number of teachers entering the field diminishing, there is a growing group of experienced educators leaving. The oft-echoed threat of teacher shortages persist not because there is a lack of people who want to teach, but because there is a lack of people who want to work as teachers.
“We do not have a teacher shortage,” Etminan insists. “We have plenty of educators with experience, plenty of people trained to educate, but they have left the classroom. In any other field, someone that has 12-13 years of education would make more than $40-50,000 a year.”
Gutshall says it can be difficult to encourage students to become teachers because she knows how difficult it will be for them if they do.
“It’s a delicate balance,” she admits. “We want to take their optimism and their determination, the interest in learning the craft of teaching, but we also want to be realistic in preparing them for the challenges. We walk that tightrope extremely carefully, because if we minimize the challenge that awaits, we really aren’t being fair, but if we dwell in the negativity, then where will we be?”
Young students also ask their teachers how they got to be where they are, and how they can follow in those footsteps, Etminan says.
Despite the challenges, a love for the work remains.
“Yes, there are tough problems, but who wants an easy job?” Gutshall asks. “There are lots of systems that have problems, but let’s be part of the solution. I try to inspire them in that way, and many of my faculty colleagues try to do the same.”
Etminan believes that with the support of the state and local communities, education can begin to change for the better.
“I love my profession, and people hear that from teachers,” he says.
“But one of the greatest tragedies is that teachers always make it work. Maybe, if we didn’t make it work, things would get better. It’s hard for me to look at my students and say, ‘I love my profession, but I don’t recommend it.'”