This is the way South Carolina’s Post and Courier newspaper started its 2018 exposé of the state’s stewardship of its public schools:
Divided by race, mired in inequities and hobbled by its history, South Carolina’s public school system is among the worst in the nation, saddled with a legacy of apathy and low expectations that threatens the state’s newfound prosperity.
South Carolina’s schools trail other states by nearly every measure, leaving students unprepared for the world that awaits them as businesses struggle to find qualified workers to fill skilled jobs, a Post and Courier investigation has found.
The Legislature has largely sat idle while gaps in achievement and resources have widened across the state, leaving daunting divides between rural and urban districts, poor and affluent schools, and white and black students.
That sums up the state of public education in South Carolina, where thousands of teachers quit each year because they say they are underpaid — with some taking second and third jobs to pay their bills — and are expected to fill out near-endless paperwork while working hours long past the end of the school day.
A study released in January by Winthrop University’s Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement reported that about 7,300 teachers had left their jobs during or at the end of the 2017-2018 school year — an increase of nearly 10 percent over those who left during or at the end of the year before. Twenty-seven percent of those are believed to have moved to another South Carolina public school district, with the rest no longer teaching in any public school in the state. And, the study said, about half had been teaching for less than five years.
There was also bad news about future teachers: The number of South Carolina students who completed a teacher education program has declined by 32 percent since 2012-2013, it said.
Below is a resignation letter from a teacher who left her job during the 2018-2019 school year. Sariah McCall started teaching in 2014 at White Bluff Elementary in Savannah, Ga., and taught kindergarten and second grade for three years before moving to Charleston. She taught third grade for one year at Sanders-Clyde Elementary — a school that has had six principals in the past nine years — and about two months at Murray-LaSaine Elementary (Montessori Lower Elementary) before submitting her resignation (which she did after a period of being on medical leave).
While she lived in Charleston, she became active in local and state politics regarding education policy, and was an area representative for the grass-roots education advocacy organization called SC for Ed. She also represented three counties with the group Lowcountry Area Teachers Taking Action. She and other public education advocates communicated with lawmakers and candidates to try to improve conditions in South Carolina schools and toward fair pay for teachers, equitable funding for schools and discipline reform.
She recently moved back to Savannah. While she said she misses teaching and would like to return to it, “I also love having financial security and a solid work-life balance.”
Before you read her resignation letter, consider the following description of her teaching life, which she wrote at my request. The arc of her story is the same as that which many other teachers experience across the country, and the details underscore this comment of hers: “I always joked that teaching was two full-time jobs. One was actually teaching, and the more time-consuming one was all the extra that comes with it.”
She wrote in an email:
A typical day would begin around 6:30/6:45 AM. Students begin arriving at 7 and while our contract times begin at 7, you can’t be walking into the classroom at the same time as the students. The time before was spent prepping for the day ahead or reading emails that had been sent while I was sleeping. Students begin arriving and eat breakfast in the classroom while doing some morning work. I would be reteaching concepts to struggling students, giving assessments, filling out paper work, and take attendance during this time.
Once the announcements and the day starts, the teaching begins. I would teach all content areas except specials (PE, Art, Music, etc). The only time I was not with students was that time. I would have to take the students to their specials and then I would have my planning time. This time was usually already filled with meetings.
Team/grade level meetings were one day a week. Meetings with academic coaches and/or administration were one day a week. That usually left three days a week where I could try to schedule meetings with parents and other faculty/staff to discuss student progress and any academic or social concerns. This was the time to reply to emails, make copies, prep for the remaining lessons for the day, make parent phone calls, grade assignments, enter grades, and fill out paperwork. This was also my only opportunity to use the restroom during the day. Of course, I could call the office or ask the teacher next door to watch my class if it were an emergency, but you can’t just interrupt your colleagues teaching every day, and there wouldn’t always be someone from admin or support staff immediately available. If you weren’t in meetings, you might try to eat your lunch. Planning time ranged from 45-60 minutes a day, depending on the school. You must be prompt at dropping off and picking up your class. If meetings ran over for one grade level or one teacher, it could disrupt the schedule for everyone else for the rest of the day.
We would take the students to lunch, which was typically a 25-minute period. In this amount of time we were to help all the children get through the lunch line, eating, cleaned up, and out of the way for the next class. This was also when you could try to eat, if you didn’t get a chance to during planning. Of course, we’re dealing with children so they might need you during lunch. Lunch and recess are usually timed closely together. Teachers stay with the classes during this time as well.
Apart from lunch, recess and specials, you are teaching bell-to-bell. Dismissal usually began around 2:15. We made sure every student got home the way they were supposed to. You were assigned bus or car rider duty. Dismissal usually only lasts half an hour. At one school, we had two weeks assigned of “late duty” where we had to stay until every last child was picked up by their bus, parents or other modes of transportation. A late bus could mean supervising students for an additional time up to an hour.
Contract time ends at 3. If dismissal ran smoothly, you had about 15-25 minutes left of your contract time to do anything you weren’t able to during planning. Run copies, send emails, make phone calls, complete paperwork, track down other teachers/staff/admin for questions, collaboration and signatures, grade assignments and enter grades. You also had to reset the classroom to wrap up the day and/or prep for the next day. You also had to attend faculty/staff meetings outside of contract time, but the frequency depends on the school. Some schools have monthly meetings, some schools have weekly meetings. They generally last an hour, but can go up to an hour and a half.
I generally didn't leave school before 5.
When I left school, I would bring my work computer home to finish catching up on things. Sometimes I would leave right at 3 because I would rather do all this extra work in the comfort of my own home. I also bought my own color printer/copier, laminator and paper cutter so I could make materials at home. I never worked at a school where I had access to a color printer so if any materials or copies needed to be in color, I had to do that at home. Laminating was difficult at school. Some schools don’t allow teachers to laminate. Some schools only have certain time frames where you could do your own lamination. There was usually only one laminator so if another teacher was using it, you had to wait.
Schools often hold PTA meetings once a month or every other month. All faculty/staff are expected to attend. Some schools may have it so you don't have to attend every meeting, but you must attend the majority of them. There are also special family nights or content area nights about once a marking period where families could come to the school from about 6-8 to meet with the teachers and perform some academic themed activities.
Lesson plans were submitted weekly. We would write lesson plans for each content area for each day. Math, Science, Social Studies, Reading, Language Arts, Phonics, Writing. We wrote lesson plans for whole group and small group instruction. Lesson plans were often required to be submitted in a specific template. You could try to write them during planning, but as you can see there wasn't much time left for that. You could try to reference what you did last year if you haven't changed grade levels, but these students have different needs than last years or the standards have changed or the district has a new pacing guide for you to follow.
We had to keep communication logs when contacting parents/families to make sure we could protect ourselves and the school if a parent ever tried to start a "he said, she said" situation. Often times parents could not answer if we got the chance to call during planning. Calling after school hours was usually better for actually making contact.
Some students may have been identified as struggling either academically or emotionally and have entered into the RTI process. This meant filling out weekly or biweekly documentation for each child based on their area of need to see if the interventions they were receiving were working or not. One year I had half my class in the RTI process.
Districts and schools have additional testing than the state testing. This meant beginning of the year, middle of the year, and end of the year record keeping and test administration. We would have to input the data from these assessments into other systems or websites for their record keeping.
Teachers are required to undergo evaluation where they have to complete additional paperwork about their classes, their academic growth and goals, and provide data. If you are a new teacher, you have additional assignments by the district that you have to submit.
Emails have to be responded to within 24 hours.
The most time consuming might have been report cards. We were expected to write a paragraph about each child’s strengths and weaknesses in each content area each marking period for report cards with class sizes up to 29 children, while also inputting at least one grade per content area per week, and assessing students social and emotional development -- sometimes with a rubric, usually without.
Any teacher managed or office managed behavior incident meant a referral needed to be written up.
I was often still up and working when my fiancé would get home from work between 11 and midnight.
Most of these outside of contract time obligations fell under the umbrella of “extra duties and responsibilities” wording in your contract. Admin[istration] could, and would, use that verbiage to get you to do just about anything.
Here’s the text of her letter, which was written to Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait of the Charleston County School District on Nov. 5. McCall gave me permission to publish it, and I am doing so because it represents anguish that many teachers feel.
Dear Dr. Postlewait,
Please accept this letter as notice of my resignation from public education effective immediately.
Please understand that this has nothing to do with my children, Ms. Wallace, or the rest of the faculty and staff at Murray-LaSaine. I couldn’t have dreamed of a more perfect fit for my class, administrator, and school. I thought I had found my forever school. In fact, the only things keeping me from resigning until now were the love I have for my students, the love I have for the act of teaching, and the heavy guilt I feel for my children being negatively impacted by this in any way: emotionally or academically. However, I cannot set myself on fire to keep someone else warm.
The systemic abuse and neglect of educators and other public service workers in the state of South Carolina should have its citizens so enraged. The unrealistic demands and all-consuming nature of the profession are not sustainable. I am still a human being. There was no time to be a functioning human being and give this job all the attention and love it deserves. This career with its never-ending list of “extra duties and responsibilities” that we are not given the resources for completing. I cannot let a career dictate and demand all of me for another minute, and I will not be bullied into continuing to do so out of misguided guilt for possibly neglecting the children. It is unrealistic to expect this much from people. We’re teachers, but we’re still people.
I have compared the systematic expectations of the profession to the list of signs of abuse provided by the Domestic Abuse Hotline. If you replace “he” with “public education,” it would almost match perfectly with what we are all going through across America. If I were to say that my partner is putting me through all of this abuse and mistreatment, people would be putting me in a shelter and insisting that I leave him. But because this is my calling and I must sacrifice myself for the sake of the children, then it’s really not that big of a deal. Because If I really love my job and I really love the kids, then I should be willing to do whatever it takes and make whatever sacrifices I need to in order to give them everything they need. Do more with less time, funding, and resources. Take more of the blame, guilt, and responsibility. Be ready to sacrifice your personal life, mental health, and physical safety. Don’t be a complainer. After all, if you only work 7-3 for 180 days of the year, then what could there possibly be to complain about? If only it were that easy. In the hardest act of selfishness I have ever been faced with, I must put myself over the demands of helping raise other people’s children. I won’t be in an abusive relationship with public education any longer. I will model to my current and past students what self-respect, setting hard boundaries, and standing your ground for what’s right looks like in action.
Through this whole situation, I have fiercely defended how much I love my children and how much I love the act of teaching. I won’t let anyone try to put that blame there. It is because I love teaching that I will not tolerate what the state is doing to the educators and children under its care. Unfortunately these issues will not be resolved until the perception of public education and other state social services change. Then people will band together for the common goal of elevating these necessary resources to the status of respect they deserve.
The public has to demand that they receive the time, funding, and resources they require. We need to prioritize education, not just offer it lip-service. Until enough people decide that this is worth making a fuss over, those that are in power have no reason to listen to our hurt, pleas, and fears to make any changes. This will keep happening. It will not get better like this.
I understand that you and the Board of Trustees must now contact the State Department of Education. I understand that my teaching certification may be suspended or revoked for a time period not to exceed one year. While the very idea breaks my heart, I know you have to do what you have to do. It is a heavy price to pay, but one I have to accept.
I hope in time you can find forgiveness for me and the decision I had to make. I hope that if you have anger or frustration or sadness over this, that you are able to take it to the avenues responsible for this systemic problem. I had to put my family and my health over my career. The profession existed before me and will continue to exist without me. My children had teachers before me and they will have many after me. But my family only has one of me. I only have one chance to live a life that fulfills all of me, not just my career goals. I have to prioritize my values. Words cannot express the guilt, shame, and sadness I feel that my sweet children and lovely school have been or may continue to be negatively impacted by this in any way. I truly hope you can forgive me and extend me grace in time.
With so much love,
Miss Sariah McCall