McMaster wants to up K-12 teacher pay, but the problem goes further than money, study says

Isa Cueto/icueto@thestate.com
·4 min read

Fixing South Carolina’s historically large teacher shortage will take more than just increasing pay, according to a recent survey from the University of South Carolina.

The SC Teacher Exit Survey surveyed 224 K-12 teachers who left S.C. Midlands schools districts after the 2020-2021 school year on why they left. The survey found that while low pay was a major issue for teachers leaving the profession, other factors such as child care, class size, burnout, school/district leadership and more were key factors in teachers deciding to leave.

The survey was conducted by the South Carolina Teacher Education Advancement Consortium Higher Education Research, or SC-TEACHER.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, long-simmering issues in the education field boiled over and led to the largest teacher shortage since experts began tracking the figure 20 years ago.

Wednesday, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster will deliver his annual State of The State address when he will discuss, among other things, his proposals to change how schools are funded, give an additional $120 million to schools and raise the minimum teacher salary by $2,000 to $38,000, The State reported previously.

While money alone won’t solve the teacher shortage problem, it is still a key component. Of surveyed teachers who left the profession, 63% said an increase in salary is either “extremely important” or “very important” in deciding whether to return to the classroom.

“Salary didn’t necessarily drive people away, but it’s something that would drive people back to the profession,” said Thomas Hodges, the interim dean of USC’s College of Education and the founding director of SC-TEACHER.

Other factors were also crucial for former teachers considering a return to classes. More than half of former teachers said class sizes were extremely or very important in considering a return to teaching; 38% of former teachers surveyed said stronger administrative support was extremely or very important to returning; 31% of former teachers said student loan forgiveness was extremely or very important to returning and 22% said the availability of child care options was extremely or very important in deciding whether to return to the classroom, according to the survey.

One of the more interesting findings from the survey was that nearly 60% of surveyed former teachers said the availability of full-time teaching positions is either extremely or very important to returning to the classroom.

On the surface, this seems to contradict the fact that S.C. is experiencing a teacher shortage across the board. But Hodges thinks former teachers answered that way because some teachers may only want to come back for specific jobs — such as a second grade teacher or a business teacher at a career and technical school — but they aren’t available where the former teacher lives.

“Part of what makes addressing teacher shortages so challenging is, with anything that’s a systemic issue, there’s usually not a singular solution to it,” Hodges said. “It’s fairly complex, so it requires a multi-faceted, complex set of solutions as well.”

But those leaving the profession made up only about half of the survey respondents. The other half stayed in the profession but went to another school district. That group of teachers had a completely different set of reasons for leaving.

Teachers leaving one S.C. district for another may keep the same number of available teachers in the state, but it costs districts between $18,000 and $20,000 to hire a new educator, Hodges said.

The biggest reason for surveyed teachers to find a new district was the current district’s leadership. Seventy-one percent of surveyed teachers who changed school districts said administrative vision/leadership was either extremely important or very important in their decision to seek a new job; 48% said the reputation of the new school district was extremely important or very important; 39% said a more convenient commute was extremely or very important and 32% said family responsibilities were extremely or very important to their decision.

In contrast to teachers who left the profession, relatively few teachers who switched school districts — 24% — said salary was extremely or very important to their decision.

While COVID-19 is making teachers’ lives more difficult, the survey says, “COVID, in and of itself, did not seem to create a mass exodus of teachers.”

However, it’s exacerbating existing factors, such as teacher burnout, the survey said.

Three in four teachers say they feel “emotionally drained” from work about half the time, most of the time or always.

The survey also suggests there are other reasons teachers are leaving the profession. Nearly half of teachers who left the profession said “other factors” are either “extremely important” or “very important” to whether they would return to the classroom, according to the survey.

While Hodges said he plans to hone methods in future surveys, a more comprehensive solution would be for the state to conduct a teacher working conditions survey throughout S.C. — similar to what North Carolina does — to allow for a more “surgical approach” to issues specific schools and districts are facing, he said.

“What the Upstate might need is different from what the Pee Dee or the Lowcountry might need,” Hodges said.

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