By Larry Daniel, Ph.D.
Education is essential to a growing economy. Families choose neighborhoods where the best schools are located, and property values are frequently determined by the quality of nearby schools. Business leaders share this concern about school quality, as they rely on a steady stream of qualified graduates to assume jobs within their industries. Many businesses use quality of schools as one factor when determining whether to locate to a given community. Further, a substantial amount of personal and business taxes go to support the local educational system—and businesses want to be assured that their tax dollars are supporting the kinds of initiatives that enhance economic growth in the community.
Considering that excellent teachers assure the health of the educational system, it is important for business leaders to take interest in the quality of teachers as well as the incentives that local schools offer to attract the best teachers to their communities. Labor statistics indicate that educators make up about seven percent of the workforce in the Lowcountry. Although the number of workers in various other sectors may be considerably higher, the impact of teachers should not be underestimated.
In study after study, teachers are typically among the lowest paid workers in fields requiring a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. Occupational prestige of teaching has also declined in recent years, and the pressure placed on teachers by states requiring that student performance be factored into teacher performance evaluations has led to decline in the morale of teachers. These issues are a concern nationwide, but South Carolina is particularly at risk. Our teacher salaries are in the bottom third of all states, and in one recent study (wallethub.com), South Carolina teachers ranked 49th in a measure of “academic and work environment,” suggesting that issues such as poor working conditions and lack of autonomy are particularly problematic for teachers in our state.
When pay and work environment are taken into consideration, it is no wonder that South Carolina has a hard time finding enough qualified teachers. The state’s Center for Educator Recruitment, Retention, and Advancement (CERRA) says that fewer than 40 percent of the more than 50,000 teacher vacancies in South Carolina in 2016 were filled by individuals who had recently completed a teaching degree, or a state-approved alternative teacher certification program. About one-third of the state’s teacher vacancies were filled by in-state transfers, and 15 percent were filled by qualified teachers who moved in from other states. Nearly 500 teaching positions remained vacant at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year.
The state of South Carolina has a long way to go in addressing its teacher shortage and compensation issues. Business leaders are likely sympathetic to the plight of teachers but may not know what to do to make things better. However, business leaders actually have more ammunition in their arsenals than they may be aware. Here are seven ways leaders can make a difference:
- Build relationships with schools and teachers in your local community. Teachers benefit greatly when they know that business people are invested in their success and that of their students.
- Volunteer in your local schools. Schools appreciate having business people serve as mentors and tutors, and often you can help by something as simple as participating in career day or reading to a classroom.
- Serve on a school board or local school improvement council.
- Avoid criticizing teachers unless you have spent time learning about the schools in your area and the issues they face.
- Participate in local Teacher for a Day or Principal for a Day activities to learn more about the work of educators in your community.
- Support political candidates committed to compensating teachers better and working to assure teachers have better working conditions.
- Create awards to celebrate excellent teachers in your community.
These and other actions can go a long way to assist existing teachers and encourage those who are coming into the profession. Anything businesses do to help teachers is likely to pay dividends in the form of better-prepared high school graduates, a stronger economy, and lower teacher turnover.
Larry Daniel, Ph.D., is the dean of the Zucker Family School of Education at The Citadel. Developing partnerships between The Citadel and K-12 schools in South Carolina and nearby states to identify and prepare future principals is one of his primary endeavors. He has focused on building excellence in faculty and academic programs for the majority of his 37-year career and has taught students from middle school through advanced graduate levels.