Exit survey details why so many SC teachers are leaving their jobs
COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - The number of vacant teaching jobs in South Carolina schools has been rising in recent years, with more than 1,100 jobs open earlier this year.
Resolving the state’s teacher shortage was the subject of questions asked during Wednesday’s debate between the two leading candidates for state superintendent of education, and this summer, the state legislature formed a teacher recruitment and retention task force that will study and recommend potential solutions.
A new report goes beyond those numbers to shed light on why so many teachers are leaving their jobs.
“The analogy that I always use is the concept of a bucket. If you just open the faucet up and try to fill your bucket without taking into account why there’s holes in the bottom of the bucket and why water’s leaving it, then you’re never really going to be able to fill the bucket,” Dr. Thomas Hodges said.
Hodges is the dean of the University of South Carolina’s College of Education and the director of the South Carolina Teacher Education Advancement Consortium through Higher Education Research, or SC-TEACHER, which recently released the findings of its 2021-2022 Teacher Exit Survey.
It details responses from more than 500 South Carolina teachers who left their jobs at the end of the last school year.
It found more than half of those teachers were leaving the profession all together, with some retiring and most taking a job in another industry; 43% of responding teachers were moving from one district to another.
Most teachers headed to a new district said the lure of a different administration or district reputation convinced them.
“The No. 1 driver, what we see from teachers who are engaging in lateral movement is some perceptions around administrative quality of their current districts and the kinds of supports that they receive,” Hodges said.
The survey also asked teachers why they chose to leave from among two dozen reasons, and teachers ranked them based on how important those reasons were to their decision.
The leading reason, which drew 44% of respondents saying it was “extremely important” or “very important” to their choice, was because of disciplinary issues at their school. That is more than double the percentage of teachers who cited that reason for their departures in the survey a year before.
The next highest-ranking reason was personal life reasons, such as caring for family, pregnancy, and health, which drew 41% of teachers’ responses.
Low pay ranked further down the list, with less than a third of teachers saying it was why they left their jobs.
But the top factor that could lead teachers who left the profession to consider returning to it was pay, with 80% of those educators saying a higher salary might entice them back.
But Emily Mayer, who left her teaching job in Beaufort County after last school year, said that’s not the case for her and suspects the same holds true for a lot of other now-former teachers.
“I don’t think there’s a price point that somebody could put on it that would allow me to say, ‘Yes, I would go back,’” she said. “I think there could be some cultural changes that might lead me to say, ‘Yeah, sure, if you take X, Y, and Z off my plate, I would consider it.’ But for me, it had nothing to do with money.”
Mayer worked several years as a special education teacher, a dream she held since childhood, and said it was never a job she imagined leaving.
But by the end of last school year, that dream was not enough to keep her in the classroom.
“At the end of the day, it’s not worth it, to be very, very frank,” she said. “I was a new mom coming home every day, exhausted, upset, and I couldn’t be the best parent I needed to be for my child.”
Mayer said she always felt supported in her work by her students’ families and was heartbroken to leave those children and her class.
But work at her school kept compiling as its administration struggled with vacant jobs, and it never let up. What had initially been a challenge to creatively find solutions to shortages turned into frustration, she described.
Meanwhile, multiple coworkers left in the middle of the school year. Last year, the number of open teaching jobs statewide increased from the start of the school year to its midpoint, indicating that was happening at other schools around South Carolina too.
Mayer’s time away from the classroom on maternity leave last year led her to really start thinking about life after teaching for the first time, but she said she might not have left the profession had her husband not helped her realize the job that had become so taxing, especially since the pandemic, was no longer making her happy.
Since then, she has taken a job outside the profession that allows her to work from home with her daughter.
“You could tell me that you would offer me $100,000, and I would say that my mental health was worth more at the end of the day, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that,” she said. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, the last three months that I haven’t been in the classroom teaching have been some of the happiest I have ever been.”
The teacher exit survey included responses from departing teachers in 10 of the more than 70 school districts in South Carolina.
Because it was voluntary, Hodges said it is hard to know if its findings are representative of the state as a whole, but he added it does include responses from rural and urban districts in different regions of the state.
Hodges said next spring, they plan to provide this survey to any district in South Carolina that wants to participate.
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