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Born to Teach: SCHC public school educators find rewards despite difficulties

They talk about democracy. Equity. Community. And the opportunity to pursue knowledge free from hunger and poverty. These are some of the ideals that guide public educators, including five who graduated from the South Carolina Honors College. In a state where 5,996 teachers didn’t return to their previous districts for the 2020-21 school year, these individuals have stayed in their professions. Here’s what they say about what they see on the job, what they think needs to change, and why they’re sticking around.

‘We are reimagining public education’

For Sarah Schumacher Gams, 2021 South Carolina Teacher of the Year, public education is nothing less than the “cornerstone of democracy” and “the center of our communities.” To her, its inequities in funding and access to technology and instruction were brought into clearer focus by the Covid-19 pandemic. But ESSER, or Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, funds should help with deferred facility maintenance, access to broadband and Wi-Fi, and teacher recruitment and retention, she believes.

“This is a time of hope for public education,” said Gams, ’02 education, ’03 Master of Teaching in Secondary Education. “With the right resources and pedagogy, we can truly make education in South Carolina work for all of our students and families. We are reimagining public education.”

Now in her 18th year as an educator, Gams, who taught English at Spring Hill High School in Chapin, South Carolina, is working as the Social Emotional Learning program manager at the South Carolina Department of Education. In her year traveling the state as Teacher of the Year, she became convinced of the importance of SEL for teachers and students.

“Social Emotional Learning is simply providing the skills our students need for life and for work,” she said. “It is making sure our students feel seen, heard and valued. The condition of our school facilities absolutely contributes to our students’ social emotional well-being because research shows that clean, safe facilities and a positive school climate directly impacts students’ motivation, attendance, and therefore academic success.”

Last year, as a member of Leadership SC, she co-chaired a class project that partnered with a school district to raise money for one of its schools. “Project Paint the Way” raised money to paint the school’s interior and exterior, complete landscaping, and provide a sustainable clothes closet for students and their families. The United Way has picked up the project model for other schools in the state.

“It is our hope that with continued advocacy and community support, we can change the structure of funding in South Carolina to include infrastructure and general maintenance of school facilities,” she said. “Right now there is no such funding available, and schools have to pull from their own local resources to maintain their facilities. This is a serious source of inequity that we are working to address.”

Because her honors and English courses were based on projects and discussions, Gams said her education has paid off.

“We were expected to apply our learning. No information was for memorization only. I remember being asked by Dr. Christy Friend, ‘now, what are you going to do with this new understanding?’ That’s when I started connecting all I learned to action steps. I tell my students, ‘okay, that’s great that you know this information, that you’ve learned this new writing technique. Now, how will you use it?’ That shift to real world application has become the cornerstone of all the classes I teach.”

‘Admiration and disappointment’

That’s what Patrick Kelly, ’03 history/political science,’05 Master of Arts in Teaching social studies, felt in 2016 when he saw a wooden ramp-like structure on the playground of a Pee Dee-area school. Thinking it was for students in wheelchairs, he was shocked to learn it was built by school staff to keep students’ feet dry when they went outside for recess. The playground flooded every time it rained, the school’s principal told him.

“My reaction was a mix of admiration for the ingenuity and persistence of educators and disappointment in our state for failing to provide an equitable educational experience for all students,” said Kelly, a U.S. government teacher who was touring state schools as a 2016-17 Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow.

Currently, Kelly is director of Governmental Affairs for the Palmetto State Teachers Association, a membership organization that advocates for the state’s public school teachers. The disparity of wealth between schools is dramatic and needs fixing, he believes.

“Unfortunately, how you describe public education in South Carolina — and really, in most of the United States — is dependent on where you live,” he said. “I believe the inequalities and inequities between different schools across our state is one of the most significant threats to the long-term economic and social well-being of South Carolina.”

He uses Blythewood High School, where he teaches, as an example.

“In March 2020, when COVID shut down schools, 100 percent of my students had a computing device and reliable, home broadband access,” he said. “In July 2021, the governor announced that after more than a year of investment, there are still 400,000 South Carolinians without reliable home broadband access.”

Recruiting and retaining excellent teachers is the most important thing South Carolina can do for its children, especially when research shows classroom teacher quality is the biggest factor in student achievement.

“What is driving a lot of people away from the profession is that someone has no capacity to care for students if they can’t care for themselves, which is exactly the situation faced by too many teachers due to factors like low pay, rising student debt, increased class sizes, and increased time demands that make it impossible to find anything resembling a healthy work-life balance,” Kelly said.

There were 699 vacant teaching positions when the 2020-21 school year started, he said.

In his 17 years of teaching, the educational landscape in South Carolina hasn’t changed much, Kelly said, regardless of the reforms and innovations introduced in the past 20 years. Still, the students provide plenty of motivation to stay the course.

“People often talk about gaps in education, but I think the most important — and often least discussed — is the gap between what students believe they can achieve and their actual potential. As a teacher, I have a unique opportunity to help close or eliminate that gap, and there is nothing more rewarding than seeing the excitement when a student achieves something they did not think was possible.”

Kelly chalks his pedagogy, disposition and instructional strategies to his Honors College experiences.

“I am also constantly seeking to improve my instruction and deepen my content knowledge, an approach shaped heavily by the frequent exhortations by the late Dean Peter Sederberg to ‘be a barracuda, not a sponge’ in the pursuit of knowledge.”

‘Why Won’t My Black Boys Read?’

That’s the title of a professional development session Davontae Singleton created for teachers and administrators when he realized his African American students weren’t performing well in critical needs subjects, such as English Language Arts, which he taught for four years.

“It wasn’t because of a lack of knowledge, but because the lessons were not engaging or relevant to the students receiving it,” said Singleton, ’15 English, ’16 Master of Arts in Teaching Secondary Education.

For him, one of his most important jobs is giving a voice to the voiceless, both teachers and students. Believing he could do more for them as an administrator, he became an assistant administrator and now is assistant principal of Curriculum and Instruction at Dent Middle School in Columbia.   

“I grew up in South Carolina and know first-hand the needs we have in this state,” said Singleton, who followed his “true calling” into education, despite many family members who wanted him to become a lawyer. “I wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself, and by deciding to stay in my home state, I would in turn help our state grow and be better just by educating the bright minds who entered my classroom.”

As does Kelly, Singleton worries about a lack of public support for public education and thinks many people don’t understand what public educators do. Not that “un-appreciation” stops them.

 “We do not do what we do for the praise. It’s all about maximizing student relationships and making sure academic excellence is top priority.”

Ask Singleton what needs to change most in public education, and he’ll answer with three things: more respect, resources and representation.

“We need fewer people who are not well-versed or trained in our practice — educating is a practice much like medicine and law— making decisions for those who are. Bottom line, we need more teacher voice in conversations pertaining to the education field, and until we do, how can we ever expect to see the changes that are desperately needed?”     

Showing up every day for work, understanding he’s a role model for students, keeps Singleton advocating for those who often go unheard. He recognizes his Honors College education helped strengthen his resolve and capabilities.

“I had great mentors who pushed me beyond what I perceived as my limitations,” he says, describing advisor Susan Alexander’s support and Associate Professor Kimberly Simmons’ guidance on his senior thesis, the creation of a course titled Global Blackness. “Those experiences are so unique to SCHC and truly helped propel me forward as a researcher and scholar.”

He’s already experienced the joy of former students and parents returning years later to thank him for his work.

“That makes any challenging day worth having.”

‘Amazed at the ingenuity of educators’

When Donna Gilbert Teuber, ’82 English, ’84 Master of Library and Information Science, entered public education 30 years ago, teaching methods were “more traditional and teacher-centered.” That has changed.

“Teachers are personalizing learning and creating student-centered classrooms,” said Teuber, who has worked as a school library media specialist, district-level director of Instructional Technology, and Innovation Program Designer. Now an education consultant focusing on innovation, Teuber has been delivering virtual workshops for teachers learning strategies for remote teaching and learning.

“Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been amazed at the ingenuity of educators to adapt teaching and learning to remote and hybrid environments,” she said. “They’re providing meaningful learning and supporting the social emotional needs of students.”

Teuber wanted to work in public schools because she was educated in them and inspired by her teachers.

“I believe in the opportunities that public education provides to students from all walks of life,” she said. “I’m passionate about equity and providing all students with the support they need to be successful in college and careers.”

A LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® Certified Facilitator, Intel education visionary and Google for Education Certified Trainer, Teuber has put her passion to work. Her methods have been featured in, THE Journal, Tech & Learning, EdWeek, and Center for Digital Education. Besides consulting, she teaches online courses in human-centered design and creative leadership for IDEO U, an online school that helps students stay adaptive in a changing world.

“The biggest challenge I see is teacher burnout, with the added burden of teaching in difficult circumstances — long hours, inadequate pay, meetings, technology tools to learn and teacher evaluations,” she said.

Teachers need “extended blocks of planning time,” and often that’s hard to get because of class schedules and meetings.

“Continuous learning and leadership development” were offered to Teuber in her career, keeping her in public education. And she appreciates the public education in her undergraduate years.

“The South Carolina Honors College provided me with access to excellent professors who encouraged creative problem solving and lifelong learning,” she said. “The variety of courses offered allowed me to explore areas of interest and connect with a diverse community.”

‘We would get more if the pay were more competitive’

David Berry, ’17 biology, ’19 Master of Arts in Teaching secondary science education, is glad he didn’t follow his first plan to become a dentist.

“After freshman year of college, I decided that wasn’t for me,” he said. “I stuck with biology because I loved it, and realized my senior year that I was good at explaining complex topics in an easy-to-understand way.”

In his third year at Greenville Senior High School, Berry says South Carolina is “going in the right direction with increasing teacher pay and making the positions more desirable.”

“We need well-educated teachers who want to be there for the students, and we would get more if the pay were more competitive,” he said.

He’s rewarded by the student-teacher relationship.

“That is the whole reason I do what I do. I love to show them I care about them more than their grades by attending their sporting events, plays, art shows and concerts. When students feel loved and understood, they learn better as a side effect, too!”

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