Teacher Leadership and South Carolina’s Teaching Profession: A Path Forward to Accelerate Student Learning in the Aftermath of the Pandemic

Barnett Berry and Patrick Kelly dive deeper into the need for teacher leadership after Episode 3.

Hardly a day goes by without another headline on the challenges facing South Carolina’s teaching profession.

The state’s public schools are facing worsening teacher shortages. Now after almost two years of pandemic-induced disruptions in teaching and learning, a December 2021 news report  portrays South Carolina teachers exhausted by “unmanageable workloads” and demoralized by “lack of respect” from parents and policy leaders.

While the number of teacher vacancies is reported to be “dramatically rising,” Barnett’s SC-TEACHER research has shown that policymakers and practitioners do not have access to the most accurate data. This often leads to rehashed solutions for misdiagnosed problems facing the state’s teaching profession.

Unfortunately, the scope of the teacher shortage was growing before the pandemic began. As Patrick asserted in a 2019 blog, the house was on fire as teachers took home low salaries (with a state median of $49,000 at the time) and faced daily challenges resulting from the lack of professional autonomy.

Over the last decade or so, South Carolina’s political leaders and teacher groups have debated teachers and teaching. This includes a failed 2019 bill that addressed a wide range of policies from school governance issues to improving student job-training to raising starting teacher pay.  While the proposed legislation would have removed a few state-required standardized tests for students, it did not include a number of teacher concerns such as large class sizes.

Too often, proposals to address teacher shortages are just not grounded in the evidence on what matters most. The modest salary increases, slight shifts in student testing, and recent proposals to guarantee 30 minutes of unencumbered time for elementary school teachers represent important policy steps to take. Yet they are not sufficient.

As Patrick pointed out poignantly, “simply put, the expectations and requirements for great teaching have changed, but the basic structure of the work day has not.” We could not agree more with Sen. Greg Hembree (R-Horry) and Chair of the Senate Education Committee, who told us recently, “It is time to stop nibbling around the edges” of school reform and the teaching profession.

The evidence is compelling, grounded in studies conducted locally, nationally, and globally. Recent research from SC-TEACHER reveals almost half of South Carolina’s teachers who their schools in 2020-21 did not leave the profession. The research team, led by Tommy Hodges, found that teachers moved to another district primarily because they sought stronger administrative support.

Other research including this 2019 study by the Learning Policy Institute have shown that the right kind of working conditions — most notably time for teachers to learn from each other and opportunities to lead (while still teaching) — have the greatest impact on retention as well as school performance.

Now a new SC-TEACHER paper, written (by Barnett, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Tony Mackay) for the 2021 International Summit on the Teaching Profession, points to evidence on how teacher leadership has accelerated student learning in the midst of the pandemic. It also addresses how school systems across the globe develop and use teachers as leaders. Lessons from across the globe spell out how schools need to: (1) redesign teaching schedules and school structures; (2) rethink professional learning for the spread of teaching expertise; (3) create more space for innovations from teachers; and (4) reconsider how teaching expertise is recognized, utilized, and valued.

We can do this. A 2020 study from SC-TEACHER found that a significant percentage of our state’s teachers had discovered innovations in student assessments, project-based learning, and family engagement during the pandemic. They were ready for more leadership in the return to the new normal of schooling. We could:

  • Apply state-of-the-art technology and tools that save time not only to help teachers problem-solve instructional challenges but also to teach students across schools;
  • Use micro-credentials and other performance assessments to recognize and reward teachers for learning and leading in areas that have clear relevance to a teacher’s specific job duties and areas of expertise;
  • Reinvent the calendar (the school day and/or year) as teachers work on different contracts to create expanded and more personalized student learning as well as more opportunities for educators to lead;
  • Reduce teaching loads for some of the state’s top teachers (including over 6,000 who are National Board Certified) so they can lead without leaving the classrooms (e.g., teacherpreneurs); and
  • Rethink the teacher salary schedule to include opportunities for additional pay for increased responsibility, leadership roles, and expanded impact as well as a menu of financial and non-financial incentives to work in priority schools, subjects, and grade levels.

All of these proposed actions are already implemented somewhere in the U.S. and around the globe – and yes, even some in our state. Three school districts — Charleston, Fairfield, and Pickens — are collaborating with SC-TEACHER now to reimagine the education profession in South Carolina. With support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the UofSC team is working with district leaders, teachers, and principals to better understand  how people, programs, and dollars can be reallocated to reimagine the education professions to accelerate deeper, more equitable learning for students in the aftermath of the pandemic.

More teachers could have time to lead if the many non-teaching educators taught students at least some of the time. Teachers could have more time to lead if our school systems drew on student teachers, paraprofessionals, and instructional coaches and specialists more strategically. We could accelerate student learning in the aftermath of the pandemic if we begin to think of teacher teams — moving beyond the “one teacher per one classroom” model of schooling. (See the ground-breaking work of Arizona State University’s Next Education Workforce.)

Public schools everywhere are facing a future of rapid change, intensifying complexity, and growing uncertainty. Research advances in neuroscience and the developmental and learning sciences point to new forms of educator learning that require teachers to learn more from each other.

Now more than ever, it is time for teachers to lead the transformation of their professional learning and their profession — and for policy leaders to help them do so. The young people of South Carolina deserve no less.

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