The Daily Gamecock

'We would be living in poverty': South Carolina teachers share the realities of being underpaid

<p>A stack of school supplies with a whiteboard in the background taken on July 5, 2022.&nbsp;</p>
A stack of school supplies with a whiteboard in the background taken on July 5, 2022. 

After spending nearly nine hours teaching her kindergarten class, Kaylee Susong can be found working other jobs to pay her apartment rent. It’s a lifestyle that is emotionally draining for her. 

“I work three jobs on the side. I tutor, I babysit, I do tumbling privates, I was a server. I’m constantly looking for those odd jobs,” Susong, who graduated from USC in 2020, said. “That was my mentality through college because I had to pay for everything on my own in college. My parents did not help me out financially. So, I’ve already been wired and trained to always have a side hustle going.” 

Susong isn’t the only educator facing this harsh reality. Every year, schools are hiring teachers to work long hours on a low salary. 

According to Zippia, the average teacher salary in Columbia is $38,000 annually, while the national average teacher salary is $47,494. 

Susong said it has been frustrating to see her friends who aren't in education make at least $65,000-70,000 a year. Two years ago, as a first-year teacher, she made $38,746 before taxes.Currently, she is making $1,110 per paycheck while working on her master's degree at Clemson. Pouring her salary back into her own education has been challenging. 

“I’m still barely bringing in $2,000 a month, and rent prices are $1,400 a month," Susong said. "So, a lot of people in my shoes, they’re paying well over 75% to 80% of their paycheck is going to their rent, which is ridiculous.” 

At South Carolina, education professors are always trying to keep their students motivated despite the challenges students will face in the field. Mark Samudre, an assistant professor in the College of Education, said he tries not to sugarcoat the hardships when speaking with his students. 

"I kind of try and bring it back to ground-level to where like, 'Hey, it's going to be a hot mess sometimes, there's going to be a fire all around you, but the key is to make sure that the fire inside is burning a lot brighter than the fire outside because teaching is not easy,'" Samudre said. 

Since there is a teacher shortage, newly hired teachers are being offered retention incentives such as signing bonuses added to their yearly salary for the first few years. Candace Cumalander, a 2013 USC graduate and fifth-grade teacher, said it’s discouraging to see veteran teachers not being paid accordingly.  

“A new teacher that’s entering the classroom this past year makes just as much money as I do. And I’ve been teaching for eight years,” Cumalander said.

On top of pay issues, teachers are being given new curriculums that they must teach, which, according to Cumalander, allows for less freedom in the classroom. 

"It just feels like they’re piling more and more and more on classroom teachers, and not paying us accordingly, not giving us ample time to plan for it,” Cumalander said. “It doesn’t feel fun anymore … I still love my job. I love my school. I love the people I work with. But it’s just from the higher ups. They’re putting so much on teachers.” 

Some teachers said they also deal with more responsibilities than just teaching. 

“We wear a mom hat, we wear a nurse hat, we wear a social worker hat, we wear our teacher hat, we wear our counselor hat or a psychologist hat for like 18 to 20 kids on a daily basis,” Susong said. “People need to see teachers as way more than just a teacher … We need to be compensated for all the other hats that we wear, when we walk into our door and walk into our classroom.”

Even for those who are just starting, the day-in and day-out of the industry can be unexpected for students like fourth-year Spanish education student Clark Hughes.

“I asked my teacher, ‘Is this what a normal day is like?’ and she said, ‘There are no normal days. This is what everyday is like. Every day, something weird is happening,’” Hughes said.

With these difficulties, many teachers have felt a lack of support from not only their superiors but also their community. Even students like Chapin High School rising senior Gibson Ward have noticed it.

“That’s (where) the burnout comes from because they’re supporting all the students all the time, but they don’t have the support themselves,” Ward said. “So, without that support, they kind of fall into burnout easily.”

After graduation next year, Ward said he’s thinking about studying to be a teacher. While he would love to impact people through teaching, he said he's been hesitant lately. 

“I want to properly support myself, economically and my family if I have one one day. And so, I feel like I would not be able to do that if I was a teacher,” Ward said. 

Ward isn’t alone in this mentality. Many teachers, like Cumalander, have considered seeking other professions to have a more financially supportive career. 

"I've had fellow teacher, one of my really close friends, I teach with her at school, she's told me multiple times, she said, 'Candace, you're too young to stay in this field, you need to get a new career.' And that kind of stuck with me," Cumalander said. "Because if I was a single mom, we would be living in poverty with the pay that we're getting."

In recent months, some South Carolina districts have made changes to increase pay. First-year teachers in Lexington-Richland School District 5 will be receiving an annual salary of $41,600, raised from the previous year's $39,853.

Richland 1 and Richland 2 have proposed raising teacher salaries, but they haven't noticed an increase as of yet. It will be up to the district or state to make these decisions. 

Amber Dunn, a 2015 South Carolina graduate and middle school teacher, said there needs to be legislators who understand where the teachers are coming from across the state, not only in the "nice districts."

“I definitely think that if they even came and visited across the classroom, like not even substituted because I’ve heard that before, but just came in and saw what was going on ... then maybe they could be a more effective legislature in the education system,” Dunn said. 

Dunn said she believes anything less than significant change could be detrimental for the future of teaching. 

"There are circumstances where if you aren’t willing to make a change, then not just myself, but hundreds and thousands of other teachers are willing to walk away,” Dunn said. 


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