'We're just worth more'

Educators rally for change Wednesday at the Statehouse in Columbia.

Angela Adamian stood among the sea of red clothing at the Statehouse building on Wednesday and raised her empowering sign high—its five-word message brief and to the point: “Time for change is now.”

Early in the morning, the Summerville High School British literature teacher joined at least 20 of her Green Wave colleagues, along with other educators from across Dorchester District Two, and loaded a bus headed for the South Carolina Capitol.

Their goal was simple: tell lawmakers that they and students across the Palmetto State deserve better when it comes to educational resources and pay.

“I think we’re just worth more,” Adamian said. “What we’re asking for is really nothing unreasonable as far as getting the resources that we need for the kids—that’s No. 1; (also), teachers getting the respect that’s due us, getting compensated. We work very, very, very hard.”

As they gathered, teachers’ differences in grade levels, subject matters and school names faded. They were a family—a team with the same goal.

“I felt a sense of unity in the community…because we all, we’re all on the same page,” Adamian said. “I felt an empowerment—the vibes were wonderful. It was full of hope.”

Emily Smith, Devon Forest Elementary teacher, agreed.

"It was inspiring to have such a large group of people all there for one purpose: to improve our education system," she said.

Adamian, who started out as a substitute teacher, has been at Summerville High School for two years and with the district since 2008—and she said she barely making ends meet with her current salary.

“I have a mortgage I need to pay. I have a car payment,” she said.

Adamian also explained that the job often requires work beyond the designated school day hours; she said it’s not uncommon for her to brainstorm lesson plans early in the morning and evening while at home.

“The job of the teacher extends above and beyond that work-hour range,” she said.

But seeking higher wages was just part of teachers' cry to lawmakers. The march was motivated by a number of diverse issues in the field, according to Nick Snyder, teacher at Cane Bay High School.

"We've talked a lot about teacher salary; that seems to be a lot of what people are fixated on," he said. "That's a side issue."

However, Snyder did point out that the base teacher salary in the state, $32,000, is $500 less than City of North Charleston's starting pay for a garbage collector. Snyder said Mayor Keith Summey talked about the imbalance in job pay at an event he attended during his reign as Berkeley County School District's 2017 Teacher of the Year. That same year Snyder also secured a spot in the state's top five teacher finalists.

"You can't even begin to think about living off of that type of salary," Snyder said. "Some (teachers) are single moms; there's all kinds of situations."

He said he wished the education reform bill, introduced this legislative session, would push for more of a boost than the roughly $3,000 one it proposes for teachers pay. The bill also calls for a 4 percent across-the-board pay raise for teachers. 

"Personally, do I think it should be more? Yes, but that’s one step in the right direction," Snyder said.

But lawmakers won't likely pass changes in state education until 2020 at the earliest. The education reform bill, which proposed a significant overhaul to the system, recently stalled in the Legislature. If lawmakers so choose, they can pickup discussion on the bill in January.

Despite the English teacher's current political involvement, he said it was just three years ago that he shied away from that realm.

"I just kind of just fell like I wanted to do my job and go home," he said. 

But it was Snyder's winning the district's coveted TOY title that his mindset shifted. It opened a door for him to advocate for his colleagues and children--the rally one of those opportunities to serve as a voice for himself and others. That's also why Snyder said he didn't like the word "walkout" or think it was an accurate term to describe the march.

"I'm there as parent; I'm there as a teacher; I'm there for my students as a representative," he said.

In addition to better pay, Snyder said he thinks the state should fully fund the base student cost, which hasn't been fully funded in at least a decade. He also dislikes a proposal to incorporate additional testing into the curriculum for grades K-2.

"I have three children, and the youngest will be in kindergarten next year," Snyder said. "The early years are especially important for social and emotional development, as much as intellectual development."

According to Adamian’s co-worker Elizabeth Sears, an honors English teacher at Summerville High, the memory of her father working multiple jobs to supplement his teacher salary partially provoked her to join the Statehouse march. She said career improvements needed decades ago remain unresolved.

“I just think it’s exciting to think about making positive changes for education,” Sears said.

But Sears’ appearance at the rally was also due to her eagerness to fight for future generations—her 10-year-old son Dean, a student at Newington Elementary, at her side holding a sign reading “young, scrappy and hungry—don’t take away my shot.”

'We're just worth more'

Summerville High teacher Elizabeth Sears and son Dean, 10

“He said, ‘All these teachers are out there for us,’” Sears said. “He was really excited to see (them) out there fighting for him as well.”

That was certainly the mission of Green Wave educator Charly Adkinson on Wednesday.

"I marched because I love my kids, and their futures are under attack by people who don't value their right to a high quality education," she said.

According to Adkinson, the ripple effect of poor education can spiral beyond the classrooms, impacting more than just teachers and students.

"The quality of public education directly impacts the economy and quality of life of our communities," she said. "The grave we dig for public education is the grave we dig for all of us."

'We're just worth more'

Summerville High teacher Charly Adkinson

But despite the job’s long hours and little pay, a majority of teachers point to passion, not money, as the driving force behind their work.

“I do it out of love,” Adamian said. “That motivates me the most.”

Dorchester District Two board member Justin Farnsworth was also among Columbia’s 10,000-plus rally participants. He characterized the historic day’s vibe as one of indisputable enthusiasm.

“There is absolutely palpable excitement in the air,” he said. “This is a powerful voice saying, ‘Our teachers deserve better; our kids deserve better, and our state deserves better.’ I am thrilled to be on the ground with our folks supporting them as we advocate for positive change.”

But not everyone in education, including the state's top educator, supported Wednesday's rally. Earlier this week, State Superintendent Molly Spearman issued a statement opposing the initiative.

"I cannot support teachers walking out on their obligations to South Carolina students, families and the thousands of hardworking bus drivers, cafeteria workers, counselors, aides and custodial staff whose livelihoods depend on our schools being operational," she said.

That didn't appear to stop teachers who staged the march in part because they are not represented by a union.

Many school districts in the state closed classrooms for the day, to allow teachers a chance to attend the rally. Dorchester District Two cancelled classes; but schools in Berkeley and Charleston counties operated on normal schedules.

Berkeley County released numbers late Wednesday afternoon showing 772 teachers were out and 11,752 students were absent. The district said 333 substitute teachers were called in from Kelly Services.

While many school district officials across the tri-county joined teachers at the rally, Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Eddie Ingram chose instead to stay behind with the students, filling in as a substitute teacher at Hanahan High School.

'We're just worth more'

Dorchester District Two officials at the rally. Pictured: Superintendent Joe Pye (far left); Board member Lisa Tupper (far right)