Katie Smith, theater teacher at Conway High School, said that attending the “All Out May 1” rally in Columbia on Wednesday with fellow teachers was inspirational.
“I am a firm believer in standing up for what I believe in, and I try to instill that in my students as well. I wanted to lead by example, and show them that even though so many are against us, we will fight for their rights and our own rights as well. It is our duty as educators,” Smith said.
Principal Lee James said there were only a handful of extra substitutes at CHS on Wednesday, as a result of teachers taking leave to attend the rally in Columbia on the S.C. Statehouse lawn.
The teachers banded together to call for pay increases for themselves and support staff members, less standardized testing, smaller class sizes, as well as more mental health professionals and social workers inside the schools, Smith said.
CHS teacher Melanie Abston said that she heard through social media that some district and school-level administrators made it difficult or uncomfortable for some teachers to participate in the event, but she gave credit to the CHS administrative team.
“By taking the time to talk with interested staff individually, [James] honored our rights as contracted professionals, but more importantly, he demonstrated respect and understanding of our rights as citizens and our responsibility as advocates for our students,” Abston said.
Abston said that hundreds of hours of collaboration and thousands of phone calls, emails, and letters were finally personified at Wednesday’s rally.
“[More than] 10,000 on the Statehouse lawn, and another over 40,000 represented in classrooms, gyms, learning labs, etc. And, thousands more represented through custodial, guidance, nursing, bussing, substitute, and administrative services,” Abston said. “It was a great day to be an educator in S.C.”
Horry County Schools spokesperson Lisa Bourcier said that they were not worried about any sort of teacher shortage due to the rally.
“We are comfortable with the number of active substitutes we have, which is approximately 1,200,” Bourcier said.
Smith said the goal of teachers is to serve their students to the best of their ability.
“We cannot do that if we have to work several jobs and are not respected as professionals and experts in our craft. It is time that teachers have a say in and out of the classroom,” Smith said.
Former Carolina Forest High School teacher Todd Scholl said that the rally was one of the most inspirational days he’s ever had.
“I’ve been in public education for 24 years. To see that many teachers finally stand up for themselves … it was the beginning of what I hope to be some important changes when it comes to public education in South Carolina,” Scholl said.
Senator Greg Hembree, chair of the Senate Education Committee, spent the day of the rally as a substitute teacher in a Myrtle Beach Middle School social studies class.
Hembree said he’s taught classes and done presentations many times, but had never been responsible for a class from the beginning to the end of the day.
“I wanted to experience that. It helps me do my job better,” Hembree said.
As for his thoughts on what the rally would accomplish, he said he thought it was fine that the teachers went to the rally.
“It is what it is. But it puts pressure on parents and other teachers to have to fill in those holes. I thought ‘Why not help out?’ I was thinking about doing it anyway, so why not do it that day when it was really needed,” Hembree said. “Will it [the rally] impact us in the diligent effort we’ve been making to craft good policy? No. However we have approached education in a very bipartisan manner…I think that’s the right way to do it.”
Now that the National Education Association as stepped into the discussion, Hembree said, things have shifted, and not necessarily in a good way.
“Look at who was invited to speak. All democrats. I don’t know of a single Republican invited to speak. It feels like this debate has shifted to a very partisan debate, and I think that’s unfortunate for the children of South Carolina. Our committee has worked really hard to not go down that path, and now we’re kind of being taken down that path against our will. I’m concerned about a national political party turning it into this national political issue instead of trying to do what’s best for our children,” Hembree said.
One of the organizers of the event, Nicole Walker of Blythewood, said it is incorrect to say that only democrats were invited.
“The only speaker we officially invited was Sariah McCall. We felt her story was important to share because it encapsulated so many of the concerns many of us share about the toll teaching can take,” Walker said.
Walker said that the other speakers reached out to them and asked if they could address the crowd because they care so much about education and wanted to offer their support.
“We have often said that education is a moral rather than a political issue,” Walker said. “We look forward to the day when no one keeps political score, but instead focuses on the message at hand and is inspired to find ways to support what should be a community goal – to educate children as a way to ensure their future is secure.”
Hembree commended MBMS, saying they are doing a good job and that they have good leadership.
“There’s a way to do this better, and it’s been done at the local level. All the teachers, that I saw, had an hour and 10-minute planning period, and all had a 30-minute lunch break that I saw. All this talk of ‘we can’t go to the bathroom’ - I’m not saying it’s not happening - but that’s not a legislative issue, that’s a local leadership issue,” Hembree said.
He said he would love to spend some money investing in leadership training in schools.
“I’ve been thinking about it anyway but [Wednesday] it was crystal clear. We spend billions of state dollars on education and only put a little money towards leadership training,” Hembree said. “I think it’s a great investment.”
Abston said she wished she could say she was overwhelmed by the number of elected state officials who joined the teachers on the Statehouse lawn.
“Unfortunately, that was not the case,” Abston said.
She did however, mention a few exceptions: Representative Justin Bamberg of District 90, Rep. Pat Henegan of District 54, and Senator Mike Fanning of District 17.
Abston said Fanning gave a passionate message about teachers honoring their purpose, harnessing their power, and using their voices and votes to bring positive and lasting change to the S.C. education system.
Horry County School Board Chairman Ken Richardson supported teachers via a Facebook post that said “Drive slow, be careful, and come home. I need all of you!”
Richardson said teachers mean everything to him.
“They have the right to express how they feel,” Richardson said.
Abston said the teachers plan to keep fighting.
“We keep hoping. We keep teaching. And, we don't let up until our elected officials respect our earned right to a seat at the table. We don't let up, until our elected officials pass and follow laws that put our students, our teachers, and the future of our communities first,” Abston said.