High school educator leaves School of the Arts for a state with better pay 

Michael Donnellon, History Teacher

History teacher Michael Donnellon recently left his job at Charleston County School of the Arts, one of the highest-ranked schools in the state, to return to his home state of Michigan

John Phillips

History teacher Michael Donnellon recently left his job at Charleston County School of the Arts, one of the highest-ranked schools in the state, to return to his home state of Michigan

In each installment of the Working Life series, a local worker describes what his or her job is like. The stories are taken directly from interviews and told in the first person with minimal or no editing of the subjects' natural speech patterns.

The purpose of all good teaching should be to challenge assumptions, whether those assumptions actually turn out to be correct ones or not. I constantly quote historian Jacob Burckhardt in my class: "The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity." U.S. history in particular has been consistently reduced, by politician and pundit alike, to sound bites about freedom. America is a wonderful place with a wonderful history, but the vast majority of it has been pain and oppression. When students view our history as one of triumph only, it can be very difficult for them to accurately assess the realities of contemporary America. I want students to understand that the struggle is real, and most people are still going through it. Most importantly, I want them to understand that the solutions being offered by their parents, their government, and even their school are often much too simple and much too ineffective.

There are three mindsets that I try to recognize and challenge. One is apathy. Students believe either nothing will ever change or that what they think and believe does not matter. History, of course, is filled with individuals who were able to substantially change the world. My students know about what Rosa Parks did before she refused to give up her seat, what Alice Paul did, and how John Brown dedicated himself to a dangerous cause. I hope my students understand the enormous debt they owe the people who have come before them and how not caring, or not acting, is a violation of the principles that so many Americans strived for.

The other two mindsets are the traditional right-wing or left-wing ideology. Both sides develop almost tribe-like ideals that are used to automatically reject any argument from the other side. My goal is to help the students not necessarily agree with the other side, but understand their perspectives. This is especially true in a fractured media environment where liberals and conservatives search out only information that supports their world view (the kids even get an article on confirmation bias). Once students recognize these tendencies in themselves, their peers, and their parents, they can better recognize the filters they put up.

In the South, of course, those filters tend to be a bit more conservative. I have students whose parents are outspokenly racist, believe Obama is actually a foreign-born Muslim communist, and that the government is coming to take away their guns.

I do know that parents have strong disagreements with some of what I teach. But I urge my students to regularly talk with their parents about what we talk about in class, and many of my students even record the class for studying purposes. I have no interest in hiding anything I am saying. I hope that my class will provide an access point for children and parents to have conversations about what matters in this country. It is a great honor when I meet parents who say, "Your class sparks so much conversation in our household." I hear it often.

The closest I have had to direct confrontation was when a student's mother (who happened to be an avid fan of Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter) joked, "So you are the one whose ass I have to kick," when I first met her. We actually proceeded to have a nice conversation, and her daughter, who is still quite conservative, greatly enjoyed the class.

When covering right-to-work laws in class, I often compare South Carolina and other right-to-work states to unionized states to illustrate the impact unions have on workers. Salaries and benefits are much better, of course, in unionized states, and I give examples of what this means.

Because my wife works as an optometrist, and we do not have children yet, my household can bear my low salary. But I do point out that it would be nearly impossible for me to raise a family on my salary alone. At SOA, the vast majority of the teachers are either not the primary breadwinners for their family or simply do not have children at all. Another teacher at the school, for example, plans to eventually leave the classroom and move on to being an administrator not because he doesn't like teaching or isn't good at it (he is, without question, one of the top educators I have ever worked with) but because he knows his current salary would not be enough to support a family, a mortgage, and student loans.

My take-home pay every two weeks, including health care costs, taxes, etc, is $909 (about $37,000 gross). The same job in my hometown of Troy, Michigan, would pay $57,661. While I hear many mention the cost of living difference, 1) Charleston is expensive, and 2) Even if I lived in a more rural area, the cost of living would not come close to making up for the $20,000 difference. A few years ago, a SOA teacher moved to Manhattan for a teaching job, and she still finds it much easier to pay bills up there.

My decision to move was, primarily, about family. Both my wife and I are from the same town, and we have been away for eight years. However, the low pay and therefore general disrespect for the profession did weigh heavily on the decision-making process. Everybody wants to feel that what they are doing has value. My students have been wonderful about making me feel this. The school district and the state have not.

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