When South Carolina Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver was sworn into office on Jan. 11, she didn’t have much time to savor the moment. Two days later, on Jan. 13, Weaver stopped by the office of the Greenville Journal for an in-depth interview, where she spoke of the “happy exhaustion” of the prior 48 hours.
But beyond the expected challenges that arise when immersing oneself in the day-to-day operations of a multi-billion-dollar state agency, Weaver finds herself taking office at a unique moment for public education.
Following widespread at-home learning in the early months of the pandemic, parents have increasingly taken a more active role in the finer details of their children’s educations. To some observers, that shift has been a long-overdue push toward accountability; to others, it has been an intrusive element that has limited teacher agency.
Enter Ellen Weaver, a Greenville native and Bob Jones University graduate who now takes the reins of the state’s education system amidst these crossroads. Coming from a background in public policy, rather than the background as an in-class teacher typical of most superintendents, Weaver said she hopes to find a balance that best suits teachers, parents and students.
Here’s what she had to say about the unique challenges in her own words.
On teacher and parental autonomy
We have to be unequivocal in saying that these children, first and foremost, belong to their parents, right? As an education system, we have to acknowledge and respect the proper roles of authority that the school has versus what parents have. That said, I don’t think it’s a mutually exclusive conversation. It’s not a zero sum game. That’s one of the biggest challenges in education right now is how do we rebuild that culture of trust so that parents and teachers can work together shoulder to shoulder to truly be partners, because that is the only way we will ever move a child forward and our education system forward. To me that really starts with great communication. I think a lot of times in education world, we speak in acronyms and jargon. That can make parents feel as if they’re being talked down to. So I feel like we have to be really intentional about creating conversations that welcome parents into the conversation as partners and doesn’t make them feel like we’re keeping them at arms length. I think that culture of intentional communication is going to be really really critical.
I also think we have to ensure we’re being transparent. If parents ever feel like we’re hiding the ball in some way, that erodes the trust that is so essential for that partnership to truly function. We have nothing to hide. So we need to be fully transparent with our parents about what is being taught in the classroom, what books are being used, and we need to respect their ability to make decisions for what their children are learning — and again, while not comprising the professionalism or judgement of our educators. We have to respect them as the professionals they are. But we need to realize the appropriate balance in that partnership
On the role of education in the economy
We know many of the large corporations that we’re attracting here are having trouble finding the talent they need, and so they’re importing that talent from other states. As much as we’re happy to see people from other states discover the joy of what it means to be a South Carolinian, my goal is that every South Carolinian is prepared to take those jobs of the future, and so working with our business community is critical.
There are examples of other states who’ve created partnerships with their big industries to allow employees to come into schools to mentor and tutor students, to serve as substitute teachers and to truly be real partners in the development of that workforce the future. So I think we have such untapped potential here when to comes to engaging our business community.
Today, State Superintendent of Education Ellen Weaver issued a statement after being sworn into office.
Read the statement: https://t.co/RwbBMx3nGJ pic.twitter.com/gAFNnfZBHT
— S.C. Department of Education (@EducationSC) January 11, 2023
On working with teachers
I want them to know that I listen to them. That I will listen to them that I hear them. My passion in doing this job is for our children to be successful in life. I know the only way that’s ever going to happen is if we have great, well-supported teachers. I value the skills that it takes to be a classroom teacher. That’s not my personal skill set, but in doing this job I’m not running to be a classroom teacher; I’m running to be the CEO of a multibillion dollar state agency. It’s a different skillset. We need every player on the team, but every player has different skills. When we can harness those skills and collaborate, that’s how we move the conversation forward.
On serving Greenville County Schools
Honestly the best thing I can do for Greenville schools is give them the autonomy to innovate. You all have great leadership here. That’s what I want to see done at the state level. For districts that are excelling, I say let them run with it, let them do great things. We don’t need to be micromanaging in Columbia the great work happening in Greenville. Now, there are some districts that don’t have the same capacity Greenville has — there are a number of reasons for that — so the mission is: How can we support the districts that need more capacity built and how can we harness the example of the great work happening in districts like Greenville and scale that across the state.
On teacher shortages
I think there are a ton of really practical things we can do to address teacher shortages and teacher retention. One thing I’ve heard from many districts leaders around the state as well as business leaders is we need to make additional alternative paths to certification. We have great professionals who have successful carers and are experts in their particular fields of study; just think about all the chemical engineers we have here in the state in our advanced manufacturing facilities. So there are people who have talent that we could certainly harness, but we have pretty bureaucratic regulations about all these hoops you have to jump through in order to be certified to teach in South Carolina. I think there are ways to streamline how people who are subject matter experts can gain the experience and skills they need to translate that into standing in front of a classroom of students.
I also think one of the most important things we need to focus on is principal leaderships. We have to be really intentional here in South Carolina not just about how we’re preparing teachers but also how we are developing that pipeline of leadership of individuals who are going to run those schools, because the principal creates the culture in which great teacher work. We talk about teachers moving from district to district, school to school — much of that is a function of the atmosphere and the culture of the school. So if we’re ever going to solve the teacher retention and recruitment issue here in the state, we have to get to the head of that, which is how are we developing the principals that are running those schools and creating the environment that teachers work in.
On school safety
School safety has to be our number one priority, because if our children and our educators aren’t safe, nothing else matters. So I’ve been ready to support Gov. McMaster and the General Assembly and their push to have an SRO (school resource officer) in every school. I think about what happened here in Greenville at Tanglewood (a 12-year-old suspect is charted with shooting and killing fellow student Jamari Cortez Bonaparte Jackson), and thank god there was an SRO on the scene to stop it from becoming worse than it could’ve been. The loss of any life is already tragic, but it could’ve been 10 times worse if we hadn’t had an SRO in the school. So I think that right there shows how important it is that we ensure we have an SRO in every school. We’ve made great progress… we’re about 90 percent of the way to that goal. But I do think we have to have additional support staff to help leverage the work of the SRO in that school. The SRO can’t be everywhere all the time in the school, so finding other people like veterans or other interested citizens who are wiling to come in and serve as school safety officers under a sworn SRO could, I think, be really helpful.