President and CEO, South Carolina Council on Competitiveness
Susie Shannon grew up on a dirt road in rural South Carolina. For her economically-challenged family, day-to-day necessities had to take priority over education.
Still, she could see a road ahead. “For me, it’s just as they say: The way out of poverty ran right by the schoolhouse,” said Shannon.
She gives credit to imaginative teachers. She remembers, in particular, J.C. Phipps, her high school AP English teacher.
“Mr. Phipps wouldn’t stand in front of the room to instruct or teach ‘at’ us,” recalled Shannon. “He would pull up a desk, sit with us in a semi-circle, have us read poetry, and regale us with imaginative Greek and Roman mythology, readings difficult to find in our small library. It was exhilarating and interactive, and it showed me how imaginative teaching could inspire students.”
Years later, after finishing college and law school at the University of South Carolina while working full-time, and after serving in the Gulf War with the U.S. Army Reserves, she deviated from her legal career when she saw a chance to do for other students in South Carolina what Mr. Phipps had done for her.
In 2011, Shannon worked as the director of research for the Palmetto Institute, an independent research think tank dedicated to improving the wealth of all South Carolinians. The Institute’s board chair also served on the national board of Teach For America (TFA), and a push began to bring TFA’s transformational model to the state.
“South Carolina has a teacher shortage, especially in areas of the state that face economic challenges,” she said. “We jumped at the chance to bring passionate, smart, and willing young people here through TFA to help make sure that every child has access to quality education, regardless of their ZIP code.”
The voices of Shannon and other Teach For America South Carolina (TFASC) champions proved successful in expanding the TFA program in the Palmetto State. Once a board of directors was in place, the incipient TFASC leadership chose and placed its initial teachers in schools where the greatest needs were.
“Those first teachers ran like wildfire,” remembered Shannon. “That inaugural class of 30 teachers made such an impact on students and their communities, and several of them – 10 years later – are still making a positive impact in South Carolina and serving as ambassadors for what TFASC does in the classroom.”
She now serves as president and CEO of the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness, a business-led nonprofit working to advance the state’s long-term economic growth by managing key industry clusters – like aerospace, logistics, and technology/cybersecurity – and carrying out actionable research. Evergreen issues for the South Carolina Council on Competitiveness are education and workforce development.
Mission-critical for industries to succeed will be an education system that can supply the minds and skills needed to fill its highly qualified jobs.
“We need the talent, energy, brilliance, enthusiasm, and passion of teachers like those in TFASC in every classroom,” said Shannon. “The impact a teacher has on a student today has an impact on a growing company in South Carolina tomorrow.”
She feels that South Carolina has a unique opportunity – right now – to shape a more prosperous future.
“If we can adapt our instruction in every school to be more student-centered, more relevant, and more challenging, it presents a huge opportunity,” said Shannon.
“Part of that has to be bringing high-quality teachers to high-need areas,” she concluded. “I know from personal experience the difference that can make, and I see in my work the difference quality education for every student can make in South Carolina.”