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Teachers say they need respect, time and money to stay in the classroom

A man with a salt-and-pepper beard and batman t-shirt stands in front of an empty white board.
Camille Phillips
/
Texas Public Radio
Billy Cano taught at a North East ISD middle school for 12 years before quitting earlier this year. The white board in his kitchen used to be filled with administrative tasks he had to complete.

This is the third story in a three-part series on the teacher shortage. Read part one and part two.

The teacher shortage has existed in pockets of the country for decades, concentrated in high-poverty districts and in subject areas like special education.

But over the last couple of years, the shortage has become more intense and widespread. In San Antonio, school principals and district human resource directors have seen a sharp decline in the number of applicants.

“It seems every industry is struggling to find people to work. And yes, we're feeling it like everyone else is. And it's just been something that we hadn't experienced in the past,” said Chyla Whitton, the director of human resources at the North East Independent School District.

Whitton said North East used to have lines of people show up to job fairs, but those lines have disappeared. NEISD is San Antonio’s second largest school district and it includes some of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods. Historically, Whitton said, it was a place teachers wanted to work.

Erin Deason, a middle school principal at NEISD, is hopeful that the teacher shortage is a temporary problem.

“I think if we can get through COVID and what we're doing now I just I can see success coming for sure,” Deason said. “I do see light at the end of the tunnel.”

But 12-year veteran teacher Billy Cano, who recently quit his job at another NEISD middle school, doesn’t see a way out unless there are big changes to give teachers more time and support.

“I hope I'm wrong, because public education is necessary. And these kids need teachers, and these kids need teachers, especially at (low-income schools), who can build relationships with them,” Cano said. “But my question is, where are these teachers coming from?”

Cano said every teacher that quits like he did leaves more responsibility on the shoulders of the teachers that remain — and makes them more likely to quit too.

As an instructional coach and department chair tasked with supporting other teachers, Cano said he would usually teach at most two classes. But this year he was teaching five classes because his department had three vacancies. He spent hours every night working on administrative duties.

It’s possible that more people will start applying for teacher positions again when the wider labor market calms down, but that doesn’t solve the pre-existing problem of high teacher turnover. And it won’t make up for the thousands of experienced teachers that have already left the classroom.

Two surveys of Texas teachers released earlier this year warned that a huge swath of teachers were thinking about quitting. The turnover data in San Antonio shows they followed through.

“We're losing so much smarts and experience and modeling and coaching that could be walking out the door for a profession right now,” said Shari Albright, president of the Charles Butt Foundation.

Her organization’s survey found that 77% of teachers were considering leaving the profession, up from 58% two years ago, and that of those 77% who were considering leaving 93% had taken “concrete steps” to leave, like updating their resume. Texas AFT's survey had similar findings.

Lauren Cook is in charge of the teacher poll project at the Charles Butt Foundation. Their survey also asked teachers why they were thinking about leaving, and what it would take to get them to stay.

“They cited lack of respect and appreciation. They cited lack of support from school administrators, stress from supporting student needs, excessive workload and burnout, standardized test pressures and low pay,” said Cook.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately speculating that schools are having a harder time finding teachers because they’ve added new teaching positions using federal COVID relief money. But that doesn’t seem to be the cause of San Antonio’s teacher shortage.

North East, for example, planned to add about 80 positions using federal COVID dollars. But the district ended up with 200 fewer teachers than usual last year because they had so many vacancies. Statewide, the growth of Texas’s teacher workforce slowed dramatically last year. National research on teacher shortages have found that there isn't enough timely national data to truly map out trends.

To help fill vacancies and end the teacher shortage, North East and other districts told TPR they’re doubling down on recruitment, including hiring more teachers with alternative certification.

“Looking at partnerships that might involve how we can explore tapping into our veterans and military folks that are about to retire,” said HR director Chyla Whitton while outlining the district’s plans. “Strengthening our relationships with our alt cert programs.”

Alt Cert, or alternative certification, is Texas’s largest source of new teachers. Twenty years ago, the state allowed for-profit online companies to get in the business in hopes of ending teacher shortages. APM Report's Educate podcast published a series last year exploring the trend.

According to the Texas Education Agency, nearly half of new teachers in Texas go through one of those programs now instead of getting a traditional education degree.

The problem is that alternatively certified teachers are also more likely to leave after just one or two years in the classroom. To solve teacher shortages, we need to stop the teacher exodus.

Lauren Cook with the Charles Butt Foundation says the teachers they surveyed were very clear about what they needed to keep them in the classroom: significantly better pay and a better work environment.

“So many of them have said, 'Man, if I could just focus on teaching. I love teaching, and I love connecting with students,’” Cook said. “We do think that there's a lot that school principals and district leaders can do to ensure that teachers are way more involved in decision making, for example, that they have more autonomy.”

Cook said 80% of teachers said input into decision making is important, but only 16% said they currently have it.

The teachers they surveyed also said a small salary increase or one-time retention bonus won’t keep them on the job though — the salary increase needs to be 20% higher to have an impact.

“Especially our more tenured teachers are really starting to speak up and say, you know, what, I didn't get in this for pay, but I've been teaching for 20 years, and I'm still only making $60,000 a year,” Cook said. “So, I think as a state we really have to look at what kind of value that has, because they're not only amazing classroom leaders, they're now mentors.”

The foundation’s president, Shari Albright, said one way districts could increase teacher pay and help spread out the number of hours spent planning and training would be to increase the number of days a year teachers are contracted to work.

“Your high school principals, for example, work on a 230 day a year contract at most school districts. That is a wide difference from 183 days as a teacher,” Albright said. “If we need them at that level, what does that mean for our teachers?”

Some San Antonio school districts have made a smaller change to help reduce teacher workloads: they’ve added several teacher workdays to the school calendar to help them catch up on grading and paperwork.

But more significant changes to salaries and schedules would require more money than districts have. In order to give teachers even a 3% raise, San Antonio ISD trustees had to gamble that enrollment will increase enough for them to avoid a budget deficit in the coming years.

Albright said more significant raises will require the state to contribute more to public education.

“This is a year for us to consider: How do we raise that floor for all teachers,” Albright said. “Especially because we're walking into a session more flush in money that we can spend on the state of Texas than we have in many, many years.”

According to Texas Comptroller Glen Hegar, higher oil prices and inflation have increased the state’s surplus.

Texas legislators voted to give teachers a raise in the 2019 legislative session, but the average teacher salary in Texas is lower than it was a decade ago when adjusted for inflation.

However, a 20% salary raise alone is unlikely to stop the teacher exodus. Working conditions need to improve too. Former teacher Billy Cano said he took a $20,000 pay cut to leave.

“This is not about money, it's about the action of saying, ‘This is what you're worth to us. This is why we'll pay you.’ And again, I don't know that that's completely just on the districts as it is on the society,” Cano said. “Because last I checked, public education is funded by taxes.”

Teachers surveyed by the Charles Butt Foundation said they feel a lot less supported and respected by politicians and the public right now. The foundation didn’t ask teachers specifically about political fights that have trickled down into schools, like book bans or the way racism is taught, but it’s clear that the way education is being legislated and talked about is having an effect.

“In 2020, 20% of teachers felt valued by elected officials. And that's gone down to 5%. But when you talk about Texans as a whole, in 2020 44% of teachers — so still less than half, but almost half — felt valued by Texans. And that number went down to 17%. That's actually our largest drop among the different groups that we asked teachers about,” said Cook.

Albright said the Charles Butt Foundation also polls the public about their attitudes about education, and that poll shows we have systemic problems in the way we view education as a profession.

“We have consistently seen families as well as teachers not wanting the next generation of students or their own children to go into teaching,” Albright said. “It's not a teacher perception that things are not right. It's a societal perception that things are not right in our education system right now.”

Cano points out that we show what we value as a society by what we spend our money on. In the end, the solution to the teacher shortage may come down to the Texas voters, who will have to decide what they value, and in turn convince their state representatives to pour more money into the system created to educate their children.

Editor’s Note: The Charles Butt Foundation and H-E-B are financial supporters of Texas Public Radio.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Education News Desk, including H-E-B Helping Here, Betty Stieren Kelso Foundation and Holly and Alston Beinhorn.

Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@TPR.org and on Twitter at @cmpcamille. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.