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'They are not naive about the reality': New Texas teachers enter a field in crisis

Tens of thousands of teachers in Texas have left the profession in the last year. The UT College of Education is trying to prepare and retain teachers as they face a range of challenges, from low pay to a lack of support in the classroom.

Charles Martinez asked himself: “What’s worse than a crisis?”

The dean of the College of Education at UT Austin, Martinez says the teacher shortage that Texas and the U.S. are facing is a chronic crisis that has only grown worse during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, he tried to find a term to describe it.

“I actually looked it up myself and found the better word to describe the moment is probably 'a brewing catastrophe,'” he said. “A crisis that has become much more challenging in the face of the pandemic and the aftermath of the pandemic and the sort of divisive moments that teachers are facing.”

According to the Texas Education Agency, the 2021-2022 school year saw nearly 43,000 teachers throughout the state leave the field, or about 12% of teachers. The year before, almost 34,000, or about 9% of Texas teachers, left the field.

When it comes to what is driving teachers out of the profession, Martinez said pay is a factor but so is a lack of support and limited professional development opportunities.

“Once you’ve endured those first few years, you’re beginning to ask, ‘Well, what’s next for me? Am I going to spend the next 20 years dealing with the same kind of headwinds that I’m experiencing now?'” he said.

Despite the challenges, Martinez said enrollment in UT’s College of Education has been growing and students are aware of the obstacles.

“They are not naive about the reality,” he said. “They know that the pay is lousy. They know that the challenges are great. But they also know there is a calling and a moment in which that calling to be in service to their communities matters, and that’s why they’re here.”

Soon-to-be teachers expect challenges

Annie Palmer and Melissa Leon, students in UT’s College of Education, are set to graduate in December. Both started out with different majors. Initially, Leon was a biology major, but she wasn’t enjoying it. She started thinking about what she would prefer to study and she kept coming back to the idea of being a teacher.

“Growing up, I was always pretending to play teacher with my younger sister,” she said. “So we’d print out addition worksheets and I’d be like, ‘You have a test,’ and I would be pretending to be a teacher. And it did bring a lot of joy.”

After changing majors, Leon was relieved.

“It really felt like this was what I was supposed to be doing when I switched,” she said.

Palmer’s interest in becoming a teacher stemmed from the great teachers she had growing up.

“I just feel so blessed and lucky to have those relationships,” she said. “So, giving that to another child is like a dream to me because I know it can totally change the course of your life if you know somebody cares about you in the way that teachers have the ability to.”

While being in the classroom is hard work, Palmer said seeing students’ growth makes the challenges worth it.

“All these tiny little moments throughout the day — when you leave and you get in your car, I want to go back,” she said. “So it’s like you’re struggling the whole day and you’re so stressed and you’re so tired. All you want is a minute alone, and then as soon as you’re alone, you’re like, ‘I miss them.'”

Palmer and Leon said it is concerning seeing so many teachers leave the field.

“That did make me really nervous and sometimes it did make me feel like why am I doing this if every current teacher is dreading their job?” Leon said. “But at the end of the day, being there with the students and seeing their growth from the beginning of the semester to the end is just worth every bit of it.”

Palmer said she is hopeful teaching will be a lifelong career, but the difficulties of the field are not lost on her.

“I am very aware of teacher burnout, and I’m very aware that it is a very tricky career to choose with finances and everything like that,” she said. “It’s going to be really hard, but I do see myself doing it forever.”

Keeping early career teachers in the field

In addition to graduating new teachers, the UT College of Education also supports and tries to retain early career teachers. The college has a partnership with the Austin Independent School District called Texas Education START that provides mentors to first through third-year teachers at 14 elementary schools.

Kelly Ocasio, who used to be a teacher, is one of the mentors, known as a teacher leader. When she was working on her master’s degree, she actually focused on teacher burnout because she felt it herself.

“I know that there was stress in the classroom,” she said. “The biggest stress is the fact that it’s a job that there is not a lot of gratitude for among society. We just treat our teachers like they’re babysitters.”

Ocasio added that as a teacher she was expected to work 12-hour days and still felt like she was behind.

“There just wasn’t work-life balance. ... Friday nights I was literally in bed by 6 p.m. Just totally physically [and] emotionally exhausted,” she said. “So, I think all of that just leads to a sense of this is not a sustainable career that I felt like I could do long term.”

But Ocasio wanted to find a way to make teaching more sustainable. Becoming a teacher leader with Texas Education START was one way to do that.

“We have to create a workforce where people can grow and become leaders and become the mentors themselves for future teachers," she said. "But that’s just not happening systemically because people are leaving too quickly."

"I have to do what’s best for me. And if I cannot live reasonably with being a teacher, I will have to leave this profession as others are right now.” Brandi Hartman, elementary school teacher

One of the early career teachers that Ocasio works with is Brandi Hartman, who just started her second year as an elementary school teacher in Austin ISD. She said when she decided to become a teacher, she did face some skepticism from family and friends who wondered how she would make a living on a teacher’s salary.

“I had told people, well I don’t want to work a 9 to 5 sitting at a desk, staring at a screen. I would go stir-crazy,” she said. “So with kids and students, I’m up and we’re all around the classroom.”

Hartman said she did have coworkers who left last year and she supports them making a change.

“But for me, just because I’m newer, I do feel like I do have more in me to keep going,” she said.

Hartman said she would love to be a teacher for her entire career, but she doesn’t know if that’s going to be possible.

“The pressures of what the state’s putting on us, the districts, the schools and just not asking teachers what we need right now,” she said. “I feel like they’re making all these decisions without actually asking the teachers.”

But, right now, Hartman’s students keep her in the classroom.

"My students and just seeing their growth and progress and them just coming to me and being like 'Oh, Ms. Hartman, I just did this, I spelled this word correctly,'" she said, "that's just what gets me through this. It's what I do with my students."

But, she says, she can barely afford to support herself on her current salary. She said increasing pay is one way to address the ongoing teacher shortage.

“For me, personally, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this for 30 years. I’d really hope I can stick it out,” Hartman said. “But with just how things are going, I have to do what’s best for me. And if I cannot live reasonably with being a teacher, I will have to leave this profession as others are right now.”

Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Becky Fogel is the newscast host and producer for “Texas Standard.” She came to the show from Science Friday in New York where she produced segments on zombie microbiomes and sneaker technology. She got her start in radio at KWBU-FM in Waco and she’s happy to be back in the great state of Texas.
Michael Minasi