Staffing Vacancies Spell Trouble for Central Texas Schools

When I started teaching high school in East Austin in January 2007, my daily commute on I-35 took me past a billboard that read: Want to be a teacher? When can you start? The nonchalance of the ad always struck me as demeaning after I’d spent five semesters in UT’s rigorous teacher training program, but it was hard to ignore its accuracy. I took over for a person who resigned halfway through the year, and education’s high turnover rates were a key issue facing schools at the time. More than a decade later, nothing has changed.

At the beginning of this academic year, districts in Central Texas faced a daunting staffing shortage. Following a flood of resignations last year, Austin ISD scrambled to fill over 500 vacant positions less than a month before the first day of classes. Weeks into the school year, that number still topped 200. A recent study from Brown University found that there were at least 36,000 openings nationwide, with another 163,000 positions held by underqualified educators.

To stem the mass exodus, districts such as Pflugerville and Round Rock ISD have taken drastic measures, such as requiring instructional coaches—experienced personnel who support teachers in planning, assessment, and data analysis—to return to the classroom. AISD has offered signing bonuses between $500 and $1,500, and a general salary bump of 2 percent to attract new talent. And all of those districts have even called upon central office personnel and retired employees to help fill in the gaps.

In years past, AISD refused to pay the surcharge required with “retire rehires,” who no longer contribute to the Teacher Retirement System of Texas. However, the district has reversed course this year for people like Frank Pool, who began teaching in 1976 and is now back at Akins High School as a full-time employee after a 13-year hiatus. He says his years of experience make the job manageable, but adds that he’s seen education’s increasing demands force out great employees. “I kind of feel like it’s the battlefield, and they call in the reserves, and you’re stepping around the bodies of the fallen,” he says.

Low salaries are certainly one deterrent, but the bigger issue is that the compensation doesn’t reflect the enormous demands of the job. A clear pattern emerges when talking to teachers: Their decision to leave rarely falls on just one thing—it’s everything.

Teachers face a growing mountain of obligations, including fulfilling new mandates like HB 4545, which requires one-on-one remediation for students who failed the state’s standardized test; creating individualized plans for students with special needs; learning new tech like online grading software; calling parents; trainings around everything from bloodborne pathogens to pre – paring for active shooters; and documenting each of these tasks to prove one’s adequacy. That’s all in addition to planning and grading, which already must be done outside the hours that teachers are in front of students

“It felt like what I was doing was diverging from my original passion that attracted me to teaching,” says Michelle Gamboa, who resigned from AISD in May. After teaching in South Korea and California, Gamboa was shocked at Texas’ over-emphasis on standardized test scores and the pressures placed on teachers and students. “You care so much about the students and want what’s best for them,” she says, “but when outside of the classroom, all these forces are beating down on you, it’s hard to continue sacrificing yourself.”

Michelle Gamboa. Photo by Layla Hall.

Adrian Prado, who resigned from Round Rock ISD last year, taught Career and Technology (CTE) classes, vital skills in preparing students for a 21st-century workplace. Teachers like him are among the most difficult to find, as these specialized professionals command much larger salaries outside of the school system. None – the less, those abilities often translate to an even larger workload, as Prado was forced to teach multiple courses simultaneously—usually called “stacked classes,” where two sets of students share a single classroom during the same period. The result, unsurprisingly, is a limited ability to adequately address the needs of either group.

Facing widespread vacancies, schools will fill them however possible, even to the detriment of students. Florida recently passed a law allowing veterans to take classroom positions without teacher training or even a bachelor’s degree, for example. Ultimately, the problem hinges more on turnover than shortage. There are ample qualified candidates to do the work, but the profession is too broken to retain them, creating a revolving door of personnel that seems to spin faster each year.

It’s alarming that some parents have become such vocal critics of teachers, seeing as how the job bears many of the same relentless, multifaceted demands. But for all those who want to micromanage reading curriculums or abolish discussions of sexual identity and race, it’s easy to get a firsthand glimpse into the vocation. AISD will be hiring for now and forever into the future. Want to be a teacher? When can you start?

School Daze: America’s education system is in trouble, and the numbers back it up.

3.3 million: Approximate number of public school teachers in the US

44%: Percentage of teachers who say they feel “burned out” according to a recent Gallup poll.

$52,191: Starting salary for a teacher in Austin ISD with no previous experience.

11%: Percentage of new teachers in Texas who leave the profession after just one year.

0: The number of years of experience required to be a classroom educator.

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