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Texas teachers at a crossroads as burnout intensifies

teacher burnout 1.jpg
Kaysie Ellingson
/
Texas Tech Public Media
Barbara Young demonstrates using her interactive screen that she uses to teach students math.

In many places in Texas, staffing shortages are forcing already burnt out teachers to cover for sick coworkers. The workload is pushing educators to leave the profession, and forcing school districts to do what they can to retain them.

A Mass Exodus 

Something unique happened last month at a meeting of the Lubbock ISD school board. Early that Thursday morning, a group of parents, one after the other, read anonymous letters written by teachers in the district.

“I love teaching. I love igniting the spark of knowledge or passion in a student,” Natalia Jackson read from the letter of one educator. “I love supporting and guiding students.”

However, the teacher who wrote this letter is facing an all too common problem.

Like many other educators across our country, I'm at the crossroads of seeking new career options and leaving education behind,” Jackson continued. “Many educators I know feel uncertain about public education, and more and more teachers are fed up, overburdened and on the verge of burnout.”

“I never thought anything would be harder than last year, like 2020 2021...But this year has been, it feels like 10 times harder

In all, seven people read from the anonymous letters. The Lubbock ISD teachers and staff expressed feelings of burnout, overwork and being under-appreciated – a sentiment shared by countless educators in Texas. Nationally, it’s resulting in a mass exodus.

A national poll recently found that over half of teachers surveyed are considering leaving the profession earlier than they planned. One local teacher, who spoke with Texas Tech Public Media on the condition she remains anonymous out of fear of retaliation from the district, has grappled with similar thoughts.

I never thought anything would be harder than last year, like 2020, 2021,” she said. “But this year has been, it feels like 10 times harder, because we know we have that accountability measure that is arbitrary to begin with.”

She’s referring to the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STARR test). The annual test is used as a tool to measure student and teacher progress. Because of how COVID dramatically changed public schooling, the tests were canceled in 2020. Last year, they were only used as a benchmark. This year, they’re back. And it’s stressing out already stressed teachers.

We’re having to speed ahead and keep going even if we know we need to slow down,” the junior high teacher explained. With the exams looming, her concern is her students, who she said are traumatized from the past two years.

This teacher has been in the field for over a decade. It’s something she knew she wanted to do since the fourth grade. But after the crushing workload these last two years, she’s decided to leave.

The afternoon we met was an especially difficult day for her. Every year she reads the same book to her students, one that no matter how many times she reads it, it makes her cry at the end. That day we met, she finished the book. “This time I cried harder just knowing that I'm not going to get to do that again,” she said.

Regardless of her passion for the field, her decision has been made. I've been working through [problems with work] with my counselor and I just have had to come to grips with the fact that I'm not in a place where I can keep my sanity and stay a teacher."

Clinton Gill is with the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA). He advocates for teachers. He said he has been hearing similar feelings from teachers around the region.

“Since the last two, three years, where we've been in this pandemic, we have seen the stress and workload just increase so much, many of our veteran teachers are calling it quits.”

Gill said nobody is to blame for the situation. “It's just that that's the environment that they're living in,” he said. According to Gill, there are times where nearly half of entire districts across the state are without substitute teachers. “It’s an issue all over the place,” he said.

‘Please, please…don’t quit” 

Districts are scrambling to provide some relief to their teachers. Last week Aldine ISD, near Houston, gave teachers three Fridays off in the face of a severe staffing shortage. Austin ISD has offered days off too. The county judge in Austin even tweeted out that he put down his gavel for a day and volunteered as a sub at a local high school.

In Lubbock, the city’s largest district is trying to recruit more subs, raising the pay by $30 a day, along with recently giving teachers an extra prep day.

All this is an effort to alleviate some of the workload to help retain teachers.

Inside the halls of Westwind Elementary School, one of Frenship ISD’s eight elementary schools, parents line up in the front office, waiting to pull their children out of class early. It’s starting to snow and they want to avoid dangerous roads.

Directly behind the office is room 401, where Barbara Young’s classroom is situated. Inside, the walls are decorated with Hawaiian decor – a nice juxtaposition to the frigid conditions outside. Young is a math coach and interventionist for kindergarten through fifth grade. She’s been teaching for over 35 years.

“When some teachers were already super stressed, and then add COVID, on top of that,” Young said, “I can understand why they may want to not continue in education.” But for her, the added workload that came with the pandemic hasn’t persuaded her to shorten her career in teaching.

“There are a lot of things that are already stressful with teaching,” she said, “That is just part of the package.”

Still, Michelle McCord, the superintendent at Frenship ISD, recognizes that even before the pandemic, a lot was asked of teachers – and even then, they were overworked. Lately, it’s been even worse.

“We don't want to go to the well too many times for our teachers and say, ‘Hey, can you do this one more thing?’ We do that too much.”

McCord had this to say to teachers who are struggling: “Please, please don't quit, please…the future really is at stake.”

Kaysie Ellingson is the former news director for Texas Tech Public Media. She came to Lubbock after living in Anchorage, Alaska, working as a documentary producer for Alaska Public Media. Prior to working in public media, Kaysie earned her master's degree in journalism from the University of Southern California with an emphasis in documentary production.
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