Even in the best of times, teaching is a challenging profession. In Texas, K–12 educators have long contended with relatively low pay, a Byzantine school finance system, high-stakes standardized testing, and indifferent politicians. But the COVID-19 pandemic—now in its third year—has introduced extraordinary new obstacles. There’s severe understaffing, heated debates over critical race theory, and plummeting standardized test scores, not to mention the slew of difficulties that accompany remote learning. These interlocking crises can sometimes make the classroom feel like a pressure cooker. And yet teachers—most of them, at least—keep showing up. To understand the toll this is taking, Texas Monthly spoke with a dozen current and recently departed teachers about burnout, COVID fears, learning loss, the upcoming STAAR tests, staffing shortages, the effect of the pandemic on students, whether to keep teaching or to quit, and the future of the profession. They are a diverse bunch, representing a racial and ethnic cross section of Texas educators. They teach at elementary, middle, and high schools at school districts across the state. What follows are lightly edited versions of the stories of seven teachers at the education front lines.
I. On Burnout
“This year is like none other for me.”
It’s no surprise that many Texas teachers are burning out. For two years, they’ve been asked to do far more than just juggle the usual demands of classroom instructions; they’re also counseling students reeling from the pandemic, breaking up fights, and giving up their planning periods to cover for other educators who are out sick or have quit. Teachers are also stressing about the full return of the STAAR exams in May, after they were canceled in 2020 and made optional in 2021. Many say they are being pushed to the breaking point.
Alex Marquez, formerly seventh- and eighth-grade special education, Northside ISD, eleven years of experience: Beginning in 2020, I saw levels of anxiety I had never seen before. I ended up having to start medication just to build up the courage to walk into the classroom every single day, not knowing what circumstances I was going to be walking into—not even knowing, in many cases, if any of my students were sick; always wondering about my colleagues; always wondering, “When am I going to finally get sick? When am I going to bring COVID home to my family?” And always having that over your head in addition to the demands from administration, demands from parents, trying to also be there to support students. It made not only emotional and mental impacts on my life, but also physical and physiological ones—stomachaches, headaches, anxiety, insomnia, lack of appetite. It was just not a good state to live in. At the end of the day, I can’t pour from an empty cup. I can’t be there for my students if I can’t even be there for myself.
Gloria Ogboaloh, ninth-grade math, Round Rock ISD, nine years of experience: I’m rolling with the punches, but I’m tired of getting punched. It shouldn’t be like this. I’m mentoring a new teacher and she’s had COVID twice. And I’m just like, “Girl, it’s not usually like this. There’s high highs, I promise. This is just a low, girl.” So I’m doing what I can to make sure the next generation of teachers doesn’t think it’s always like this, because for some new teachers this is all they’ve experienced. This is all they know. And you see all these inspirational movies like Stand and Deliver and Freedom Riders. You think, “I can be like that.” No you can’t. Not with the pandemic going on. They were dealing with funding issues. We’re dealing with safety. Health.
Stacey Ward, fifth-grade math, Humble ISD, 25 years of experience: This year is like none other for me. I have never had as much stress and as much work that I take home. We’ve got a lot to do. But now I’m finding I’m having to take more of that home at night than I would have before. I almost feel like I’m kind of spinning my wheels at times, like, what am I really doing after school for those three or four hours and then taking it home and getting it done? So it’s really stressful in that way. For the first time in my teaching career, it’s very disheartening for me to think, “This is what I chose.” I’m almost questioning why. And I know that it’s because of the pandemic. And I know it’s because of the mental health of parents and students. You just have to ask for help because if you don’t ask for help, you’re going to drown and it’s going to be the worst year of your life. Because this year is not a true picture of what teaching is. This year is a true picture of survival.
II. On Learning Loss
“We’re trying to teach three years’ worth of education in one.”
The chaos of the last two years has caused significant learning loss for many students, as measured by standardized tests. Now teachers are tasked with getting students caught up in time for the STAAR tests in May. Data from last year’s optional STAAR indicated significant setbacks in test performance; the percentages of students not meeting grade-level requirements increased from 2019 in every category except English I and English II. But some educators don’t like the term “learning loss.” They argue that it implies students weren’t learning during the worst of the pandemic and say it imposes rigid, test-based expectations on a generation that just needs extra help.
Jennan S., fourth- and fifth-grade math, Austin ISD, seven years of experience: It has just been an extremely shitty year for the kids. They show up, they know they’re confused, they know they’re disoriented. And I still have to barrel along teaching fourth-grade skills that they have zero foundation for because the last two years were just total chaos. I know people don’t like to say it, but learning loss is wildly evident. There are always kids that aren’t going to really experience learning loss because they just have strong foundations at home. I think that those kids really came out basically unscathed. But that’s not the majority of them. So they’re just propelling us forward—business as usual, accelerate everything, get in extra homework, extra everything to catch up. But it’s not working, and the kids are just getting tests all the time and failing constantly.
I think it’s unbelievable how much we’re testing them. I think if anything, we should be testing less than ever. I also think it creates this antagonism between teachers and students. When the students do poorly, the teacher’s job gets a lot worse because then they have to start doing all of these prescribed plans and workbooks and, you know, the kids’ lives get worse, too.
Stacey Ward: I have some fifth graders right now who don’t know their multiplication facts. So learning loss is huge. We would normally start at the end of fourth grade, reviewing, and hit the ground running and go up to fifth grade. Now we’re going back and we’re working on third-grade lessons, fourth-grade lessons, fifth-grade lessons. We’re trying to teach three years’ worth of education in one.
Eric Hale, combined first and second grade, Dallas ISD, twelve years of experience: In many districts, administrators came out and their big push was acceleration, acceleration. They say, “Studies show that instead of focusing on remediation, you need to focus on acceleration.” That’s ridiculous. No good teacher worth a grain of salt agrees with that. I have kids that have been in and out of school and all they know was COVID education, and now they’re in second grade. Do you think that I can just open up the second-grade curriculum and just accelerate and teach them second grade? In the state of Texas, kindergarten and pre-K is not mandatory like it is in other states. Maybe you’ve never been to pre-K. You’ve never been to kindergarten. Plus there’s the trauma of COVID. Maybe your beloved grandmother died of COVID. Maybe your dad died. Maybe your mother died. Maybe your brother died. So you’re dealing with all that trauma, plus poverty, plus the lack of nutrition, right? And then you’re going to sit in my classroom and I’m going to act like you know how to read and you know everything that you should have learned in kindergarten and it’s full steam ahead—what sense does that make?
Keren Jackson, eleventh-grade English, San Marcos CISD, sixteen years of experience: We’re in a constant battle to improve our test scores so that the state doesn’t take over, because if the state takes over, they give you a canned curriculum that is really dry. That’s not really what kids need, because kids who are struggling, they’re not struggling because our curriculum isn’t good enough. They’re struggling because of the pandemic or mental health or the fact that we have such a high percentage of kids who receive free and reduced lunch that we just offer it to everyone. I feel like society doesn’t really want to tackle the hard problems that kids really need help with.
III. On Student Behavior
“Not only are we dealing with trying to get them to where they need to be academically, but we’re also counselors.”
Students across Texas spent a good portion of the last couple years in front of a computer—a less-than-ideal arrangement for social and emotional growth. Many Texas students have also experienced trauma and loss during the pandemic, ranging from financial hardships to the deaths of family members. That emotional vortex has threatened to subsume some schools. In addition to trying to help students catch up on their education, teachers have been forced to grapple with angry, bored, and traumatized students. (The phenomenon of TikTok challenges encouraging students to wreck bathrooms hasn’t helped the situation either.)
Stacey Ward: The social and emotional learning that these kids don’t have is a huge stressor. They don’t know how to make friends. They don’t know how to resolve conflict. They don’t know how to apologize. They don’t know how to put certain things behind them and move on. And you can’t learn anything if you’re constantly thinking about how Susie irritated you on the playground. So not only are we dealing with trying to get them to where they need to be academically, but we’re also counselors. We’re also holding their hands, telling them it’s going to be okay. So we are teaching things that aren’t in our curriculum. We’re teaching kids how to get along. We’re teaching kids how to make friends. We’re teaching students conflict resolution. We’re teaching them it’s not okay to stand up in the middle of the class when your teacher is teaching and scream out, “This is boring!”
Keren Jackson: The kids, they aren’t supposed to wander the halls. But there are so many classrooms full of subs and so many kids with all these lingering traumas—not to mention that a lot of kids who don’t love school anyway just didn’t do school for a year and a half, and now they’re forced back to the building. If I feel unsafe at all, it’s because a lot of these really big high school kids who are mad and traumatized are running the hallways. We’ve actually had some incidents where kids go into empty classrooms and have fights or steal or break teachers’ things. Some teachers who are more present in the hallways have had verbal altercations, where kids yell and scream at them. So, I just don’t look people in the eye in the hall. That’s probably the scariest for me.
Gloria Ogboaloh: We are now at the point in the year where kids are wishing COVID on teachers. Kids are making fun of each other for wearing masks. Kids are joking about having COVID. It’s a community thing. It has become more flippant. And I fear for my students who have underlying causes or they can’t say anything. They have to think twice about “Can I go to this class? Am I forced to sit in an assigned seat with someone who is flippant about the matter?” They don’t have as many choices as others are fortunate to have.
IV. On Understaffing, a Sub Shortage, and Covering Classes
“I was an overpaid substitute and an underpaid teacher.”
This school year has seen a tidal wave of teacher absences. Administrators have struggled to keep classrooms staffed due to COVID-related illnesses, teacher retirements, and a dearth of substitute teachers, who tend to be older and more worried about the virus. Certain districts have tried raising pay and lowering qualifications for subs, often to little avail, according to the teachers we spoke with. School districts such as Lewisville and Lockhart ISDs even closed their campuses entirely for several days in late January due to understaffing. When a significant number of both teachers and substitutes have been out, educators still in the building have often been forced to cover those classrooms, giving up their valuable planning periods.
Stacey Ward: Sometimes in a classroom, there’s two different teachers in the same day. Sometimes there’s four teachers in a day. Well, that’s not consistency for the kids. Coming out of an inconsistent two and a half years into a year that’s supposed to be consistent because we’re all back face-to-face, when you’ve got four teachers in and out all day long, there’s no consistency there. Through no fault of our own. It’s just the fact that there are no subs and you can’t just say, “Okay, well, you know what? Just sit down and do these worksheets.” That might have worked three or four years ago. That doesn’t work anymore.
Alex Marquez: As a special education teacher, I was usually in a classroom that had two professionals. And even though my primary job was to provide federally mandated special education services to the students in that room, when there was a teacher shortage, when substitutes did not fill vacancies, I was usually the one that was pulled out of the classroom to go and cover those classes. And so it became where basically I was an overpaid substitute and an underpaid teacher because I was still expected to provide those federally mandated services, but I wasn’t in the room to assist. I wasn’t in the room to do my job. So, I was expected to still produce results without being given the opportunity to be there to implement it.
Gloria Ogboaloh: Statistically, as a math teacher, if I only have to interact with 160 of my own students and then I’m requested to cover someone else’s class, that is increasing my interaction with students who may likely have COVID. And the inconsistency isn’t beneficial to substitutes either, because now they know that they are risking a setting where there are not necessarily safeguards to make sure that every precaution is taken to prevent them catching COVID while there. And unfortunately, some of these subs are the most vulnerable in the community. They’re older. They’re retired.
Keren Jackson: The administration puts out an email that’s like, “Hey, if you’re available, please let me know. We’re trying to get these classes covered.” But if they don’t get the classes covered, those kids are in the library with a bunch of other classes with an adult, or in the gym or the auditorium. So that’s not best for kids, either.
V. On Quitting
“I don’t feel like I get to do any teaching.”
As many Texas teachers came back to the physical classroom in fall 2021, so too came alarming headlines warning of a potential mass exodus of educators. A survey the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers released in February found that two-thirds of teachers had recently considered leaving their jobs. In some districts, such as Austin ISD, resignations have surged, but it’s not yet clear if teachers are quitting, or will quit, at elevated rates across Texas. The most recent data from the Texas Education Agency shows the attrition rate for the 2020–21 school year to be only 9.3 percent—that’s actually down from pre-pandemic levels. But there are penalties for quitting in the middle of the year, so a wave of resignations may come at the end of this year.
Though many of the teachers we spoke to were heartbroken about quitting or retiring early, others said they were determined to stay in the classroom—either out of loyalty to their students, appreciation of the financial security, or a belief that there’s no other field they could reasonably enter. Not everyone agreed that higher pay is a panacea, but they all said teachers needed more respect.
Alex Marquez: I had some students reach out to me after I quit, and they were very honest and they said, “You know, Ms. Marquez, it’s very upsetting not to see you at school.” And that just broke my heart even more. But it brought about that difficult conversation with them, where I said, “It has nothing to do with you guys. I love you guys. If I could do my job and be there for you and we have what we need, I would still be there.” But I had those conversations with some of them explaining that when you find yourself in a position where you are not happy or you are being made to feel inadequate or being made to feel like your word does not count or your word has no value, you need to speak up or get yourself out of that situation. I tried to turn it into somewhat of a learning experience, even then, for them about what your self-worth is and what you deserve, and that you need to chase the things that will treat you right.
Keren Jackson: What else would I do besides teaching, you know? I think that’s one of the things about this profession—my certification and my degree are so limited, and, you know, my pay is not so bad. It’s okay. What else am I going to do where I can make this kind of money as a professional? So, I feel kind of trapped in the profession. I don’t know how people leave. I mean, I’ve got three kids, so it’s not like I can take big risks. But also maybe because I have kids, that’s another reason to stay. My kids are in this district and I’m trying to improve it from within. I want them to have teachers like me who care about them. And that’s what I stay for. But I think I’d be crazy to never think about leaving. It’s rough. This is a hard, hard career. It’s emotionally taxing and physically taxing.
Amy Lou Carothers, eleventh-grade history, Paradise ISD, 29 years of experience: The irony of Governor Abbott directing the Texas Education Agency to create a task force addressing teacher shortages on March 7 speaks to the timeliness of this article. I had an experience yesterday that reminded me of why I have stayed in Paradise ISD all these years. I went to the front office and our secretary’s son, a former student, was sitting across from her desk. I put my hand on his shoulder to say “Hello” and he stood up and took off his hat, as gentlemen and cowboys do, and gave me a big hug. We are family here in Paradise, and that is what I will miss the most when I retire in May 2023. But it is the audacity of the governor creating a “task force” to figure out why teachers are leaving that answers the question, “Why are teachers leaving?”
Jennan S.: I’ll finish out the year. But yeah, I don’t see a way out of it. I feel like all the different metrics that would have to shift, none of them seem like they’re going to shift. Okay, so my income isn’t going to shift because that’s the whole legislative process. So I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Then, the high-stakes testing culture, it’s going to have to shift. Hard to imagine that with the fact that I’m going to be dealing with the repercussions of COVID for so many years.
Then there’s the social work stuff that’s constantly getting more and more and more pushed on me. I mean, that’s always been a part of the job, but I feel like it’s become a very big part of the job. So that’s limiting my time to actually grade stuff or make lesson plans or do the things that would make me a more effective teacher. And I’m constantly getting my schedule steamrolled to do testing.
The district is doing this thing, too, where they know nobody has time, so they’ve been pumping out these kinds of industrial-strength lesson plans that you can just pick up and use. They’re totally scripted out, ready to go. And they have to do this because soon there’s only going to be first-year teachers. It just feels like my job is being automated. I’m so replaceable at this point, because they have these scripted lesson plans and I do a shitload of test administration. They kind of just need me as a babysitter-slash–social worker. I don’t feel like I get to do any teaching. It’s like I have no autonomy.
Eric Hale: You’re really starting to see the rubber meet the road when it comes to the teachers that know how to navigate these types of situations at a high level. And you have to take a gut check. Are you going to use COVID and allow COVID to contain your aspirations for the children that you serve? Or are you going to keep fighting? My goal is for my kids to thrive. And this is just another obstacle that we have to work through to make that happen. I don’t have the luxury of crying in public or crying in the classroom in front of my students. They need everything I got to give them, and I’m trying.