The heartbreak of being a teacher in Texas

Photo by Joel Martinez

On Aug. 15, teachers in the Del Valle Independent School District return to the classroom, but most of us will go back earlier. We love our students, and we cannot wait to prepare for their arrival. As we return to our classrooms, we always notice those who do not: experienced teachers who have left, whose loss is a loss for our students.

Coming back means looking at back-to-school sales to purchase supplies. Each year, I spend at least $200 for my ninth-grade English classroom, but elementary teachers and science teachers spend much more. My sister, who teaches pre-kindergarten, goes to Wal-Mart every other week during the school year to buy supplies for her classroom.           

Going back to work means going back to a 50- or 60-hour workweek. At Del Valle High School, our contract hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but we stay until 5:30 p.m. once a week to tutor. We arrive early to prepare our classrooms. We stay late or take work home to update grades, perfect lessons and prepare activities. We stay later for athletic events, fine arts performances and parent meetings. We work at least one day most weekends.

When you work with students every day, you learn that each one is unique. We do not have standardized students, and recognizing the challenges each student deals with requires experience, time and individual attention, which are in short supply in an era of standardized testing and crowded classrooms. Teachers must navigate these challenges while meeting the demands of our school’s unique culture.

We are bleeding experienced educators who create a school community, and if we do not stanch the wound, students will suffer.           

When teachers leave, students lose role models and academic support. Collaborative planning teams lose educators who know the curriculum, have had success and have built team unity. As a fifth-year teacher, I have been at Del Valle High School longer than 90 percent of my department. My English I team has had 60 percent turnover three years in a row, and student achievement has not yet matched performance prior to that turnover.

Our teachers are leaving because of the demands on our time and salaries that do not compensate us for our time. This year I received a 3 percent cost-of-living increase, but during my first two years on the job, my “raise” was the annual salary step increase, about $10 per paycheck.

Our teachers are leaving because we work second jobs or summer jobs to support our families, losing time needed to reflect, plan and become better educators. 

Our teachers are leaving because high-stakes testing robs children of the joy of learning. My students take a STAAR-style test in every subject, tested or not, each six weeks. We write curriculum around the exam. Teachers, especially in low-income schools, are shackled to the demands of the test. Students view education as being about tests, not learning.

Our teachers are leaving because our health care plans are unaffordable. For some, full family care costs more per month than their mortgage. Less costly high-deductible plans require enrollees to meet a $2,500 deductible before anything is covered outside of federal requirements. One of my co-workers worked 20 hours per week at a second job to offset health care costs, only to have a doctor say that second job was endangering his health. My district has tried to address this issue, but the state has not increased its $75 monthly contribution for teacher health care since 2002.

On Aug. 15, I will return for my fifth year in the classroom, but it may be my last. I don’t want to leave. I love teaching. I love my students. I love knowing they leave my classroom with new knowledge. But time demands, salary constraints, poor health care, and the heartbreak of hearing that my class is “just about the test” make it hard to teach and have a healthy family life. As a community, we must work together to change the culture of education so teachers no longer have to consider leaving the students and the work we love.

Katie Plemmons

Former high school teacher

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