Principal Rocio Gardea sat at a folding table near the front of the auditorium, shuffling her papers. The pressure was on.
A sign hanging above her spelled out the stakes. “We are looking for… 2nd gen ed, 3rd-5th ESL, 5th bilingual.”
It was less than two weeks before her school opened to children, and this Dallas ISD job fair was Gardea’s last shot to find the educators needed to staff each classroom. Nine Seagoville North Elementary teachers — out of a 43-person force — decided not to return this fall.
“There’s always a lot of anxiety around the first day of school, and they want to know that this is the person that’s going to be with them all year long,” she said.
Schools across Texas are feeling the same squeeze amid a national teacher shortage. Administrators have upped recruitment efforts with multiple job fairs; offered signing bonuses; leaned into shorter work weeks; and turned to retirees and career-changers — or even non-certified candidates — to fill the gaps.
Texas — and the nation — doesn’t track shortages in real time, and numbers fluctuate daily. But teacher retirements and attrition rates have risen in recent years.
Texas employed 376,086 classroom teachers for the 2021-22 school year, according to the Texas Education Agency. But nearly 12% of them left the profession during that same year, up from about 10% in recent years.
The state had more than 8,600 teachers retire in 2021 — about 1,000 more than the previous year. Retirement data is not yet available for 2022, though it appears to be tracking closer to average, according to an agency presentation to the state’s Teacher Vacancy Task Force.
Meanwhile, districts across the state reported ongoing hiring efforts well into the 2021-22 school year.
The pandemic put added pressure on educators who have long said low pay, deep student needs and political pressures make their jobs more difficult. School leaders said they’ve lost staff to neighboring districts as gas prices cause employees to seek jobs closer to home.
The Texas State Teachers Association on Monday released results showing that 70% of members surveyed said they “were seriously considering leaving the profession as they ended a difficult school year” last spring.
At DISD’s recent hiring event, principals like Gardea carried legal pads, posters and dry-erase boards, all scrawled with open positions: English, Algebra, special ed, librarian, art teacher.
And like Seagoville North, many schools are desperate for bilingual educators or those who can teach English as a second language.
As of the first week of August, DISD officials said they had about 98% of teaching positions filled with roughly 220 vacancies remaining, though the numbers continue to shift.
Long-term substitutes are on standby in case Gardea can’t fill every spot by Aug. 15. But she knows that families want consistency when it comes to who is responsible for their little ones’ learning.
Garland ISD is looking for about the same number of teachers as Dallas, superintendent Ricardo López said. Still the district, which employs about 3,600 teachers, struggles with “constant turnover” as do many area schools.
“We’re hiring retirees from anywhere,” López said. “So if you’re a retiree, we’re hiring. We’re hiring degreed people. Everybody’s been innovative in their pay structures.”
Gov. Greg Abbott recently assembled a task force to develop solutions addressing teacher shortages.
The vacancies this year aren’t a surprise for most school leaders. The number of new educators graduating from teacher prep programs has been on the decline nationally for years.
A report by the American Federation of Teachers found that 40% of the union’s members surveyed in June said they may leave their job in the next two years. Meanwhile, Texas teachers reported they were considering leaving the profession at an even higher rate.
TSTA’s recent survey echoed results from a November poll by the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers that found 66% of respondents had considered leaving the profession within the past year.
Just because someone indicates on a survey they plan to leave does not mean they will end up doing so.
Teacher burnout isn’t the only challenge for districts, though. The number of people wanting to go into teaching is also declining. Meanwhile, efforts to recruit teachers, especially bilingual teachers from other places or internationally, are often held up by red tape.
“Our biggest dilemma is that the university systems are not developing [new] teachers,” López said.
Gardea, who is starting her fifth year as principal, said it’s unusual to have so many vacancies so close to the first day of school. The competition is fierce.
“We have had situations where I recommended someone, but then an hour later, they got called by a school that was closer to them or offering them a grade level that they were more interested in,” she said. “So then I’m back to the drawing board.”
She’s refined her pitch for why teachers should choose Seagoville North, a school where more than half of students are learning English as a second language and about 90% come from low-income families.
Seagoville has a small-town feel, she stresses. It’s tight-knit but still seeing rapid growth. Hundreds of new homes were just built behind her school, she adds.
And she’s working with the district to revamp the campus courtyard and turn it into a massive garden and outdoor learning space.
“The parents are great. The students are great,” Gardea told potential teachers. “They’re eager to learn.”
A week before the job fair, she interviewed two candidates in one afternoon. One told Gardea that the hour-long commute to Seagoville would be too much. Another was quickly offered a position at a different school that was a better fit.
On a recent weekday, Gardea sent six emails to bilingual candidates. She didn’t hear back from most of them.
The need for teachers who speak Spanish is deep, especially in a district like Dallas that serves huge numbers of immigrant families. The district is recruiting internationally and sponsors visas for educators.
At the last job fair, as soon as one woman walked through the auditorium doors — wearing a name tag that indicated she was bilingüe — a DISD staff member swooped in, whisking her away immediately for an interview.
Many Texas school districts have raised salaries and doled out bonuses.
Richardson teachers saw up to a 5% pay increase depending on their years of service as well as a $1,500 to $2,000 retention bonus this year.
“Our teachers play a critical role in supporting students, and we don’t take that for granted. Once a teacher has chosen [Richardson ISD], it’s critical that the district provide a compensation and benefits environment that encourages those years of experience to remain in [the district],” Chris Goodson, assistant superintendent of human resources for RISD, said in an email.
RISD has about 130 vacancies, spread across elementary, middle and high school campuses. That’s about 4.6% of all teacher positions, Goodson said, and similar to what vacancies have looked like the past two years within weeks of the new school year.
Fort Worth offered new educators a variety of sign-on bonuses to encourage them to commit, including a $1,000 bonus for all new teachers, early signing bonuses and a $500 incentive for those who are graduates of a FWISD high school.
Other districts aren’t as concerned.
Frisco has hired more than 800 new teachers for the coming school year, with only about 80 vacancies left, according to Meghan Cone, assistant communications director for the district.
“It is not unusual for us to be hiring up to the first day of school, after the school year has started and mid-year,” Cone said, though the district is seeing fewer applicants than in years past.
Keller increased its first-year teacher salary to $59,000 annually this spring. As of Aug. 1, that district only had 39 staff vacancies out of about 2,600 classroom positions.
DISD boosted its starting teacher salary to $60,000 and is offering a $2,000 hiring incentive. On top of that, new hires can earn bonuses for teaching in high-need subjects.
The district is also reimbursing candidates for some of the costs of going through an alternative certification program, a pathway for people who are changing careers to start teaching if they didn’t go through a traditional college program.
DISD trustees approved a waiver in June that allows elementary schools to hire recruits without a teaching certification, as long as they do training during the school year and hit certain academic benchmarks, such as having a college degree.
Some board members worried about the idea of putting uncertified educators into the youngest grades, where children are building crucial academic foundations.
“We are going to do everything possible to make sure that, with our own training program, they’re going to have the skills they need to manage a classroom,” said Robert Abel, human capital management department chief.
Recruiting certified teachers remains the goal, Abel said, but the waiver will help reduce vacancies. He noted other nearby districts made a similar move.
“We’re not choosing this alternative because we don’t want certified teachers in every single classroom,” trustee Dan Micciche said. “We’re choosing this as a tool because we can’t get enough certified teachers in every classroom. So what’s better?”
Gardea’s head swiveled, taking in the packed Conrad High School auditorium. She locked eyes with a woman in a green dress — Seagoville North’s color — and waved her over.
The candidate clicked instantly: Alexzandria Barrett is a product of Dallas public schools, just like Gardea.
Barrett worked as a Dallas substitute teacher right out of college and later shifted to a job with a federal school readiness program. She recently earned her master’s degree, she told Gardea, as she handed over her resume.
Barrett is working on getting certified, meaning she could come into the district under the waiver.
Shortly after she sat down, Gardea knew Barrett was the right fit for her second graders. The two women shook hands: “I’m looking forward to working with you,” Gardea told her.
The next person to sit down was a certified teacher who recently moved from a different part of Texas. She speaks Spanish and lives just a short drive from Seagoville.
With another handshake and a hug, two of Gardea’s positions were tentatively filled.
After securing job offers at the fair, soon-to-be DISD teachers must pass background checks and other processes. It’s not guaranteed the paperwork will be done in time for the first day of school, though district staff is working to get it done quickly.
With 12 minutes left in the job fair, the folding chairs across from Gardea were empty. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” started playing over the speakers.
Gardea packed it in shortly after. Two teacher slots remained unfilled.
Copyright (c) 2022, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.