Solving the teacher retention crisis: Give teachers the respect they deserve
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When the Texas American Federation of Teachers (AFT) surveyed its members in November, an astounding 66% of teachers and school staff who responded said they were considering leaving their profession. And that was before the Omicron COVID surge in January and before the devastating attack on the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Yes, low pay and overwork were the two most significant pressures pushing them to leave at that point. Most other states are experiencing the same challenges in retaining teachers. We’ve known that even before the chaos and instability of the pandemic, educators were suffering from overwork and low wages. But the pandemic exacerbated the problem and brought us to the crises we face now for teacher retention.
Other layers causing stress also contribute to teachers questioning their profession. You have the excessive test prep and punitive standardized testing system. There are the constant attacks from some elected officials branding teachers as pedophiles, groomers, indoctrinators, or librarians as purveyors of pornography. And now, tragically, there’s fear—the fear that inaction from our leaders will make their schools targets for mass shootings.
Using data starting in 2010, Texas AFT and Every Texan evaluated how salaries kept up with the cost of living in our state. The resulting joint report, “The Lost Decade: Texas schools are underfunded & facing devastating staffing shortages,” is grim. On average and adjusted for inflation, educators are making four percent less than in 2010. Averages don’t tell the whole story. For example, San Antonio Independent School District teachers are making nine percent less and Houston Independent School District teachers 13% less.
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The latest stats from 2019 also show that college graduates in similar professions make about 20% more than our nation’s teachers.
Many school staff positions — custodians and food service workers, for example—are still working at poverty-level wages.
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When asked by a reporter whether he would commit to raising salaries for teachers, our governor—Greg Abbott—responded that he and our Legislature had already provided a large pay raise with school finance legislation in 2019. Yes, a scant few teachers did get healthy raises, but others didn’t even get enough to cover rising premiums for their district-sponsored health insurance.
Some states like New Mexico have stepped up to the plate to confront low pay head-on with significant pay increases statewide. Others have not. And in Texas, the governor’s response to the problem has been to create a task force on teacher retention and recruitment. This task force will merely rehash what our “Lost Decade” report already confirms about the need to respect educators and pay them for their hard work.
So what’s the solution? How do we show educators the respect they deserve? States need to increase their funding annually to public education to stave off inflation. That ensures that schools are equipped to educate our kids, but it also acts to increase teacher pay.
Our Texas legislators had an opportunity to increase funding in its last session in 2021, but instead, they did nothing—leaving local districts scrambling to cobble together funding for whatever modest raises they could afford. That indifference to educators needs to stop.
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We also need to respect educators as professionals who are devoted to their students. That means stopping the heinous political attacks like the witch hunt for supposed Critical Race Theory instruction. Surveys of parents nationwide show widespread and significant support for schools and teachers, but the headlines read differently. The result: Our teachers feel insulted and devalued.
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And now the new layer of stress—fears of more mass shootings—has to be addressed. Congress must pass commonsense laws on gun access to at least put some roadblocks in place to stop the violence. It’s unthinkable that these solutions are ignored or shunned by some of our members of Congress, who instead turn to the faulty notion of arming more teachers.
When we surveyed our school employees after the Uvalde killings, 77% said they did not want to be armed to confront assailants. Sadly, just under half said the Uvalde massacre would affect their decision-making on staying in teaching.
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Respecting educators as professionals and ensuring they are safe will go a long way to retaining them. Let’s not stumble down the path of another “Lost Decade” as Texas has.