HISD teaching - from Facebook

A teacher instructs a student reading a book. The district is among those still experiencing an abnormal number of teaching vacancies as the school year gets closer. (Photo from Facebook)

Oak Forest resident Gabriel Perez stumbled into teaching in 1993 by way of substituting, and fell in love with the profession.

But nearly 29 years later, the local resident said he is planning to leave the profession and retire soon  – despite still being in love with teaching – because the conditions are not getting any better.

“I had amazing opportunities and exposure to things not in my everyday life. It changed my world for the better, and I want to do the same,” said Perez, who currently teaches choir in Pasadena. “I still have the same will (to do it). It’s just more difficult due to several factors.”

And Perez isn’t alone. As the school year begins in a little over a month, both the state of Texas and many school districts in the Houston region are facing continued shortages of educators. A May report from Newsweek said a statewide 2021 poll conducted of Texas teachers revealed 68 percent of those polled are considering leaving the profession. The report said that number was up from 58 percent the previous year.

Houston ISD had 874 certified teacher job openings listed on its website as of Tuesday morning, and had more than 5,600 applicants for open positions since Jan. 1 of this year according to HISD spokesperson Dennis Spellman

“We've attracted hundreds more candidates for teaching positions this year than last year,” Spellman said in an email Tuesday. “At the same time, HISD is not immune to the national impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on teachers and other educators.”

Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson said last week that such a high vacancy number is abnormally high, as there are normally about 600-700 openings at this time.

“I am concerned about the high numbers but not alarmed,” Anderson said. “…This year we are close to the last days for teachers to resign without penalty. Therefore, teachers who may have been on the fence have tenured their resignations.”

While the reasons for walking away may vary from person to person, Perez cited “state-level issues of cutting funding,” for programs as well as financial inequalities for students and more. 

“My heart is breaking,” he said. “It’s difficult to watch and see. …I’m running out of emotional battery. It’s difficult to watch and not be heard.”

Oak Forest resident Chris Wolman, a ninth-year teacher entering his first year with HISD at nearby Frank Black Middle School, had similar sentiments. He also mentioned factors such as a lack of teacher unity, state pension problems and teacher workplace protection, among others, as key factors for the shortage and teachers leaving.

“(Kids) are the only part that keeps any lifelong educator in the game,” he said.

Wolman said he believes the state has its own education issues. However, he also said that the nationwide shortage shows it is not something unique to HISD and other Houston-area or Texas districts. And he said that HISD is doing its part to try and help put a dent in the shortage locally.

Improvement efforts

On June 11, the district approved an 11 percent pay raise. HISD’s starting salary is now $61,500, according to certified job listings on its website.

“We know HISD is a destination district within the region, and our teachers are committed to their students,” HISD superintendent Millard House II earlier this year following the salary raise announcement. “We must honor their commitment, which is what this plan aims to do.”

The district then announced on July 7 that it has also begun to offer an alternative certification program for those wanting to change careers and become a teacher. HISD is also offering $2,000 signing bonuses for teachers, according to Spellman, and $5,000 stipends for special education/bilingual special education teachers as well as those in “critical shortage” areas.

HISD’s Alternative Certification Program is a one-year program dedicated to “recruiting individuals from diverse educational and career backgrounds who are passionate about students, teaching, and learning,” according to the district. It will be free to anyone who accepts a teaching job in HISD.

“I think HISD did teachers right by increasing everyone’s pay…I also think certifying teachers during their first year is a great way to help those (people) become teachers,” Wolman said. “It won’t address the shortage completely, but should make a percentile dent in the field.”

Both Wolman and Perez cited the aforementioned inequality in state financial resources among schools in the respective districts as key factors in teachers’ frustrations, though Wolman credited current HISD superintendent Millard House II for his efforts to listen to the teachers even if a practical solution might not yet be readily available.

According to the Education Data Initiative, Texas public schools receive a little more than $9,000 in funding per student each year. But Wolman and Perez believe that the state needs to increase the allotted revenue per student in order to address and alleviate the impacts of inherent inequities between schools, with Wolman saying such an increase would help any struggling school district along with its teachers and schools.

According to the Education Data Initiative, public schools throughout the U.S. have anywhere from $8,000 to nearly $25,000 per student in funding.

“His job is not easy, and is the first one with a target on his back (with these issues),” Wolman said. “(A lot of that) gets thrown up to a man like our superintendent. I just want to see equity and equality be given to students of public schools…There are a lot of schools across this district and state that need equal and equitable funding.”

Anderson said HFT is working with school districts to do just that and ensure that its students have access to a quality education while providing its educators with ample resources.

“We are optimistic that our students will not have to return in the fall with substitutes and combined classes,” Anderson said. “We want the best for our students and the best working conditions for our teachers.”

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