Texas lawmakers want to raise teachers’ pay. Will it help keep them in the classroom?

Matthew Busch/Bloomberg

As school districts across Texas struggle to recruit enough teachers to staff their classrooms, state lawmakers are considering offering educators a pay raise in hopes of attracting more candidates to the profession.

Teachers and the district officials in Fort Worth say they would welcome an increase in teacher pay. But there are other ways they say the state could attract more teachers and retain more of the experienced educators it already has — things like better benefits, more mentorship and support for new teachers, and a workload that doesn’t require them to spend hours in the evenings and on weekends grading papers and making lesson plans.

“I think that (a pay raise is) a good step in the right direction,” said Stephanie Delgadillo, a science teacher at Riverside Middle School in the Fort Worth Independent School District. “But I think there’s also a lot of things that could be done that would create a happier environment for teachers in general.”

House Democrats propose $15,000 teacher pay raise

Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, filed a bill last month that would give teachers an across-the-board raise of $15,000, as well as a 25% pay bump to school support staff across the state. During a Jan. 24 press conference with House Democrats, Talarico, a former teacher, said the pay raise was long overdue. Talarico said he struggled to make ends meet while working as a sixth-grade teacher in San Antonio. He saw other teachers at his school drive for Uber or sell plasma to try to pay their bills, he said.

Talarico acknowledged that the amount of the pay raise Democrats are proposing would likely come down during negotiations with House Republicans. But Talarico said he’s already discussed the proposal with House Speaker Dade Phelan, who is also concerned about the state of the teaching profession. Talarico said he hadn’t yet discussed the proposal with Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, but Abbott has said publicly that he hopes to use part of the budget surplus to provide more money to public schools and to teacher salaries.

Low pay isn’t the only challenge that teachers have to contend with, Talarico said. He pointed to the constant threat of school shootings, historic learning loss following the pandemic and an escalating mental health crisis among students as other issues that teachers have to navigate. House Democrats will have other proposals to address those other challenges, as well, he said.

“This is certainly not the only solution that we’re offering,” Talarico said. “It’s just one piece of the puzzle in order to save the teaching profession, save our students and save our schools.”

More teachers left the profession after COVID

Nationwide, school districts have struggled to retain teachers over the past few years, at least in part because of the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. By last summer’s resignation deadline, Fort Worth ISD received 1,084 resignations from teachers, a 50% uptick over the 722 resignations it received the previous summer.

The district currently has about 225 vacant teacher positions, 45 of which are filled by long-term substitutes who are in the final stages of earning their teaching certificates, Raúl Peña, the district’s chief talent officer, said in an email. The district has offered a number of bonuses and incentives to attract new teaching candidates, and those have played a key role in filling vacant positions, Peña said. In particular, about 97% of the teachers who received a “welcome home” bonus the district offers to new hires who are Fort Worth ISD graduates stayed in the district, he said, in large part because they already have personal ties to the area.

Despite encouraging signs from the bonus program, Peña said he’s concerned about a nationwide decline in the number of people interested in a career in education since the beginning of the pandemic. Aside from a teacher pay raise, he’d also like to see lawmakers look into increasing the state’s contribution to teachers’ health insurance. He also hopes to see the legislature approve a cost-of-living adjustment for retired teachers, he said.

Mentorship could keep new teachers in the classroom

Delgadillo, the Riverside Middle School science teacher, said she would welcome any pay raise the legislature approves. She thinks the pay raise would be a good step forward to retaining experienced teachers and attracting new educators to the profession. Delgadillo has two master’s degrees and 20 years of experience. She knows she could be making more money doing something else, she said, but she’s committed to a career as a teacher. But for people who are considering a career in education as one of several options, the starting salary may be enough to cause them to decide on something else, she said.

Still, there are other things the state and local districts could do to retain the teachers they already have, especially the ones who are only a few years into their careers, she said. She’s seen new teachers leave the profession after a difficult first year because they didn’t feel like they had anywhere to turn for support. It can be intimidating for new employees in any line of work to go to their supervisors and say that they’re struggling, she said. It’s no different for teachers, she said — even if they have supportive administrators in their building, rookie teachers are unlikely to want to go to their principals for help if they feel like they’re floundering.

“It’s uncomfortable,” she said. “Nobody wants to go tell their boss they don’t know how to do what they’re supposed to do.”

Delgadillo said a good solution to that could be paying more experienced teachers to act as mentors to those just coming into the profession. Most veteran teachers would be happy to help their younger colleagues, she said, and, in fact, most teachers at her school already try to offer support when they can. But doing it in any intentional way requires a time investment, she said. Because of the way school days are structured at most schools, those conversations between mentor teachers and younger educators would typically need to happen after school, she said.

If the state or local districts didn’t want to pay for experienced teachers to meet with younger colleagues after school hours, they might be able to encourage the same thing through creative scheduling, she said. At Riverside, math and English teachers have two off periods each day — their regular planning periods, where they plan lessons and grade papers, and also a second period where they meet with other teachers in their subject areas to talk about what’s working and what isn’t. The district could schedule similar off periods for first-year teachers to meet with their mentors, without having to do so after school, she said.

Another possible way to attract people to the profession is offering better health care coverage, Delgadillo said. She has friends in other careers who work for companies that cover 100% of their health care premiums, she said, meaning they only pay if they have dependents who are also on their plans. Delgadillo has 159 students this year, which means 159 people with whom she’s sharing germs five days a week. She’d like to be able to know she could go to the doctor if she gets sick without having to worry about the cost, she said.

Teachers spend hours working after work

Steven Poole, executive director of the United Educators Association of Texas, said he was skeptical that House Democrats could get a $15,000 pay raise across the finish line. Still, the proposal represents a starting point, he said. He also noted that Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have also discussed the need for a pay raise for teachers and school staff. He’s hopeful that both sides will work together to come up with a solution.

But pay isn’t the only factor driving teachers out of the classroom, Poole said. Many teachers across the state are suffering from burnout, he said. That’s mostly due to an unreasonable workload, he said. Teachers start their school days early in the morning, but their work doesn’t end when students leave for the day.

“They’re working every night and on the weekends, preparing lessons, grading papers, and they just don’t have enough time in the day to get the work done that’s required of them,” he said.

If the state wants to attract new teachers into the profession, it needs to find a way to allow them to have a healthy work-life balance, Poole said. School districts compete not only with other districts, but also with the private sector for employees, he said. While the expectation that teachers spend nearly all of their waking hours focused on their jobs may have worked decades ago, it’s now leading people who might otherwise consider a career in education to look elsewhere, he said.

If the state wants to solve that problem, it needs to make more time during the day for teachers to do things like grade papers and plan lessons, he said. Smaller class sizes would help, he said, but so would creative scheduling. At the elementary level, that could mean offering more special classes like art, music and P.E. Schools could also have their students spend more time in the library, he said. While that would mean less time spent on regular classroom instruction, he said, if teachers had smaller classes, they could make up for it with more individualized learning.

Poole pointed to the number of districts that have experimented with a four-day school week as an example of creative thinking. Hundreds of districts across the country, including several in Texas, have switched to a four-day week in an effort to attract teachers. The Mineral Wells and Chico school districts, both about 50 miles from Fort Worth, switched to a four-day calendar at the beginning of the current school year. Also nearby, the Anna and Terrell school districts will make the change at the beginning of the upcoming school year.

The move is most common among small, rural districts that struggle to compete for teachers with bigger districts nearby. Those districts take one extra day off a week, usually Friday, and add hours to the other four days to make up for it. That extra day gives teachers more time to grade papers, plan lessons and make calls to parents — tasks they’d otherwise do in the evenings and on weekends.

Poole acknowledged that a four-day school week wouldn’t work everywhere, but said it’s a sign those districts are willing to think creatively to attract better educators. The state and local districts will need to do more of that kind of creative thinking if they hope to solve the teacher shortage, he said.

“We’re going to have to really think outside the box to find more… ways to attract teachers into the profession,” he said. “And maybe that will keep some of them around.”