The walls of Dr. Selena Smith’s home office are decorated with awards for service from her years of teaching in Dallas ISD. A sign on her desk reads "inspire."
"My parents are both educators, my aunts are all educators," Smith said. "I'm an educator to my core. I'm a teacher to my core."
Smith worked for Dallas ISD for 16 years, and as a teacher at Frank Guzick Elementary School for 11 of those years.
"Not only were the kids my family, but my coworkers and my colleagues were also my family -- so it was wonderful," she said.
But this year, while feeling frustrated that she wasn’t being heard from district leaders on how to help students in the face of learning loss, she quit.
"It’s a hard job, but it’s also a heart job," Smith said. "So, whenever I felt like the heart of the job was broken, then I felt like it was time for me to leave. When I’m overworked, when I’m undervalued, it was like I have to figure out a way to make an impact -- and inside the system is not working."
Smith is far from alone in that sentiment. Rather, her experience fits neatly within a nationwide trend that’s hit Texas especially hard, and in the process, created a crisis in schools.
Steven Poole saw it coming.
Poole leads the United Educators Association, which represents teachers in 43 districts across North Texas.
"We’re seeing more people leaving the profession this year than any other year," he said. "They’re burned out, and that is something that school districts and the state are going to have to address. They are just absolutely burned out."
Teacher turnover across North Texas:
WFAA filed open records requests with a dozen districts across North Texas and the state to get a picture of the teacher turnover that districts both large and small are experiencing.
On average, retirements and resignations from January to July of 2022 were 48% higher than the average of the previous four years, from 2018 to 2021.
"It is a perfect storm right now, and they’re fed up, and they’re leaving the professions in droves," Poole said.
In Dallas ISD, where Smith taught, the district averaged 838 teachers retiring or resigning from 2018 through 2021. But, in 2022, 1,305 teachers left -- a 56% increase.
Other larger local districts saw similar numbers. Plano ISD averaged 481 teachers resigning or retiring in the four-year period, but 678 teachers leaving this year -- a 41% increase. Frisco ISD averaged 941 teachers leaving from 2018 to 2021, then experienced a 46% increase this year when 1,374 teachers resigned or retired.
Attempts to fix the problem:
Josue Tamarez Torres is in charge of fixing the problem -- at least partly.
Torres is both a fourth grade Dallas ISD teacher at César Chávez Learning Center and the chair of the TEA’s Teacher Vacancy Task Force.
That entity was set up this spring after districts across the state closed due to COVID-related staffing concerns. Some districts attempted to solve this issue by moving to four-day weeks. Others, like Richardson ISD, asked parents to fill in as volunteers.
Other states have tried equally unusual options. In Arizona, schools are allowing college students to teach classes. In Florida, they're recruiting military veterans -- even ones without a bachelor’s degree -- to teach.
"We might be talking about teachers, but we’re really talking about children," said Torres, who just started his 11th year working in Dallas ISD. "It is definitely a big issue."
Initially, the Teacher Vacancy Task Force didn’t include any teachers like Torres in its ranks. But the state added him and two dozen others in the spring.
The task force has met once as a full group to date, but will meet again this month.
"I accepted this [position] because I think we can come up with a couple actionable solutions to this issue," Torres said. "This is really complex. Everyone has a different theory."
Torres wants to focus on retaining first- and second-year teachers -- a factor that, studies indicate, means they’ll likely stay for the long term -- while also improving the less-discussed issue of teacher health care plans. This year, plan costs couples around $1,200 per month.
"Because the health care cost goes up exponentially, they say, 'OK, I’m just going to leave the profession and find a job that’s going to pay me the same -- but at least I'll have health care,'" Torres said.
Added Poole: "The health care the state offers school districts and teachers is terrible. It's always something that has been terrible, and teachers have been complaining about that for years."
Pay is the issue that looms largest, however.
A University of Houston study found that pay for teachers with a decade of experience dropped from $54,285 to $53,719 from the 2010-2011 school year to the 2018-2019 academic year.
A TEA presentation, though, shows that overall median pay has moved from just under $55,000 a year to just over $60,000 a year from 2017 to 2021.
"I am worried," Torres said. "I’m worried as an educator, as a father."
Houston ISD, which raised its salaries by $5,000 this year, was the only district WFAA received data from that saw retirements and resignations drop in 2022 compared to its four-year average. Whereas 1,291 teachers retired or resigned in 2022, the district lost an average of 1,344 teachers between 2018-2021 -- meaning their numbers actually saw a four percent decline.
Still, as of early August, Houston ISD had more than 800 teacher vacancies it needed to fill.
On Aug. 1, meanwhile, Fort Worth ISD had more than 300 openings. By Aug. 17, however, a district spokesperson said they were down to 230 vacancies -- in part due to adding in pay incentives like $5,000 for bilingual teachers, $3,000 for special education teachers and $3,000 for secondary math, English, science or language arts teachers.
Fort Worth saw less of a spike of teachers leaving in 2022 than other districts in the area, with 708 retiring or resigning from January to July of 2022 -- an 11 percent increase of its four-year average, but still down significantly from the 48% average of the dozen statewide districts WFAA studied.
Strain between teachers and parents:
The Texas Education Agency already showed a jump in retirements and resignations before the 2021-2022 school year.
"Most of our school districts here in North Texas are going to have classrooms without teachers in them, and they’re going to have to scramble," Poole said. "It’s going to affect the education of the students greatly."
It’s not just money driving teachers away. In the past five years, for nearly every district, resignations and retirements were at their lowest in 2020. At the time, educators were lauded as heroes on the frontlines of the COVID fight.
"You needed teachers, you needed people who were the first-responders -- and then, when it came to 2021, it was like you forgot the value that we held," Smith said.
First, Gov. Greg Abbott banned districts from requiring masks in schools. Then, last year, school staff tested positive for COVID at twice the rate of Texans as a whole.
At the same time, school board meetings have become filled with vitriol towards teachers and librarians, particularly in suburban districts. And debates started to spring up over how race and sex should be taught, with teachers becoming criticized for reading diverse and long-established literature.
"You have politicians who are demonizing them, calling them 'groomers' or [saying] that they're indoctrinating their students," Poole said.
In November of 2021, Abbott asked TEA commissioner Mike Morath to investigate pornography in public schools. Roughly a year after that request, the TEA said it was not aware of a single arrest or closed investigation into the issue.
Most recently and tragically, school safety has been top of mind for educators. The TEA’s Teacher Vacancy Task Force first met in early June, just days after the Uvalde mass shooting where 19 children and two teachers were killed. Torres said the meeting began with educators sharing thoughts and condolences.
“School is a place where [children] go to find that safety, and instead that isn’t what we saw in Uvalde," he said. "I’m afraid because of the students I teach. I’ll do everything I can to protect those kids."
An AFT survey found 66% of teachers are ready to leave their jobs. Then, this month, the Texas State Teachers Association similarly found that 70% feel on the verge of quitting -- the highest mark reported in the 40 years they’ve done the survey. A full 85% also said they didn’t feel support from state lawmakers.
"There are a lot of people where this was their dream job that have left," Smith said.
Poole concurred: "If you talk to teachers and ask them privately, 'Would you ever recommend that your own children go into the teaching profession?,' overwhelmingly they’ll tell you, 'No.'"
Torres said the TEA Teacher Vacancy Task Force did not discuss debates around politics and curriculums in its first meeting. Instead, ideas focused around how help fill hard-to-staff positions like special education workers, bilingual teacher openings and AP class instructors in rural areas.
Smaller, suburban districts have seen the fiercest battles over race, library books and curriculums.
In Carroll ISD, which is currently facing five federal civil rights investigations regarding discrimination, resignations and retirements in 2022 were up 40% compared to the previous four-year average.
Grapevine-Colleyville ISD made national news when the district’s first Black principal was placed on leave after being accused of teaching critical race theory when he sent a note to families after the death of George Floyd. The district also saw a 40% jump in retirements and resignations this year.
Keller ISD and Granbury ISD also both dealt with repeated book-banning controversies -- and, in turn, saw retirements and resignations rise 59% and 115% higher in 2022, respectively, compared to the previous four-year average.
'A vicious cycle':
Poole believes the education crisis is partly intentional.
State lawmakers have made clear their desires to see more charter schools and vouchers for private schools. Abbott was even in Dallas last week to endorse vouchers -- a system where public school tax dollars are diverted to instead help families send kids to private schools.
"Giving parents a true choice about where to educate their child gives parents that power that they need and deserve to provide the education that is best for their child," Abbott said.
WFAA asked Morath about the impact voucher programs could have on public schools when he visited Garland ISD this week.
“Whatever that school looks like, wherever that school is located, we want it to be as effective as possible at molding eager young minds and meeting the needs of those families,” he said.
Poole isn't so sure it's that easy.
"There are bad actors out there who are cheering that teachers are leaving in droves -- because they want our public schools to fail, and they’re doing it for selfish reasons,” Poole said.
There are other obstacles created by lawmakers that are already causing stress, too. A new state law, House Bill 4545, requires districts to provide 30 hours of tutoring to students who failed the state’s standardized test.
For districts dealing both with teacher shortages and burnout, fulfilling such a requirement hasn’t been feasible. Garland ISD superintendent Dr. Ricardo Lopez addressed the issue during Morath’s visit, calling it "very hard to implement."
"I’m frustrated as all get out because it doesn’t have to be this way," Poole said.
Added Torres: "We already have the pandemic creating achievement gap that is exacerbated now that students don’t have an effective teacher in the classroom. It seems like it’s getting worse."
Vacancies lead to larger class sizes, which means less learning for students, more work for burnt-out teachers and likely even more vacancies the next year.
"I’m worried we’re in a vicious cycle that’s going to continue for a long time," Poole said.
His solution? Managing class sizes, eliminating new training requirements and having administrators fill roles to help alleviate the burden on teachers.
"I want to make sure that the students that need it the most have an effective teacher in front of them," Torres said. "Those are the students that are being hurt the most right now."
Torres hopes the task force can settle on three to five actionable solutions to move forward on before presenting their proposal in March.
As for Smith? Since leaving Dallas ISD, she has started her own education consulting business, working from her home office and hoping to make a difference in her own way.
She’s among thousands of Texas educators who will be missed this year.
"I’m extremely worried," she said. "If we don’t fix the problem, then we’re going to continue to have these vacancies and our children are going to suffer."