This is the first in a two-part series on teacher attrition in El Paso. Read part two here.
Elsa Luna remembered what it was like to be a teacher when she first started teaching 37 years ago.
“Back then, it was basically teachers running the show. Whenever something was needed, they would get a group of teachers to figure it out,” Luna told El Paso Matters. “When I first started, everything was all about having resources and everything that was needed to help us in the classroom.”
Luna worked as a bilingual certified second- and fifth-grade teacher at the El Paso Independent School District. She said she saw numerous changes over the years – a growing emphasis on standardized testing, an increased workload, and a dwindling of lesson planning and time with students.
“We’d go to meetings and we express our frustration and nobody knew how to answer our questions. Materials weren’t out there, so we started buying our own. We started guessing what we should be doing. Everything became very disorganized,” Luna said.
Luna, 59, who taught at Logan Elementary School throughout her career, retired at the end of the 2022-23 school year – much earlier than she had initially planned.
She did not go alone.
Data obtained from the local school districts by El Paso Matters shows teachers across the city have been leaving their jobs at a growing rate in recent years as educators grappled with burnout and the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The problem reached a record high during the 2021-22 school year when more than 900 teachers from the city’s three largest school districts either retired, resigned or were terminated, according to the data. That means that one out of every 10 teachers who were in classrooms at the start of that school year in August didn’t return the following year.
EPISD lost 418 teachers, or about 12% of its total teaching staff for the 2021-22 school year. The Socorro Independent School District lost 270, or roughly 9% of its teachers, and the Ysleta Independent School District lost 220, or about 10% of its teachers that same year.
Though some school districts were able to retain more teachers the following year, many are still scrambling to keep their classrooms staffed.
In some cases, El Paso school districts lost more teachers than they were able to hire, leaving them with unfilled vacancies. Many districts have been forced to rely on substitute teachers or have had to put more students into a single classroom just to keep up.
Since 2019, all three of El Paso’s largest school districts have requested multiple maximum class size exemptions, which allows elementary schools to have more than the state limit of 22 students per class. At the high school level, SISD and EPISD teachers have reported class sizes that reach nearly 50 students with only one instructor.
Teachers say these large class sizes can make it difficult for them to teach, address all their students’ individual needs and even fit them all in one space.
One EPISD high school teacher said he started the 2023-24 school year with 48 students in one class.
“I have like 40 desks, I don’t know where we’re gonna get the other eight. … It’s not like you can move around the room with that class load,” the teacher told El Paso Matters.
Most school districts have a policy that prevents teachers from speaking to the media without permission. El Paso Matters is not naming current teachers to protect their identity.
The issue of teacher attrition is not unique to El Paso.
Teacher attrition in the state rose to a historic high during the 2021-22 school year with 13% of teachers leaving their jobs, according to the most recent report released in April by the Texas Education Agency.
Three of every four Texas teachers have considered quitting education, according to a 2023 survey conducted by the Charles Butt Foundation, a nonprofit that conducts research in hopes of making education more equitable for Texans.
Why are teachers leaving?
Union leaders and former school employees said teachers leave their jobs for a number of reasons.
While some are motivated by personal matters, like wanting to work closer to home, others have left over frustrations with their school district and the education system.
“I guess in a nutshell all teachers are pretty much fed up. There’s a lack of respect, lack of funding, undermining their authority by telling them what to teach and how to teach,” said Veronica Hernandez, president of the Socorro American Federation of Teachers. “It’s always been an issue and I think it hasn’t gotten any better.”
“It’s the compensation, the treatment and bluntly, the work conditions,” El Paso AFT President Ross Moore added. “Last time we did a survey, the average member was putting in about 15 to 20 extra hours a week off duty.”
Research conducted by the Charles Butt Foundation found that pay may be one of teachers’ main motivators for quitting their job.
According to the foundation’s statewide survey, 78% of teachers who reported feeling unfairly paid have seriously considered leaving their position, compared with 65% of those who said their pay is fair.
Currently, of the three largest school districts in El Paso, EPISD has the lowest teacher pay – between $57,750 to $69,548 a year, depending on how long they have been with the district. SISD starts its teachers at $60,500 a year, and they can make up to $73,528. YISD also starts its teachers at $60,500 a year and can make up to $75,230 over time.
The minimum salary for Texas teachers starts at $33,660 and can reach $54,540 after teaching for 20 years, according to the TEA.
Retired SISD teacher Ann Guerra, who most recently taught sixth-grade social studies at Sanchez Middle School, said it was a combination of things that led her to leave her job.
“I’m taking care of my mother, I have poor health and just the day-to-day demands of teaching, it is very stressful,” she said.
Guerra, 53, said that some of that stress came from changes in school security after the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 students and two teachers were killed in 2022.
“I don’t think people who are not in the classroom understand that it has actually impacted us a great deal just as far as the weekly drills we do with our students on a regular basis. It’s really scary that there’s constant threats going on in schools,” Guerra said.
Experts say that a negative workplace culture is another factor that often pushes teachers to leave their jobs.
Since the beginning of the 2023-24 school year, a number of El Paso Independent School District teachers have come to El Paso Matters with concerns about its workplace culture, including sudden staffing changes and fears they may face retaliation if they speak out.
EPISD Superintendent Diana Sayavedra disputes that.
“I want to assure you that any form of retaliation will not be tolerated, and we are dedicated to addressing and resolving any issues that may arise,” Sayavedra told El Paso Matters in a written statement.
EPISD administrators said the district has an anonymous reporting system that allows staff members to share their experiences and concerns. When asked, some employees said they don’t trust the system is anonymous, while others simply felt their concerns wouldn’t be addressed.
District leaders say many of the issues plaguing EPISD are not new for a district that has changed leadership multiple times in recent years.
“The biggest detriment to EPISD is not that we’re doing something wrong, it’s that we have an albatross of history around our necks. And until we can shake that and show parents and show staff that’s no longer who we are … then we kind of are spinning our wheels,” EPISD board President Israel Irrobali told El Paso Matters, referencing the two previous administrations, which ended when the superintendents resigned amid criminal investigations and controversy.
The Butt Foundation’s research also found that many teachers who are considering quitting their jobs often do so because of mental health issues.
“We asked teachers to rate their mental health and we found that many teachers rated their mental health poorly in relation to their jobs,” said Kurt Lockhart, senior program director of data insights for the Charles Butt Foundation.
In the foundation’s most recent poll, 94% of teachers cited poor pay and benefits, excessive workloads, long hours and staff shortages, among others, as sources of personal stress that put a strain on their mental health.
One EPISD teacher who is considering leaving her job told El Paso Matters that the mounting pressure has made it difficult for her to just go to work on a daily basis.
“I would say in the last four years, I have taken more personal mental health days than I ever had before,” said the teacher, who is only a few years away from retirement. “People who knew me before know that’s not me at all. I am a team player, I never missed a day. It’s just, it got to the point where I just didn’t even want to show up some days.”
Though many school administrators have made efforts to retain and hire more teachers, factors such as student-learning gaps and excessive workloads have pushed many educators to their breaking point.
“Some teachers are leaving because the pressure is just too much. I’ve had teachers just walk out at the end of the day. They just shake their head and say ‘I’m done,’ and they walk out of that school. They will never teach again, that’s how much pressure they are under,” Ysleta Teachers Association President Arlinda Valencia said.
Though this mass exodus of teachers is not unique to a single school district, some have done better than others at keeping classrooms staffed.
While all three school districts saw their attrition rates rise steadily over the last few years, EPISD lost a higher portion of its teachers than the other two districts.
During the 2019-20 school year, the district lost 270 teachers, or 7.2% of its teaching staff. That number rose to 420, or 11.9% of its teachers, by the 2021-22 school year, a 56% increase.
That trend changed the following year as EPISD was the only school district that lost significantly fewer teachers. During the 2022-23 school year, EPISD lost about 360 teachers, or about 10% of its teaching staff.
“EPISD diligently works toward achieving its strategic goal of solidifying its position as the region’s destination district. This commitment encompasses several aspects of our operations, including retaining and attracting the best talent in the field. The fact that a significant amount of our teachers and staff remain with us this academic year underscores our success in this regard,” EPISD spokesperson Pablo Villa said in a written statement.
In response to the pandemic, EPISD began ramping up the number of teachers it hired after the 2020-21 school year, rising by about 160% over the last three school years, according to data obtained by El Paso Matters.
Still, the school district lost more teachers than it hired three years in a row, between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 school years.
EPISD administrators said things have improved recently with 97% of its teaching positions staffed in the 2023-24 school year. Additionally, the district has a pool of close to 1,600 substitutes to help fill vacancies. As of Oct. 18, EPISD still had more than 110 teaching vacancies posted on its website.
While Ysleta ISD lost the smallest portion of its teachers between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 school years out of all three districts, it was the only one that saw a rise in attrition during the 2022-23 school year.
During the 2019-20 school year, the district lost fewer than 120 teachers, or about 4.3% of its teaching staff. That number rose to 250, or 10.1% of its teachers, by the 2022-23 school year – nearly a 120% increase.
YISD also started bringing in more teachers after the 2020-21 school year, with its hiring numbers rising by about 80% over the last three years.
Though YISD hired more teachers than it lost during the 2019-20 school year, its losses and hires evened out over the years.
YISD’s Chief Human Capital Management Officer Bobbi Russell-Garcia said the district also hired a number of part-time temporary teachers throughout the pandemic to help address learning losses.
“Generally, most of them were retired and they weren’t just interventions helping with the needs of individual students. They were teaching them the knowledge base that they were lacking,” Russell-Garcia said.
Since 2021, YISD has hired 165 part-time temporary teachers, 60 of whom have resigned.
Though YISD has lost a growing number of teachers over the years, Russell-Garcia said the district has not had as many unfilled vacancies as others thanks to its declining enrollment. As of Oct. 18, YISD only had about 20 teacher vacancies posted on its website.
“We’ve consolidated a few campuses and have been able to use the teachers that we’ve had for years to fill those vacancies,” Russell-Garcia said. “I think that’s really helped.”
Socorro ISD’s attrition rate grew the slowest among El Paso’s three largest districts.
During the 2019-20 school year, the district lost fewer than 170 teachers. That number rose to about 260 by the 2022-23 school year, a nearly 60% increase. SISD is also the only district that didn’t see a significant change in teacher attrition between the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years.
During the 2019-20 school year, SISD hired more than 300 teachers, far more than it lost. By the 2021-22 school year, its losses and hires evened out.
Records show some of those early hires were made in preparation of the opening of Col. Ben Narbuth Elementary School in 2022.
SISD Superintendent Nate Carman, who was named to the position in 2022, said he was surprised to see hiring was higher in previous years.
“That’s interesting because (2022-23) was actually the largest percentage increase of student growth in recent years. We added 800 students last year, so you would have thought there would be an increase in hiring then versus previous years,” Carman told El Paso Matters.
SISD reached record enrollment in 2023, with over 48,000 students.
Carman said the district’s positive workplace culture is part of what has kept its teacher attrition rate from growing over the last two years.
“I think there’s a good culture and climate within SISD that helps teachers specifically stay in the profession and stay with the district,” Carman said.