This is the second in a two-part series on teacher attrition. Find the first story here.
As teachers in El Paso and throughout Texas leave their jobs at record rates, school districts, advocates and state officials are working to reverse that trend.
In the 2021-22 school year, more than 900 teachers left their jobs in El Paso’s three largest districts. That was the highest number ever, and Texas also set a statewide attrition rate that year.
In response, school districts have held hiring fairs and have hired temporary support staff using COVID-19 relief funds to help reduce teacher workload and minimize their stress.
“We try not to add too much to the teacher load because if employees feel that they’re treated well and supported they’re going to stay,” Ysleta Independent School District Chief Human Capital Management Officer Bobbi Russell-Garcia said.
School districts have also increased the pay over the last few years in an effort to keep pay rates competitive.
In 2022, the Socorro Independent School District gave teachers a 6% raise, plus a $2,500 retention stipend. The following year the district gave teachers an additional 4% raise, bringing their starting salary to $60,500 a year.
The Ysleta ISD gave teachers a 5% raise and a $2,500 retention stipend in 2022. The following year, the district gave teachers a 3.65% raise, also bringing its starting salary to $60,500.
The El Paso Independent School District gave its teachers a 7% raise, 10 additional paid parental leave days and a $2,500 employee retention stipend in 2022. The following year, the district gave an additional 2% raise, bringing its starting salary for teachers to $57,750 a year.
All three of El Paso’s largest school districts have hired students from the University of Texas at El Paso’s teacher residency program to work alongside the teachers. These residents get to spend time in the classroom before they graduate from college and go on to become educators.
“They’re learning the day-to-day of being a teacher from the start of the school year until the end,” Russell-Garcia said. “By the end of the year, we typically hire our residents who successfully complete the program. … It’s really a great way to make sure that you’re hiring teachers that are ready to serve our student population.”
School administrators said they also conduct staffing assessments at the beginning and end of the year to help determine the number of teachers needed at each school, which may result in teachers being moved to another campus.
“Teacher transfers are then facilitated based on certification and campus needs. In cases where a certification does not have a corresponding vacancy, such as physical education certification, teachers are placed at high-need campuses to provide support until a suitable vacancy arises,” EPISD administrators said in a written statement.
Administrators also pointed to their benefits packages as an incentive used to retain and hire more teachers.
“We have an in-district clinic for them where they can do their doctor’s appointments and there’s a pharmacy there that delivers to their campus,” SISD Superintendent Nate Carman said.
The clinic opened in 2020 and offers a variety of services from treatment for chronic health conditions to sports physicals.
EPISD offers a number of healthy living classes such as cooking, hiking, art, yoga, dance and photography as part of its benefits program. YISD also has a fitness program that gives staff members a $15 a month reimbursement every six months if they participate.
Ysleta Teachers Association President Arlinda Valencia said that though she thinks YISD does a good job creating a positive work environment, state requirements often upend those efforts.
“The district has a lot of pressure on it to make sure that teachers make sure that all the kids pass (standardized tests). It’s just one thing on top of another that these teachers are having to suffer through,” Valencia said.
Education advocates said the state has made efforts to improve working conditions for teachers, but they say more still needs to be done.Some, including teacher specialists JoLisa Hoover, with Raise Your Hand Texas, suggest that the best way forward is for lawmakers to hear directly from teachers while taking their needs into consideration. The nonprofit aims to influence policy with the goal of improving public education.
“I think an important thing to remember is that leaving teaching can be a little unlike leaving another job because teachers often equate their job as part of their identity,” Hoover said. “It’s really personal reasons teachers leave, but when we listen to teachers we hear themes such as lack of funding translating to less pay.”
In an effort to hear from teachers, the Texas Education Agency created a Teacher Vacancy Task Force made up of teachers and school administrators from all over the state. The task force was established in March 2022 by Gov. Greg Abbott to examine teacher retention and recruitment challenges and create policy recommendations.
Its first recommendation was to increase compensation through raises, better health plans and incentives for teachers working in hard to staff areas, according to the Teacher Vacancy Task Force Final Report. The report also recommended schools utilize pre-employment training opportunities, like the UTEP teaching residency program to better prepare future teachers, along with more support for current teachers.
Even with these recommendations, the promise of a raise has been left dangling over educators’ heads after lawmakers failed to pass legislation to increase teacher salaries during the regular 2023 legislative session. Now, Abbott says he will only add teacher pay raises to the ongoing special session if lawmakers pass his controversial school voucher bill, which allows parents to pay for private school using state funding.
Emily Garcia, Texas Education Agency director of strategic staffing models, said she can’t comment on the pending legislation, but noted that the agency still helps districts improve outcomes through other initiatives like strategic staffing.
“Strategic staffing focuses on looking at the needs of a district and figuring out how they can use their current teachers to best support the most students and that frees up funding,” Garcia said.
Experts say creating a better workplace culture can improve teacher retention.
In a 2022 poll conducted by the Charles Butt Foundation, 97% of teachers surveyed said having “a positive work culture and environment is important to encourage them to continue working as public school teachers.” The foundation is a nonprofit that conducts research in hopes of making education more equitable for Texans.
In 2023, the foundation created a list of ways school districts can improve their workplace culture, including giving teachers more autonomy in the classroom, providing adequate supplies and offering support to teachers with student discipline.
The Teacher Vacancy Task Force also recommended that school districts improve working conditions and create a positive work culture by expanding access to counseling staff and services that support both students and teachers.