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For Some Teachers, Classroom Strain Runs Deeper Than Budget Cuts

Some consequences of the Legislature's more than $5 billion budget cut to public schools — like a loss of morale and stress levels in the classroom — aren't easily measured. But the pressure on teachers may have more complex origins.

At Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Keenan Hurley (left), 18, and Roby Attal, 17, react to missing their target during a physics lesson on projectile motion that used Hot Wheels cars.

When Liz Peterson became an educator 14 years ago, she thought of teaching as a form of social justice. She entered the profession because she wanted to help close the achievement gap between poor students and their peers from more affluent backgrounds.

But in August, as the new school year began, the Teach For America alumna found herself somewhere she had never imagined: a private school classroom.  

“I never ever, ever considered teaching at a private school,” Peterson said. “That was never a thought in my mind.”

Since the Legislature eliminated more than $5 billion in funding from public education in 2011 some early results are easily quantifiable — like the approximately 25,000 employees shed from the state’s schools and the more than 6,200 additional elementary school classes that have more than 22 students.

Other potential consequences of the budget cut are not as easily measured. Several organizations — some with a stated agenda, like the Texas branch of the American Federation of Teachers, and one from the nonpartisan Houston-based advocacy group Children at Risk — have conducted studies that investigate the impact of budget related changes, like the loss of one-on-one time with students and teacher planning periods, in which educators have reported a loss of morale and increased stress levels within the classroom.

But anecdotes like Peterson’s point to a strain in Texas public schools that has more complex origins than 2011’s reduction in state funding. If the issues are not addressed, they could further hinder efforts to attract and keep top teachers in public schools.

Peterson taught for 10 years in the Houston Independent School District at Johnston Middle School, which serves primarily economically disadvantaged, black and Hispanic students. For much of that time, she said, she considered the district a place that rewarded good teaching and leadership in its principals. Then policies changed, she said, and raising students’ standardized test scores became the goal that overrode any other aspect of their education.

“What mattered was the test scores of the students in the classroom, not the impact that people were having on students as a teacher,” she said. “Frankly, that’s super demoralizing, spending all this extra time doing what you know is best for the kids, and no one cares.”

When it came to the point that Peterson felt like not only was she dealing with a miserable work environment but also being asked to teach in ways that did not address students’ needs, she said, she accepted a position at a private school in Houston.

“I had other options and I took them,” she said.

Gary Dworkin, a University of Houston professor, has studied teacher morale in Houston metropolitan area districts since the 1980s. He measures burnout — which he defined as a feeling of isolation that produces a sense among educators that their work does not matter — as well as the level of trust teachers have in colleagues, administrators, students and parents.

Dworkin said the factor that has had the biggest impact on teacher burnout over the years has been attempts to raise teacher quality and educational standards through the accountability system, whether through changes initiated at the state or federal level.

For example, in 2002, the first year of the No Child Left Behind Act’s application, he said burnout levels among teachers spiked. But by 2004, they drifted down because although No Child Left Behind was in place, it was not affecting teachers’ jobs in a large way because many of its measures, like forced school closures, were not happening on a large scale.

Texas is currently in the midst of such a change. In addition to the budget cuts, the 2011 school year was also the start of the state’s transition to a new accountability system based on more rigorous student assessments that for the first time will be linked to graduation requirements and students’ final grades.

Many educators welcome the higher standards and the standardized tests that are more closely aligned to state curriculum that come with the new system, but its rollout has been marked by widespread confusion among school districts about how to apply some of its new rules, and there have been unforeseen complications of the new retake requirements. The state's implementation of the new system along with the budget cuts is also the subject of a lawsuit against the state that will go to trial in late October.

Dworkin last collected data in March. He found that teachers in 2012 were almost twice as stressed as those in 2002. Teachers’ level of trust in colleagues, parents and students has dropped from years past, he said, and for the first time, their number of years teaching or their level of trust in their principals, usually factors that would cushion against feelings of stress, had no effect.

“It’s a homogenous level of anxiety,” he said, “and especially now schools are saying it’s going to get worse.”

A lack of planning for the new system has placed unnecessary stress on teachers, said Eastman Landry, who teaches high school physics at HISD’s fine arts magnet.

He said external pressures like district and state mandates about student assessments frustrated teachers when they interfered with their ability to instruct students. But Landry, a graduate of Rice University who has been teaching for four years, said he did not sense that most of his colleagues are ready to give up on the profession just yet.

“The tone at the end of the conversation isn’t ‘I can’t wait to get out of here,’ it’s almost like this accepted feeling of being overwhelmed, and not being in control of what we want to accomplish,” he said. “Then again, we aren’t dealing with products — we are dealing with students, and there are going to be challenges.”

He said the state budget cuts had resulted in staff reductions at his school and a heightened pressure to do more with less. But he added that simply putting more money into public schools was not the answer. He said focused, effective planning, like with the institution of the accountability system, was more important.

Like Eastman, Peterson described a nerve-wracking spring as her colleagues waited to know the extent of state budget cuts. She said she did not view them as the root of issues that prompted her to leave public schools. That happened because she wanted to work with “better adults and better leaders,” she said. At the private school where she teaches now, she said, teachers are treated like professionals.

“The number of unreasonable schedule changes or administrative tasks, or paperwork is nonexistent,” she said. “The majority of my job is teaching and providing leadership opportunities for students, and that’s really great.”

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