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Many of the students in Mariela Ehlers’ classroom spoke primarily Spanish at home. As a bilingual teacher at Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District, it was her job to teach them both English and Spanish.
But when she looked at these children, she saw herself. She was the kid who spoke only Spanish at home before starting school.
As a bilingual teacher, she often had to work double duty. She would send out parent newsletters in both English and Spanish, pay for students’ field trips and maintain constant communication with parents about their child’s education.
But at 50, coming off the straining COVID-19 pandemic, she retired last summer.
“I felt exhausted,” she said.
Over the course of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, teachers have left the profession citing burnout and health concerns — adding to Texas’ ongoing teacher shortage. Two new surveys show an increase in dissatisfaction with pay, workload, health and safety.
It’s a problem across the board, but in a state that is 39% Hispanic, one area is hit particularly hard: locating and retaining teachers who speak both Spanish and English.
There are over 1 million English learners in Texas, according to the Texas Education Agency, and Hispanics make up more than half of the state’s student population.
In the past decade, years before the pandemic hit, Texas was struggling to find teachers and has consistently struggled to fill bilingual teacher positions since the 1990-1991 academic school year, according to a recent University of Houston report.
From 2010 to 2019, the number of teachers certified fell by about 20%, according to the report. Between 2010 and 2019, the number of bilingual certifications stayed steady with an average of about 4,000 a year, but administrators find it difficult to retain and recruit bilingual educators.
The pre-pandemic teacher shortage
Public school teachers in Texas have felt unsupported and treated unfairly even before the pandemic, said Bob Popinski, director of policy at the education advocacy group Raise Your Hand Texas. The pandemic has only put more stress on teachers.
Popinski said those high levels of stress on teachers coupled with being undervalued and underpaid is driving more teachers out.
The average pay for teachers has not increased between 2010 and 2019; it instead decreased from $55,433 to $54,192, according to the report.
In 2019, Republican lawmakers mandated raises for teachers in an $11.6 billion overhaul of public school finance. The bill also included a merit raise system aimed to help rural and high-need school districts attract talent. In rare cases, the program rewards Texas’ highest-rated educators with hefty pay raises that could balloon to a six-figure salary.
The University of Houston report did not include the inclusion of the law.
In a Charles Butt Foundation poll of 919 Texas teachers last year, 68% said they seriously considered leaving the profession in 2021, an increase of 10 percentage points compared to the year before.
“The future success of our state is linked to our ability to recruit and retain effective teachers,” Popinski said in an email. “It will be up to our local communities and state to begin developing new policies that help better attract, prepare, and retain our teachers.”
School districts over the summer faced large vacancies as the pandemic has exacerbated the issue. The Houston Independent School District, the largest district in the state, had more than 700 vacant positions last summer. That number is down to 192, still a large number of vacancies. To attract talent, schools have offered more pay and stipends, with Houston ISD approving a $2,500 sign-on bonus.
In Waco, the school district increased base pay to over $50,000 last summer, and in Killeen, the district increased base pay to about $52,000.
This week, a Texas American Federation of Teachers survey of 3,800 of its members found that 66% of educators throughout Texas said they have recently considered leaving their job. President Zeph Capo said teacher discontent has been festering for a long time and the pandemic only increased that feeling.
“In addition to long-neglected low wages and the stress of increasing workloads, the Omicron surge has created unbelievable chaos,” Capo said in an email. “Educators witness every day the devastating effects on our students when schools have staffing shortages. It’s only going to get worse unless teachers’ concerns are addressed.”
The bilingual teacher shortage
For Ehlers, the pandemic was the final straw. She had already been feeling overworked. Before the pandemic, she remembers some days she would not leave work until 9 p.m.
As part of her bilingual instruction, Ehlers would teach in English for two days a week, then in Spanish for the other three days. But often, she would have to translate books and other lesson plans into Spanish on her own, and the constant shifting between virtual and in-person classes just added to her workload.
“I never wanted to cheat my students out,” she said.
Teachers across the state have had similar experiences to Ehlers, but in some instances, the struggles for bilingual educators begin even before setting foot in the classroom.
To become a bilingual teacher, a person must take two exams and one of them is a five-hour-long Spanish proficiency exam.
Edith Treviño, founder and CEO of Dr. ET and Company, which provides review sessions on the Spanish proficiency exam, said when she first took the tests it completely drained her.
“This test is so hard, and I am a native speaker of Spanish and I struggled with it,” she said.
Treviño said helping people prepare for the proficiency exam can be demoralizing for them so it’s part of her job to push future teachers to keep going and letting them know that they can change the lives of many children.
“Bilingual teachers serve as an advocate,” she said. “They serve as liaison for culture and language.”
Andy Canales, executive director of Latinos for Education in Texas, believes one cause of the shortages is that only about 23% of Hispanic students were at or above criteria on a standardized test used for college admission. On top of that, Hispanics in college see that teachers don’t have that high of a salary and would much rather look for higher-paying jobs that will allow them to take care of their families.
Being able to master two languages is a massive benefit to a child, said Maribel Cantu, a mother of three bilingual children and a bilingual teacher herself in McAllen Independent School District. She has one child in elementary school, one in middle school and one in high school.
Cantu made the decision to enroll her children in a bilingual program at their schools in Sharyland Independent School District because she wanted them to continue practicing their Spanish while learning English.
When she made that decision, she was asked if she was OK with her kids being labeled as English learners and she didn’t understand why that was a bad thing.
“I don’t consider it a label,” she said. “The one in the high school is completely fluent in both languages. Anywhere he goes, in any job he takes, because he knows two languages he is going to be worth a lot more.”
Disclosure: Raise Your Hand Texas and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.