Two years after the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020, teacher vacancies remain high in two of El Paso’s largest school districts.
Between the fall of 2021 and 2022, Socorro Independent School District saw a 25 percent increase in vacancies. El Paso Independent School District saw a 10 percent increase in vacancies in the same period. As of October 2022, EPISD had 148 openings and SISD had 80 vacancies. This is on top of shortages among custodians, food service employees and bus drivers.
“We believe education has changed over the course of the last several years, and the learning loss associated with the pandemic can be intimidating to those considering the profession,” said Tracy Garcia-Ramirez, senior communication specialist with the Ysleta Independent School District.
YISD has been able to mostly recover from the pandemic hiring slump. Last year, according to reporting by El Paso Matters, the school district had 33 teacher vacancies as of Sept. 10. This fall, that number was down to seven.
YISD has implemented seven new sign-on stipends to attract teachers, Garcia-Ramirez said. The district created a “Welcome Home” stipend, a $2,500 sign-on bonus for former students of YISD who return to teach. The district also lists special stipends for hard-to-fill positions in its 2022-2023 compensation plan. New dual credit hires will receive a $3,250 sign-on bonus. The stipend with the largest amount, a $5,000 incentive, is for new special education teachers.
YISD provides its novice teachers with a two-year Beginning Teacher Induction and Mentoring program, where teachers are assigned a mentor teacher to provide guidance during their first two years.
“We do work diligently in retaining our novice teachers,” Garcia-Ramirez said.
Additionally, new teachers are provided mentorship from the district’s central office, which includes monthly professional development training and classroom observations, along with feedback and guidance to help them improve their craft.
EPISD lists several sign-on bonuses in its 2022-2023 compensation plan, including a $1,000 incentive for certified bilingual and math or science teachers. New hires for EPISD in deaf education, dual credit and special education will receive a $3,000 stipend.
SISD’s bilingual teachers will earn a $2,000 annual supplement, according to its most recent compensation plan. Special education stipends in SISD are divided into seven different categories, with annual bonuses ranging from $1,500 to $2,000.
Teacher retention in Texas was a problem that predates the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data from the Texas Education Agency, public schools across the state have only retained 62 percent of the educators who began teaching in the 2015-2016 school year.
The number of newly certified teachers in Texas dropped by 3,986 between the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years.
High teacher vacancies and low retention rates often result in more demanding workloads for the teachers that do stay, contributing to career burnout. A Gallup poll from earlier this year found that workers in K-12 education report the highest rates of career burnout among full-time employees across various industries, including retail, law and technology.
According to a National Education Association survey conducted earlier this year, 74 percent of teachers say that their schools are understaffed, and 55 percent of respondents claimed that they plan to leave teaching earlier than planned.
“Teaching is not only a profession. It is a way of life,” said Bernardino Villagrana, who teaches music at Del Valle Middle School. “To be successful in it, you must first have a passion and an unselfish love to help others succeed.”
Villagrana is the director of guitar in the East El Paso school in YISD. He has been teaching for 27 years. Despite his passion for teaching, the move to online instruction during the pandemic posed challenges for student success. His students had to learn how to play piano and guitar without their instruments.
“The biggest challenge to me was to keep a positive and nurturing composure,” Villagrana said. “I did not want to resort to simply reading music.”
Since the onset of the pandemic, Villagrana saw many of his coworkers with underlying health conditions apply for retirement. Since then, other teachers eligible for retirement have also departed the profession.
The return to the classroom was ushered in with a mixed application of teaching, part online and part in-person. Teachers like Villagrana, who have continued to teach through unfamiliar circumstances and threats to their health, returned to thinly-staffed campuses.
“The return to in-person learning was both terrifying and a relief at the same time,” Villagrana said.
Other education worker shortages
El Paso’s public schools are also short of paraprofessional educators and substitute teachers.
According to reporting by Borderzine, EPISD increased pay for substitute teachers in 2021. Substitute pay rates in SISD and YISD were also increased last year. Salaries for substitute teachers vary from one district to another and also depend on whether they have a college degree or are certified educators. The daily substitute rate for certified teachers in EPISD moved from $100 to $160. In SISD and YISD, certified substitute teacher daily rates are $150 and $165, respectively.
There has been some recent success in the hiring of substitutes. SISD, for example, reported 600 substitutes on its payroll last year. This year, it is 880.
Teacher vacancies are also being addressed by the hiring of those with alternative certifications. The state hired 10,229 teachers with alternative certification last year, according to TEA data. Garcia-Ramirez has said that YISD has seen a slight increase in prospective hires with alternative certification.
EPISD and SISD also have mentorship programs that partner new educators, with little to no experience, with veteran teachers to enhance preparedness and familiarity with campuses, policies and teaching styles.
The University of Texas at El Paso’s College of Education has its Miner Teacher Residency, a one-year program that pairs teaching candidates with a mentor teacher in a local elementary or middle school classroom.
“If you choose it, choose it for the service it provides to others, not for monetary or self-benefit,” Villagrana said of teaching. “There is no self in teaching. There is only them and us.”
EPISD did not respond to repeated requests for comment on this story.