Michelle Menon teaches special education to pre-kindergarteners at Townewest Elementary School in Sugar Land. For the last 20 years, she has worked a variety of jobs at Fort Bend ISD: a summer school instructor, a special ed paraprofessional and an ESL teacher.
Teaching is her passion. However, this school year has made her seriously question her calling.
“Before the Thanksgiving break, I was like, ‘I’ve had it, I’m looking for a new job,'” Menon said. “When you’re in the realm of being hit and kicked, when you have three or four kids screaming, hollering, running around destroying your room, it’s like ‘oh gosh, the kids won today.’ You get down there and you get depressed.”
The new school year has brought a unique set of extreme pressures that outpace the first year of the pandemic, Menon said. Beyond the fear of catching COVID-19, teachers are facing more discipline issues with traumatized kids who have been out of the classroom for months. There’s also more work — teachers are expected to plan both virtual and in-person lessons and complete extra paperwork required by a new state law aimed at reversing learning loss.
Teacher burnout has led to a stream of departures and a persistent staffing shortage. FBISD has vacancies for about 120 teachers, 150 paraprofessionals and three counselors, said a district spokesperson in an email. That’s compared to 102 teacher openings in September, according to reporting from the Houston Chronicle.
“Conservatively, I get at least three to five calls a week of teachers in tears, saying ‘I’m done, I can’t do this anymore,” said Glenda Guzman Macal, president of Fort Bend AFT. “I’m not talking about struggling teachers, I’m talking about seasoned teachers that have been teaching for 20-plus years.”
The shortage at Fort Bend is an issue that districts across Texas and the U.S. are currently facing — a problem that can be hard to fix once a district is in the thick of it.
“It creates this vicious cycle,” Macal said. “When (a teacher) leaves, there’s that much more work for the teachers that are left behind, which makes it even more unbearable.”
In an email, an FBISD spokesperson said the district was “committed to recruiting and retaining the very best teachers and staff.” The district says it’s hosting recruitment events, offering pay incentives to substitute teachers and maintaining relationships with colleges and certificate programs.
Nevertheless, the district says it’s up against challenges much bigger than Fort Bend, such as uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, a national shortage of educators and fewer teaching graduates.
The impacts of these shortages aren’t just felt by teachers and administrators, but it also trickles down to students in the classroom by way of bigger class sizes and split classes.
“So what does that leave the kids with?” Macal said. “What does that say for our future? I’m really concerned. I don’t want it to sound like it’s a desperate situation, but it really kind of is. But it’s not hopeless.”
While the district figures out how to fill vacancies, Macal said that administrators should back up their staff and that the greater community should extend some grace towards teachers who are trying their best.
Clayton Anderson, a former teacher at FBISD, said he didn’t receive this kind of support from his school’s administration over the past year.
“There are multiple ways to get production out of your staff, as opposed to leading with an iron fist or being overly aggressive,” Anderson said. “You can tell the truth to someone, but that doesn’t mean you have to be unloving or unkind.”
This was one of the reasons why he decided to leave the district over the summer. He now teaches 4th grade at CyFair ISD, a job with a shorter commute, improved atmosphere and higher pay.
Michelle Menon has decided to stick with her job. She said she was reminded of her work’s considerable impact on her students given the resources at her disposal. But Menon said more resources need to be made available to educators. She wants state lawmakers to invest more money into public schools to increase salaries in order to avoid low teacher retention.
“Why should I do this?” Menon said. “I’ll be honest. I can go to Target and Walmart. I can work, get overtime and make more money than I am now. I have skills, I can go into management.