South Texas teachers share their experiences
You don’t have to dig for data to know that educators are under stress in the U.S.; it’s common knowledge that teachers are underpaid and overworked, but the numbers are there.
A key finding in a recent report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (a philanthropy dedicated to health) is that 46 percent of teachers report high daily stress, which compromises their health, sleep, quality of life, and teaching performance. Often demoralized by a lack of administrative support, isolation, low pay, and feeling that they had little sway in school decisions, teachers leave the field at the rate of 13 percent each year, according to a new report published by the Alliance for Excellent Education, and the number of teachers leaving the career increases to 20 percent for urban schools. Fiscally speaking, this turnover costs between $1 and $2.2 billion each year, but the even greater intangible effect is passed down on to our children.
For most teachers, their passion for working with children is their primary reason for getting into the field, but each day they face the challenge of balancing time with their students with other, sometimes burdensome, professional responsibilities. We spoke to a few teachers working at schools in the Rio Grande Valley, which are predominantly underprivileged, to get their take on the biggest challenges they face in their pursuit to educate and care for our children in the RGV. We found that teaching today means balancing seemingly endless mountains of paperwork, stress over standardized testing, as well as concerns about meeting administrative expectations — all while forming bonds with the students whose lives they aim to impact. “We teach more than just the ‘curriculum.’ We push my students to think bigger and set goals for their future,” said one RGV educator. “We teach them to be respectful and compassionate towards others.”
Work-Life Balance 101
Many professionals who work outside of the world of education do not see the full scope of the responsibilities that come with teaching, and when looking at the profession, they take notice of things like summer break and think that the work day ends around 3 o’clock. Though these things sound appealing, teachers know that their job isn’t only done during class time. The majority of teachers say they take work home for preparation and grading, even during the summer, and many also spend time coaching athletic and academic extracurricular activities that take up their afternoons, nights, and weekends. Achieving a work-life balance is difficult for many new teachers.
“I think you have to acknowledge that there is going to be some sacrifice,” said Teach for America alumnus Alejandro Delgado. “I think it’s inherent in the job. You don’t take it because you’re going to get paid a lot, or work just a few hours a day and it’s easy.”
Of course, as teachers settle into the field, balance becomes a key factor in managing their stress and workload. Another Teach for America educator, Megan Hannan, has been teaching in La Joya ISD for the past five years. She noted, although she does take her work home, gaining experience has helped her find more balance between her professional and personal life. “At this point, it’s a lot less than my first couple of years when I planned as soon as I got home until I went to sleep. I’ve found a lot more balance now that I know what I am doing.”
Respect for Teachers
Delgado was inspired to dedicate his life to education after his Georgetown University experience, where he was one of the few Latinos in his classes. “I didn’t like that, so I decided to change it,” he said. After joining Teach For America, Delgado spent time working at IDEA Frontier in Brownville before transferring to work as the founding principal in administration with IDEA Austin. He says society’s low regard for teaching is definitely a barrier for great teachers to enter and stay in the field of education. In fact, a recent Harris Poll, which surveyed 2,250 adults, found that fewer adults believe that parents and students respect teachers; when asked to compare the memory of their school days to their current view of schools, those who agreed with the statement “students respect teachers” dropped from 79 percent to 31 percent.
Thankfully, though, not all teachers feel this way. One McAllen teacher with over 10 years of experience noted that with students, in particular, you have to earn their respect. She said, “I wasn’t trying to be their friend but just creating those meaningful relationships with them.” For her, classroom management stands out as the most challenging part of the job and likely as one of the major reasons that teachers leave the profession. She shared that being in control of the classroom is probably the number one thing that she sees teachers struggle with. Among other things, she credits her amazing mentor, a 35-year accomplished teacher, as a huge factor in her career. “My mentor was a huge part of my success. She was just there for me,” she said. “If a teacher doesn’t get someone like that, a lot of times they just don’t make it. It’s sink or swim in teaching, especially in a big school district.”
Testing, Testing, 1, 2, 3…
Standardized testing tends to be one of the more controversial subjects among today’s educators. Those who teach testing subjects often feel that the success of their entire year is judged by a few hours of testing, which doesn’t factor in other measures of student learning. And the fact that classrooms vary not only from school to school, but from classroom to classroom; often times, “gifted” students are grouped together, giving one teacher much more promising data than another. On top of that, resources are often stretched thin. Further perpetuating stress for educators, school administrators constantly compare their numbers to teachers at other schools as well as within their own schools. All these factors leave new teachers especially concerned about keeping their jobs.
As someone who has been on both the teaching and administration sides, Delgado says everyone wants the best for the children, and you have many people expecting results. “On the one hand [as a principal] you do care about your teachers a lot, as well as the students not feeling a lot of stress, but at the end of the day it all comes down to the results. If the data isn’t there then there is something wrong.”
Most teachers agree that there must be some sort of accountability, but some struggle with feeling like they have to “teach the test.” Hannan said that she struggled with how much stress her school, the administration, and district placed on performance of the test, while she personally felt that it was not the best tool to drive lesson-planning. “There is such a big discrepancy between STAAR problems and math that is going to engage them, be useful, and help them truly learn,” she said.
While teachers of tested subjects experience more stress as testing approaches, oftentimes, non-testing teachers take on other responsibilities to balance out the workloads, like additional roles as coaches for athletic or academic events. One teacher, who has taught both testing and non-testing subjects noted that both sides have their own challenges; trading off testing stress to head up extracurricular activities often requires putting in more hours in the evenings and on weekends.
Welcome to the Classroom!
Being only human, some teachers respond better than others to the stress of the classroom. Whether seasoned or new to teaching, those who stick it out tend to learn how to better manage things across the board, although expectations are high and new requirements or changes in schools always keep them on their toes. Teaching is challenging but rewarding, and there are many avenues and opportunities to get a good foundation. Some study education in college, others take the alternative certification route, and programs like Teach For America can offer great support in helping you fulfill your goals as a teacher. “With Teach for America, the mission is not to create longtime teachers, but leaders in education,” Delgado said.
Delgado added that he advises potential educators to think hard about the commitment, and to not give up at the first sign of turbulence if they decide to go for it. “Try to stick with it for two or three years. I think any job it takes a couple of years, so give it time,” he said. As teachers get more comfortable in their roles, administrators also tend to put more trust and allow for more autonomy. However, those who stay with the profession do so because they love children and want to create opportunities for them.
“People see whether you like your job or not — whether it is the students or teachers. You can tell when someone is not passionate. I am passionate about teaching,” Hannan said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”