A growing number of public school teachers feel bullied by right-wing politicians ignorantly dictating what can and cannot be taught, discussed, or even read in public schools. They cite long working hours, feeling unappreciated, the strain on their families and their own mental health. Modest salaries barely rise as careers advance over the years. State-mandated testing and paperwork requirements stifle innovation, creativity and real learning.

The pandemic has only made a tough profession tougher, and teachers by the droves are leaving the classroom and their careers, no longer inspired by a calling to help students develop their full potential and realize their dreams.

“We have driven out the joy from teaching,” said Kevin Brown, the executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators and the former superintendent of the Alamo Heights School District. The system, he added, has become “oppressive” for teachers.

Brown made his remarks about the crisis for public school leaders struggling to recruit and retain qualified teachers at the San Antonio Report’s seventh annual PK-12 Regional Education Forum on Tuesday at the Witte Museum. He said the situation should be addressed with “urgency.”

A panel discussion titled The Post-Pandemic Challenges Facing Texas Bexar County Public School Leaders featured education leaders, from left, Lindsay Whorton, president, Holdsworth Center; Kevin Brown, executive director of the Texas Association of School Administrators; Roland Toscano, superintendent, East Central ISD and Jeanette Ball, superintendent of Judson ISD. The panel was moderated by San Antonio Report Education Reporter Brooke Crum, far left.

It’s the crisis right in front of us in San Antonio and all across Texas, where education funding has traditionally placed the state in the bottom quartile nationally. Only 10 states spend less. Pre-pandemic, from 2010-2019, teacher salaries in Texas actually fell from $55,433 to $54,192, according to a 2021 University of Houston report prepared for Raise Your Hand Texas, an Austin-based nonprofit that advocates for greater investment in public education.

Nearly half the teachers who started their careers in 2010 had left teaching by the end of the decade, the study found. The pandemic has only accelerated that trend, panelists at Thursday’s public education forum agreed.

The Lost Decade, an April report jointly released by the Texas American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a statewide union representing 66,000 current and former educators and school staff, and the nonprofit Every Texan cited low teacher pay as the driving reason behind the wave of teacher departures during and after the pandemic.

An earlier AFT survey released in February reported that two out of three Texas teachers said they were considering leaving their jobs.

Marisa Pérez-Díaz, the District 3 State Board of Education member who has held that elected position for 10 years and resides in Converse, said she sees no indication the state’s top elected leaders and Republicans who control the state Senate and House are responding with a sense of urgency to the teacher crisis.

Neither Brown nor Pérez-Díaz said they expect the 2023 legislative session to yield significant new funds for public schools or teacher salaries.

Roland Toscano, the East Central ISD superintendent, and Jeanette Ball, the Judson ISD superintendent, both spoke with candor at Thursday’s forum about the convergence of factors causing certified teachers to abandon their careers while administrators struggle to recruit new teachers to the profession.

The San Antonio-based nonprofit Center for Applied Science and Technology will open its sixth high school this fall, CAST Teach on the campus of Stevens High School in the Northside ISD with a freshman class of 115 students who are interested in teaching careers.

Cast Teach Principal Ericka Olivarez, one of Thursday’s forum panelists, said it is still possible to inspire young people to accept the challenges and become teachers if they are given a voice in designing schools and curriculum.

“We need to really put our listening ears on and listen to what teachers and students are saying about school systems,” she said. “We need to listen and then act.”

The third annual Charles Butt Foundation poll on Texans’ attitudes toward public education showed that nearly 3 out of 4 parents surveyed trust teachers above all others to decide what is taught in the classroom, while less than 1 in 4 respondents trust state elected leaders to make those decisions.

Shari Albright, the Charles Butt Foundation’s president, was honored at Thursday’s forum as this year’s Education Champion for her long career as an educator, one that included teaching students in East Central ISD, serving as principal of the International School of the Americas in the North East ISD, and as chair of the Department of Education at Trinity University.

“Teachers are critical to both the recovery of our students and the future strength of our state,” Albright said afterwards in an interview. “Though many policy discussions focus almost exclusively on recruiting new teachers into the field, it is equally important to invest in keeping our best teachers in the classroom.

“What worries me is, in our quest for a quick fix, we will lower the standards for entering the field of teaching rather than focusing on recruiting and preparing the high-quality teachers our students deserve,” she added. “Our teacher shortage was a longstanding issue before the pandemic. We are not going to fix the problem without a powerful systemic transformation.”

Despite the crisis, state leaders who pay more attention to primary voters are increasingly pushing legislation dictating what can and cannot be taught in public schools. Recent initiatives have sought to restrict what schools and teachers can say regarding race and gender identity, and what books can be offered at school libraries.

I would argue that an erosion in the public schools poses a direct threat to the health of democracy and an educated populace. The crisis in the teaching profession should be an urgent concern for everyone, not just those with school-age children.

Don’t just take my word for it. In the coming weeks, we at the San Antonio Report would love to hear from teachers who want to speak directly to our readers about their experiences. Contact me at rivard@sareport.org for more information about how to tell your story.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.