Teacher Shortage: Texas teachers are losing their licenses to quit during the school year

HOUSTON, Texas – Six years ago, Staci Crosswell entered the ranks of the teaching profession to do one thing: make a difference.

But as reality kicked in, the hope and optimism slowly evaporated.

Crosswell’s story is a common one, heard by hundreds of Texas teachers disillusioned with the profession. There’s the low average salary, which has stagnated for almost a decade. Then there are the frequent switches to virtual learning and back to the classroom caused by the corona pandemic. And the more recent requirement to complete a 60- to 120-hour reading course, so-called Reading Academies, if educators from kindergarten to third grade want to keep their jobs in 2023. And there is catching up on learning gains lost during the pandemic.

Crosswell considered quitting her teaching job mid-school year. But the fear of losing her teaching qualification held her back. In the past six months, the state has reported a record number of teachers retiring mid-school. This means that a district can have its teaching license revoked.

Crosswell, a second-grade teacher in the Humble Independent School District, said she will not risk being reported and potentially losing her certification, though she still plans to leave the profession at the end of the 2021-22 school year.

“It’s my security,” she said. “If I lost my teaching diploma, I would have been unlucky.”

Districts have in the past reported teachers to the state for leaving before their contracts expired, but there has been a surge in such reports in the last year — coincident with a statewide teacher shortage.

According to recent data, at least 471 contract termination reports have been submitted to the state. That’s a 60% increase from fiscal 2021.

“We’re leaving because it’s no longer worth it,” Crosswell said.

Teachers who choose to drop out mid-school year can be reported to the state, and the State Board for Educator Certification can either suspend or revoke a teacher’s certification. In most cases, teachers receive a one-year suspension of their certification. Teachers can quit the job with impunity if they do so 45 days before the start of the school year.

Paul Tapp, attorney for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, provides legal advice to teachers who want to understand the consequences of terminating a contract. In the past two years, Tapp said he’s seen a wave of teacher certification suspensions.

“I’ve only been working with teachers for a little over 25 years at this point, and I’ve never experienced a period like we’ve been through, especially this year but also last year,” Tapp said. “What we see now, which we didn’t see before, was the teacher said, ‘OK, I understand that I’m being sanctioned, and I don’t care.'”

Tapp said he thinks the significant increase isn’t necessarily because counties are filing grievances with the state more than before, but because teachers are quitting in unprecedented numbers.

“In addition to such a difficult job, being pushed around in public discourse has just become too much for many teachers,” Tapp said, referring to the push to ban anti-racism classes that some state lawmakers have labeled as critical Racial theory and the move by some districts to restrict recognition of LGBTQ identities in the classroom.

The state has recently introduced new flexibility in considering these cancellation cases. Exceptions can be made when a teacher changes positions, resigns for safety reasons, or experiences a pay cut.

Still, the surge in reports boils down to districts needing a teacher in a classroom, and school officials are doing everything in their power to discourage teachers from leaving before their contracts expire.

“ISDs have really found themselves between a rock and a hard place,” said Monty Exter, a lobbyist at the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

Exter said he finds it hard to believe that counties want to punish these teachers. Instead, he believes they want to create an atmosphere that discourages other teachers from quitting as well. But that’s not an effective strategy because most teachers who retire mid-year leave and never come back.

The surge in reports could also negatively impact people who want to get into the field, as they will see it as a bad environment, Exter said.

“It’s too controversial,” he said. “But again, I think ISDs feel like they have limited tools and they’re under a lot of pressure right now.”

Zeph Capo, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers, said school districts that are losing more teachers this school year are finding it increasingly difficult to replace them mid-year.

“Each and every one of those individuals made a conscious decision to say they don’t care about their teacher certification anymore because conditions have gotten so bad,” Capo said.

When discussing the Texas teacher shortage, experts usually point out that teachers are overworked and underpaid. But Capo believes these teachers aren’t leaving mid-year and potentially risking their certification for more pay. He believes it has become a matter of health, safety and respect.

Texas has had two flare-ups of COVID-19 this school year, pushing school districts to the limit. Teachers were absent, replacements were not available, and instead districts asked parents to come in and watch the children.

When Crosswell made her decision to go, she said it came down to putting her interest first. Most teachers are encouraged to be unselfish and to put others above themselves and their families.

“My sanity is greater than necessity,” she said.

While a school district can file a complaint with the state, only the SBEC has the legal authority to sanction a teacher. Teachers need a “good cause” to leave the classroom mid-year without penalty, which could be health concerns or a spouse looking for a job in another city. Overwork and unwillingness to continue are not major reasons, Tapp said.

The vast majority of teacher contracts are one-year contracts, Tapp said. And though districts like Pflugerville ISD have chosen to be more aggressive in reporting teachers to the state amid teacher shortages, some have taken the opposite approach — like paying thousands of dollars in bonuses to teachers who choose to stay.

“As a lawyer, I have great respect for contracts,” said Tapp. “I certainly understand that you can’t just walk away from it because you’re tired. But that means there’s a bigger public problem here, too. … To remove a teacher from being available to stop teaching amidst the teaching shortage we are dealing with hurts everyone.”

The suspension of a teacher’s license typically lasts for one calendar year, beginning at the time the teacher terminated the teacher’s contract or the time the sanction was imposed. Because a school year intersects with two calendar years, it usually means the teacher will be unable to teach in Texas public schools for at least two school years, Tapp said.

Tapp said the state should consider imposing lighter sanctions. For example, an engraved reference to a teacher’s license would permanently reflect their decision to leave.

“The idea that the one-year suspension is the appropriate sanction for a teacher who gives up her contract has just been decided; there’s nothing set in stone that that’s the obvious sanction,” Tapp said.

“I understand there’s a balance that needs to be considered because we need teachers in the classroom,” he said. “But I think teachers, like all professionals, should be able to expect what is expected of them to be reasonable.”

Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators and Texas AFT are financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial backers play no part in the Tribune’s journalism. A complete list can be found here.

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Dais Johnston

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