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DFW teachers' morale plummeting amid effects of Texas budget cuts

02/08/2012 11:33 PM

02/09/2012 2:47 PM

After 14 years of teaching high school algebra, Michele Parker has gone back to school.

Parker, 43, is working on a Master of Business Administration degree to prepare for a new career in accounting and has notified the Fort Worth district that next school year will be her last.

"I love teaching. I love the kids," said Parker, who teaches ninth grade at Trimble Technical High School. "But they pile more on us and give us fewer resources to do it with. It's just not fun anymore."

Because of state funding cuts, teachers across Texas are being laid off and positions are being eliminated, creating bigger classes and more work for those left behind. Raises are not guaranteed, and teachers are kicking in their own money for class materials and supplies.

In the Keller school district, some teachers are frustrated by a new grading system that they say creates overwhelming paperwork, said Darius Hatchett, a Keller High health teacher and regional treasurer for the Association of Texas Professional Educators.

"There were teachers spending a ridiculous amount of time on grading," said Hatchett, who is retiring this year after teaching for 38 years. "Teachers are totally, totally exhausted at times because of their workload. It's been quite a chore."

In the Dallas school district, teachers were incensed when trustees voted to lengthen the workday by 45 minutes without raising pay, prompting calls for a sickout Feb. 29.

And looming is the more rigorous State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness -- new state accountability tests that could bring down schools' academic ratings.

Morale is plummeting, educators say, and they are retiring in record numbers. From September 2011 through January, the Teacher Retirement System processed 8,972 retirement applications, up 1,976 from a year earlier.

Locally, the United Educators Association is holding retirement information seminars -- and they are packed, officials said.

"The main word I hear is stress," said Dick Powell, a retired teacher who leads the seminars. "I've had them e-mail me midyear saying, 'I just can't do this anymore.'"

Surveys indicate decline

Last month, the teachers union released results of an online survey of 1,400 Arlington district staffers. Half the respondents said they would not recommend the district as a good place to work, and 44 percent said they don't look forward to going to school each day.

Superintendent Jerry McCullough plans to visit all of Arlington's schools to tell teachers they are appreciated.

On Wednesday, he met with teachers at Shackelford Junior High School, where he taught American history in the early 1970s, to praise them for their hard work. He asked them to remember why they got into teaching in the first place.

"You're working together and impacting kids. All I can say is thank you. It's been a tough year," McCullough said. "You haven't lost your focus of what is important."

The findings in Arlington mirror those of two statewide surveys indicating that funding cuts negatively affect day-to-day conditions at schools.

In a November online survey of 3,500 Texas school employees, educators reported more duties and paperwork, less planning time, and cuts to tutorials, electives and early-childhood education, according to the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

More than 4 in 5 said their schools' climate was worse or much worse than in the previous year. Also, 72 percent of respondents described it as stressful and taxing.

"I think the first takeaway is that the fears we had during the session are coming true in that the Legislature has created some real serious problems for schools and it is going to take us long time to crawl our way out of this," said Linda Bridges, president of the federation's Texas chapter.

And in a survey of Texas superintendents released Jan. 27, several expressed concern that the poor climate will drive teachers to seek other professions. Fort Worth district officials are doing their own survey of employees' attitude about their working conditions. Results are due in April, and principals will develop a plan to address areas of concern, said Robert Ray, chief of schools.

"Everybody understands the quandary that the Legislature has put us in. From that standpoint, I can imagine that there is some anxiety," Ray said. "Our work is difficult work, and we appreciate the work that teachers do."

Fewer teachers-to-be

This fall, the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of North Texas had slight decreases in people who want to become teachers.

UNT's teacher education program has about 2,000 undergraduates, down 100 to 150 from last year, Dean Jerry Thomas said.

At UTA, overall undergraduate enrollment in the College of Education and Health Professions was down about 500 students from a year earlier, although enrollment in graduate programs rose.

Thomas predicts that the drop will be short-lived, noting that some specialties remain in demand, including math and bilingual education.

"I think we're seeing the economy in Texas doing better, and I hope that will lead to the Legislature funding both public schools and state universities better," Thomas said.

Despite the gloomy work conditions and state funding woes, Rose Elliott, a fifth-grade science teacher at Fort Worth's Carter Park Elementary School, says she is not ready to retire.

"I come in and I love my kids. That's my morale. When they get to fifth grade and they get to learn all the science, it's fun for me and it's fun for my kids," said Elliott, who has taught for 25 years.

"I still enjoy teaching and I'm here for the kids. Most teachers would say the same."

Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326

Twitter: @jessamybrown

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