Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Filling Vacancies: Districts Grappling with Teacher Recruitment and Retention Try Creative Solutions

Filling Vacancies: Districts Grappling with Teacher Recruitment and Retention Try Creative Solutions

By David George

Teacher recruitment and retention challenges in Texas are anything but new, yet the past few years have been particularly problematic. Pandemic-specific issues compounded with existing problems, including long hours, inadequate compensation, student learning loss, and state culture wars have negatively affected educators, students, and the ability of districts to fill teacher vacancies.

Adding more complexity to district recruitment and retention woes is the end of COVID-era ESSER funding, which many districts used to employ instructional coaches and other staff to help teachers grow as professionals and stay in the classroom beyond the critical first years. Each week seems to bring new headlines about a district reduction in force as these educators’ positions are eliminated for the coming school year. Meanwhile, public schools received little financial help from the 88th Legislature last session to address funding shortfalls—even after the Teacher Vacancy Task Force provided recommendations for retaining quality educators. However, in a legislative session hijacked by Abbott’s voucher crusade, none of the task force’s recommendations were passed into law, despite many, such as teacher pay raises, having broad support across both parties and chambers.

Without funding to increase pay, districts are relying on a variety of creative ideas to recruit new teachers, including Grow Your Own (GYO), cultural exchange, alternative certification, apprenticeship, and residency programs.

ATPE Lobbyist Tricia Cave, who specializes in educator certification and preparation issues, began her teaching career 18 years ago through a district alternative certification program that allowed her to go to work for her high school alma mater.

“In-house alternative certification programs within districts aren’t as common anymore,” says Cave, who was working as a paraprofessional when she entered the district alternative certification program. “The vast majority of new teachers are going through the big for-profit programs. All of the supervisors in my program were school district employees whose job it was to help train these brand-new teachers.”

Cave’s program consisted of a full-time summer schedule covering basic courses and evenings at the University of St. Thomas—which partnered with the district—in the fall. She signed a contract with the district agreeing to work there full-time and repay the costs with her paychecks.

“Coming out of college with a toddler, it was definitely a cost-effective option so that I could get into the classroom right away and start making money,” Cave says. “Another one of the benefits was having a local person whose entire job was to cater to the small group of students in their charge. That was great because instead of having to talk to somebody who’s in a different area of the state, I had somebody right there who, if I needed, could come down and assist me pretty easily.”

Unfortunately, Cave says that mentor teachers were not always well-trained and accountable.

“I remember one mentor teacher walked into my room once, sat down for about five minutes, and said, ‘You look like you know what you’re doing,’ walked out and never came back,” Cave says. “She still got her stipend, and I was so concerned that I emailed my program coordinator to make sure that I wasn’t going to get in trouble for her falsifying her mentor documents.”

The Wild West

The largest source of new classroom teachers in Texas come from alternative certification programs. Cave believes a new teacher’s success depends on the structure of their specific program.

“I know that the bigger for-profit programs have thousands and thousands of people in them,” Cave says. “I don’t know how many people they have assigned to work with each new teacher, but I can’t imagine it’s enough.”

“I had a lot of dumb questions my first year, and it’s so hard to be thrown into a classroom with no experience,” Cave says. “This is especially true with programs that include less training and mostly online courses. Unfortunately, that seems to be the new norm.”

Texas law only requires that teachers complete 30 hours of field-based training, and up to half of those hours can be virtual. Cave believes the growing trend of online-only teacher preparation programs that omit hands-on experience and face-to-face mentoring could be a cause for high teacher turnover rates seen in districts all over the state.

“Texas may have one of the least-regulated teacher preparation landscapes in the country,” Cave says. “I have heard it referred to as the ‘Wild West’ due to the lack of requirements and proper oversight. This is all due to the competing interests at play: On the one hand, we need to fill vacancies, and on the other, we need qualified teachers in our classrooms.”

Alternative certification programs are not the only teacher preparation avenues growing in popularity. Cultural exchange programs bring in talented international teachers to both fill vacancies and provide opportunities for foreign educators to bring their culture and expertise to Texas classrooms.

Grow Your Own (GYO) programs are another popular way for districts to fill vacancies by transitioning paraprofessionals, instructional aides, and long-term substitutes to full-time, certified teachers. This approach both promotes diversity and retention by allowing dedicated educators opportunities for advancement within their own district. These programs also target high school students, incentivizing them to pursue a career in public education.

But even with so many options for teacher certification, districts in Texas have significant flexibility for hiring uncertified teachers as well under District of Innovation (DOI) plans.

“Districts are driven to hire uncertified teachers out of desperation due to staffing needs, but that doesn’t mean they have given up on hiring certified educators,” Cave explains.

“Districts want to hire the best, but it is hard to recruit in an environment that doesn’t address the concerns driving teachers out of the classroom in record numbers.”

Pathways to Success

Diane Pokluda was a career educator and has been an ATPE membership specialist since 2012.

“The data we are seeing tells us that the first three to five years are crucial for new educators—regardless of their age—to have support,” Pokluda says. “I have personally had several reach out to me during that timeframe and share they want to get out of their contract. I just don’t know if some of these educator programs are preparing them for the reality of the classroom.”

Pokluda was honored by Tarleton State University in spring 2023 for her work in supporting future educators. She applauds Tarleton for its approach to the realities new teachers face.

“Tarleton has started phasing in a full-year residency program because they want teachers to be more prepared when they actually step foot in the classroom,” Pokluda says. “Some of these other preparation programs take your $5,000 and then don’t give you any support.”

Melissa Becker is a Tarleton professor and former director of its alternative certification program.

“We participate in traditional recruiting in high schools and community colleges where we go into classrooms to promote education careers,” Becker says. “We have also started putting our students into cohorts, where they start the program together and travel through the semesters together, and these groups support and encourage each other all the way through.”

Becker and her team are constantly reaching out to new teachers and staying in touch with alumni through newsletters and social media.

“We have received an increase in our social media interactions with our posts, stories, and reels,” Becker says. “We are tapping our alumni so they can help recruit people into the education profession as well.”

Tarleton’s yearlong paid residency program sends students into the field three to four days a week.

“Several of our partner districts actually pay them a salary while they are finishing that last year,” Becker says. “Yes, we want to recruit, but we also have to learn how to retain those teachers. Tarleton has a great reputation for supporting students in their program. I don’t know that the for-profits have that kind of support. Online programs may be faster, but I would be interested to see what their retention rate is for graduates at the three- to-five-year mark.”

Dr. Cara Malone serves as the Hutto ISD Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources and is also a lifelong educator. Her district’s new apprenticeship program, launching this fall, is designed to train teachers from zero college hours all the way through their degree, including providing on-the-job training while they work in the district.

“We’re incredibly proud because we are the first district in Central Texas to start an apprenticeship program,” Malone says. “We had 197 people show up just for a kickoff, and that netted 96 applications, which led to around 70 interviews. From those, we currently have 49 people that we’re about ready to place into classrooms for our program.”

Malone does not believe Texas has a shortage of people who want to become teachers. Instead, she is convinced that there are many people who have just not been able to find the means to do so.

“These are fantastic, sparkly people who want to be teachers and life just got in the way,” Malone says. “They didn’t finish their degree for some reason, and in the midst of trying to work and take care of themselves and their families, they have not found a way to do what they really want to do in life.”

This particular program is different from a GYO because applicants must be employed with Hutto ISD, attending a university, and receiving on-the-job training.

“We’re not just throwing people in a classroom because we need a teacher in there,” Malone says. “We’re giving people experiences under the direction of a teacher while they are actually receiving training every month. They could be in it for four years, depending upon how many college hours they have when they start. By the time they become a teacher resident in their last year, they will actually have had tons of experiences.”

Malone believes that this system rivals any university training teachers could receive because of all of the classroom experience.

“What we’re really finding is that a significant percentage of adults in Texas have some college, but they may not have an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree,” Malone says.

“So we are tapping into a whole group of people in our community who often end up in support positions, and we are providing a pathway for them to become a teacher but, more importantly, to feel that they are successful.”

Malone works closely on recruitment and retention issues with Gaye Rosser, Hutto ISD’s director of human capital.

“We have the answers to the teacher retention problem,” says Rosser, who is in her 24th year in education. “The question is now what can we do to take those ideas and make them a reality?”

Together, they are taking a proactive stance on recruitment in Hutto, with the ultimate goal of not only filling vacancies but also influencing retention.

“The folks in our program will be walking into a classroom with a full toolkit,” Rosser says. “They will be benefitting from layers of support, experience, and productive feedback to help them grow into successful teachers.”

Creative Solutions

Malone and Rosser have had these ideas in the works for a long time, and they feel that there is a misconception about filling teacher vacancies.

“I propose that it isn’t so much teachers that we lack as it is opportunities for people to become teachers,” Malone says. “People are hungry for these jobs, and we’re just here to guide them.”

Both Malone and Rosser remember getting emotional as they looked out at their first session of candidates to see the faces of people who were ready to teach and just needed the opportunity.

“Potential teachers don’t always have the financial means to go to school, and I have always wished that I had a magic pot full of money to cover their tuition,” Rosser says. “Suddenly, we have devised a pathway for them through Department of Labor funding, so this huge barrier to entry has been opened for so many already.”

Recruitment and retention are often seen as separate issues, but solid recruitment programs lead to greater retention amongst early educators. And Becker believes that making sure teachers have the kind of support that they need before they get their certification is the key to their success in the classroom.

“When we recruit teachers, we need to have in our mind that things are always changing in education,” Becker says. “We need to prepare them to be adaptive and resilient, and the only way to do that is with quality training.”

Although there is no single strategy to attract more quality teacher applicants, there are some innovative and practical recruitment strategies districts can use.

“We need to find ways to support our teachers better than ever before, and we need to find out what makes one teacher successful while the teacher next door is not,” Rosser says. “So we’re in a constant state of exploration.”

As teacher recruitment and retention challenges continue across the state, these vacancies must be addressed. If not by the state, then districts must take matters into their own hands.

“We have research that tells us what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom,” Malone explains. “We shouldn’t just be filling vacancies with warm bodies. Our recruiting and retention strategy is not throwing a dart out there and hoping it hits a bullseye somewhere.”