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Editor’s Note: This story contains explicit language.
It was one thing to ask teachers in Texas — during an ongoing teacher shortage — to make extra room in their busy home routines for online classroom instruction for months on end, and then monitor the latest terms of vaccines and masks while waiting and adjusting once again for a return to the classroom.
But now, as teachers attempt to restore all of the learning their students lost during the pandemic, the Texas Legislature has insisted that those teaching K-3 must clear another hurdle: they must take a 60-120 hour course in reading, known as reading academies, if they want to keep their jobs in 2023.
And they have to do it in their spare time, without pay.
For many, like Christina Guerra, 38, a special education teacher from the Rio Grande Valley, the demands of the course are the straw that breaks the camel’s back and sends teachers like her and others out the door.
“I don’t want to do it,” she said. “I refuse, and if they fire me, they fire me.”
Course adds to teachers’ workload
In 2019, the legislature wanted to improve students’ reading results and required teachers to take this reading course. Every teacher working in the early primary grades – kindergarten to ninth grade – as well as principals, had until the end of the 2022-2023 school year to complete it.
But then the pandemic hit, and now many teachers are deciding whether to finish it or stop it.
Tina Haass, a math and science teacher in the Fort Bend Independent School District, often spends her weekends taking the class. After a long day of school, she doesn’t have the mental energy to hop on a computer and skim through seemingly endless sections of the course.
“Fortunately, I don’t have children,” she said. “I can’t imagine some of these teachers have families they have to come home to – they have to cook, they have to take care of their kids.”
This course takes at least 60 hours to complete, but in some cases teachers take up to 120 hours to complete. Most teachers are not paid for their time. Some districts offer stipends, if there is room in their budget.
The exact number of teachers still to complete the course is unknown. According to an update from the Texas Education Agency, nearly 90,000 educators started or finished the course by March 9. In the same agency update, there is no mention of how many K-3 teachers have yet to complete it. The TEA did not respond to questions about the required course or the impending 2023 deadline.
Teachers agree that improving reading scores is important as Texas struggles to meet reading skills assessments. In the latest national assessment of educational progress, known as “The Nation’s Report Card”, less than a third of fourth-grade students have reached or exceeded the proficiency level and only A quarter of eight students met or exceeded the proficiency level.
But the pressures of the pandemic have forced many teachers to reconsider whether they should stay in the profession. From 2010 to 2019, the number of certified teachers in Texas fell about 20%, according to a University of Houston report.
After recent reports of more teacher departures, Governor Greg Abbott formed a task force to address the teacher shortage.
But teachers and public education advocates say the state should hold itself accountable for teacher departures, especially when it adds demands that increase teachers’ workloads.
“I just feel like a lemon squeezing, squeezing, squeezing,” said Guerra, a special education teacher in the La Joya Independent School District. “But there is nothing left, there is nothing left that you avoid. There is no more juice.
Guerra plans to leave the profession at the end of the school year.
Course exceptions, workarounds
As unforgiving as the deadline may seem, there have been some curious exceptions.
The state has authorized districts to exempt teachers of art, health education, music, physical education, oral communication, and theater or drama arts if they have what one calls for certification at all levels, which allows them to teach early childhood education through grade 12.
But not all teachers are certified at all levels. Meredith Connely, an elementary visual arts teacher in the Leander Independent School District, paid nearly $200 and took an exam to receive her full-level certification.
“I see other people on my campus taking it and it seems like $200 well spent, but I shouldn’t have paid,” Connely said. “My time is valuable.”
An Association of Professional Educators of Texas investigation about Of 975 K-3 teachers and administrators surveyed last December, only 11 said they held all-level certification in one of the subjects that could be exempt.
In this Notice to Educators this month, the Texas Education Agency appeared to suggest that agency officials would consider ways to limit the reading academies course to 60 hours. Districts may also allow teachers to test the course.
And the TEA also notified K-6 teachers who passed the Review of the science of teaching reading that they do not have to take the Reading Academies course.
Andrea Chevalier, a lobbyist with the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said the Reading Academies course was well-intentioned. They found that about 65% of teachers surveyed found the content valuable.
When Abbott’s teacher shortage task force meets, Chevalier said teachers’ concerns about the Reading Academies course should be addressed.
In the same survey conducted by Chevalier’s group, nearly half of educators said the course took more than 120 hours to complete. Only 18% said it took them between 60 and 80 hours, and 95% said they worked after hours or on weekends to complete it.
More time for some, but still departures
Haass, the Fort Bend ISD teacher, said she felt the lawmakers who mandated the course didn’t consider the time and effort teachers would have to put into it. Haass, who teaches math and science, said there was no logic behind her because she is not the one teaching children to read.
“This is the hardest—I’m sorry—fuck job I’ve ever had,” she said.
Jessica Jolliffe, assistant superintendent of humanities for the Austin Independent School District, said most teachers in the district work on the course in their spare time, whether it’s after school, on weekends, or vacations. ‘winter. The district gave teachers time on Jan. 4 to work on the course only.
Although teachers prefer not to do it in their spare time, Jolliffe believes the course content has value and can help students develop their reading skills.
Back in the Rio Grande Valley, Guerra said her decision to quit teaching after 14 years was really made over the past two years because of all the interruptions and criticism teachers have faced during the pandemic. That’s what she says. Abbott’s task force needs to respond.
Guerra explains how she thinks teachers have been treated badly in recent years. First, they were accused of not wanting to teach in person. Then, once the teachers were back in the classroom, there were the accusations that the teachers were teaching critical race theory.
“At this point, I feel like there’s no going back for teachers after all of this,” Guerra said. “And Reading Academy is just a kick in the ass after being treated badly for the past few years.”
Disclosure: The Association of Texas Professional Educators and the University of Houston financially supported The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporations sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the journalism of the Tribune. Find a full list here.
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