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Teachers Discuss Student Retention and Engagement at TAMU-CC Conference

Every year, about one-tenth of Texas teachers leave the profession. Among them are many teachers who, after a year or two in the classroom, decide that the field is not for them.

On Friday, several dozen young teachers from Coastal Bend gathered at the new Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi teachers’ conference aimed at combating attrition and supporting recent graduates from the College of Education and Human Development.

Desney Torres, fifth-grade teacher at Smith Elementary School, and Samantha Rodriguez, fourth-grade teacher at Moore Elementary School, are recent graduates. Both attended the conference, eager to learn more about topics such as supporting students with dyslexia and trauma-informed teaching.

Desney Torres, a fifth-grade teacher at Smith Elementary School, takes notes during a class at the Begin Teacher Institute, a continuing education program, at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Friday, June 10, 2022.

In some ways the teaching was what they expected – they had the opportunity to connect with the students and help them grow.

Both said they plan to stay in teaching. They loved school as children and are proud to be able to play a role in helping their students grow and develop.

But they say they have also seen the difficulties of the profession.

Most of their university studies took place before the pandemic, which means that the classroom situations they were prepared for do not correspond to reality.

“I feel like it was a little harder getting into it — getting into teaching and not knowing what to do with your kids who are always late,” Rodriguez said.

During the pandemic, many children have lost valuable learning time. Now, much of the classroom time is spent on testing to assess and address learning loss and remaining gaps.

“Kids are so behind, they’re constantly testing,” Torres said. “The stress is high.”

“For teachers and students,” Rodriguez added.

“It’s good data, of course, but you can tell the kids are tired,” Torres said.

It’s not just new teachers who face these challenges.

“I work with veteran teachers at my grade level, and they struggle as well,” Torres said. “They’ve been teaching for years, but the behaviors, the curriculum, the testing — everything we’re doing is so new because of COVID.”

Teacher retention

According to the Texas Education Agency, 11.57% of teachers in Texas did not return for the 2021-22 school year. Since the 2007-08 school year, rates have fluctuated between 8.59% and 10.58%.

A 2021 survey by the Charles Butt Foundation of 919 Texas teachers found that 68% were seriously considering leaving the profession, up from 58% in 2020.

In March, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the agency to create a task force on teaching vacancies.

In Coastal Bend, school districts have been looking for solutions to attract and retain teachers. Alice ISD raises salaries for the next school year. Other districts are still finalizing their budget plans, but last year Corpus Christi ISD approved increases and allocations that went into effect this year.

The challenges of the pandemic compound the problem, but teacher retention is not a new challenge.

Ten percent of US teachers who started teaching in the 2007-08 school year did not teach the following year. In 2011-2012, 17% were no longer teaching, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Tracy Harper, assistant professor at A&M-Corpus Christi, organized the conference. His alma mater, Abilene Christian University, hosted a similar conference. While working on a doctorate at Baylor University, Harper launched a new institute for teachers. When she applied to work at A&M-Corpus Christi, Harper explained her hopes of starting one here.

Assistant Professor Adrienne Backer teaches a course on supporting traumatized students during the Begin Teacher Institute, a continuing education program, at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Friday, June 10, 2022.

“My research and my passion is to support early career teachers, and I want to do whatever the university can do to make sure we help them succeed, to know that we are still supporting them, and to keep them in the field,” Harper said.

The breakout sessions focused on topics that new teachers often struggle with, Harper said, such as strategies for increasing classroom engagement and tools for differentiating support for all learners.

“We want to do everything we can,” Harper said. “They’ve spent four years investing in a TAMU-CC degree, so we want to do everything we can to make that investment worthwhile.”

Margaret Lara, a Corpus Christi ISD educator, was the keynote speaker for the conference.

“What are you going to do differently to engage, inspire or just pique the curiosity of your students? Lara said. “How about starting by allowing your students to really get to know you? Schedule time to really show students your human side.”

Lara told attendees about her first year teaching kindergarten and how she didn’t realize she had failed to bond with one of her students until the last day of school, when she was shocked to learn that he played harmonica.

“It stuck with me,” Lara said. “After that, I always thought about this. I thought, what am I going to do different?”

She encouraged one-on-one conversations at the start of the school year. Lara also encouraged attendees to say yes to every opportunity that comes their way, explaining the value of attending conferences and connecting and learning from colleagues.

Torres and Rodriguez were particularly interested in a session on trauma-informed care, they said while waiting for the session to begin. They said the pandemic was traumatic for some students and others in their classes had lost loved ones and experienced other traumatic events.

At the start of the presentation, speaker Adrienne Backer, an assistant professor at the university, began by highlighting the recent school shooting in Uvalde.

Assistant Professor Adrienne Backer teaches a course on supporting traumatized students during the Begin Teacher Institute, a continuing education program, at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Friday, June 10, 2022.

“Every time we hear about a tragedy like this, it’s really anxiety-inducing, scary and sad,” Backer said. “It’s also disheartening. I just want to give you all the props, because you’re really brave for deciding to be in education and schools.”

Olivia Garrett reports on education and community news in South Texas. Contact her at [email protected] You can support local journalism by subscribing to the Caller-Times.

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