As Midland ISD Struggles to Keep Teachers, One Parent Searches For Answers
This Summer, we asked you to start sending us your questions about our region -- big or small, silly or serious. It’s all part of a new journalism project we’re calling West Texas Wonders.
High school teacher Ella Lujan posed us a serious question -- just ahead of the new school year, she heard Midland Independent School District still had a large number of teaching vacancies to fill. She asked why employees are leaving in large numbers, and what the district is doing to try and solve the problem.
Turns out, one parent in Midland was already working to figure this out by the time Ella asked her question.
Hunched over her kitchen table, Jennifer Carpenter sifts through a stack of papers marked up with a highlighter. They’re exit surveys, from teachers who have left their jobs with Midland Independent School District.
"These answers are pretty long," says Carpenter, leafing through the various surveys.
She doesn’t work for Midland ISD; she used to manage an Outback Steakhouse, and now she sells makeup online. But every single year since her son started school in Midland, she’s watched one of his teachers leave.
"It really just kinda, it registered this year," she says. "He came home and his favorite teacher was quitting. I just, it just hit a chord with me. I was like, I’m over it!"
So Carpenter became determined to figure out why more than 500 employees left Midland public schools in the last year. That’s nearly a third of the professional staff, people like teachers, aides, nurses and even principals.
Carpenter designed these exit surveys herself.
"I sent it via e-mail, I told them they could reach out to me on messenger, or I gave them the option to come drop it off at my porch or mail it back to me in the mail with no return address. I was like, I just want to hear why."
Heidi Kirk, a former high school English teacher in Midland, had her own reasons. She says in part, she left because of pressure to pass kids without really teaching them.
"The constant fear of, if those kids don’t pass you will lose your job is what kills the spirit of many teachers."
Kirk’s worried kids are graduating without gaining the skills they need to survive in the real world. Midland ISD and the other districts in the region consistently underperform schools in the rest of the state.
And that doesn’t necessarily help keep teachers around. Retention and recruitment struggles aren’t new to the area, said Woodrow Bailey, director of human resources for Midland ISD.
"I’ve been in the district for long enough to know that some years we’ve been hit harder than others," says Bailey.
This is one of them.
According to Bailey, there just aren’t that many certified teachers in the Permian Basin to begin with. Schools in the neighboring city of Odessa are also facing a teacher shortage. Local professionals know they can make more money working in the energy industry than in schools. That makes recruitment extra-tough.
"It used to be basically established, we recruit from February to April. That timeline is long gone away. We recruit all the time."
The energy boom’s also increased the cost of living. Young teachers getting certified in Texas figure their dollar will go further working in cities like Austin and San Antonio.
As for retention: Bailey says Midland ISD is working hard to keep employees around. They offer a competitive salary and free health insurance to staff. They’re looking at teacher housing options and even daycare services for the future.
He says when he sits down with teachers for exit interviews, what he hears mirrors the national trends.
"Well, do we have a morale issue or issues with discipline or are there issues with accountability and all of it’s requirements? Those are the same the same things that other teachers in other cities are saying," Bailey says.
But not everyone who leaves the district gets a face-to-face interview. Some simply complete an online questionnaire. Of the broad categories Bailey’s office uses to report why teachers leave, none specifically address job dissatisfaction.
That’s why Jennifer Carpenter made her own survey. In July, she stood before the school board about her decision.
"I decided a week ago to dig a little deeper," Carpenter told Midland ISD board members. "I reached out and had over 50 plus past and present employees touch base with me about participating in this process. These teachers want to be heard but are so afraid to speak out."
Carpenter lets Midland ISD teachers complete her survey anonymously, since some fear retaliation from school administrators. That anonymity lets them be more frank, like one former Midland teacher who spoke with Marfa Public Radio.
She left Midland and relocated to California this summer. She says her bosses didn’t take safety seriously enough.
"We had a child bring a knife to school and the Assistant Principal, she refused to discipline to child. The students are getting away with behavior that, one day, I’m scared is going to land them in jail or in terrible danger."
Carpenter said the surveys are still trickling in -- she received about 30 back in the first week. So far, the top reasons teachers list for leaving are dissatisfaction with a supervisor and stress on the job.
As of early August, the MIdland ISD still had over 100 professional vacancies to fill.