By Colleen Flaherty
Killeen Daily Herald
For many teachers, the profession is more of a vocation than a job, rich with opportunities to make a difference and effect change in future generations.
The gig is not without its stressors - paper airplanes, helicopter or absent parents, mountains of papers to grade - but it has traditionally come with certain perks, including a reliable job market; for much of American history, those qualified and willing to teach have been able to do so.
Indeed, the number of certified Texas teachers has only increased in recent years, from 276,845 in 2005 to 309,140 in 2009, according to data from the Texas Education Agency. The number of teachers certified by alternative means - roughly semester-long online or face-to-face courses for degree-holders costing about $5,000 - nearly doubled over the same period, even as traditional four-year certification numbers declined. The trend suggests that as other sectors contracted, some Texans switched to careers in education, seeing certification fees as a good investment on a reliable career that promises starting salaries of up to $40,000.
Until this year.
The economic crisis has finally trickled down to school systems across the state, and as many as 100,000 current public school staffers remain in limbo, waiting to see if funding for their positions materializes by August. Locally, more than 150 personnel positions are being shed in the Killeen Independent School District as it faces a projected $28 million revenue reduction for the next fiscal year. Teachers constitute the largest portion of the positions eliminated.
Tough to find jobs
As summer approaches, that leaves new teachers like Lourdes Corderro-Hilfman even further out in the cold.
"It's really tough," said the recent Tarleton Model for Accelerated Teacher Education graduate. "I currently do substitute teaching and there are already schools that are not hiring at all, they're downsizing."
Corderro-Hilfman finished the Texas A&M University-Central Texas alternative certification course last summer. Ideally, students go on to secure full-time positions starting in the fall or mid-term.
Corderro-Hilfman, of Harker Heights, has been looking for a teaching position all year, she said, but the specter of budget cuts has frozen hiring across many area districts.
"I never would have thought that this was going to happen," she said, calling it ironic that the year she decided to get into teaching was the year it would be next to impossible to get a job. It's an irony multiplied by the fact that Corderro-Hilfman, who holds a graduate business degree, decided to become a teacher in part because her former job in loan servicing was cut during the recession.
Even those who have invested four years in their teaching credentials are having trouble finding work. Out of the 51 University of Mary Hardin-Baylor education students who graduated Saturday, less than 5 had found positions at public or private schools for next year.
That's not dire for this early in the hiring season, department chair Carolyn Owens said, but it is behind previous years' hiring trends.
Owens and her fellow education faculty members have spent time coaching graduates for the fight that lies ahead.
"We've been reviewing interview techniques and just trying to boost their morale to keep them out there and keep trying," said Marlene Zipperlen, dean of education. "We tell them to check (school districts') websites every day or every other day, and not to give up, because they are still hiring."
Science, math and special education remain high-need areas, Owens said, and additional certifications like English as a Second Language can bolster candidates' chances of getting hired.
While education rolls are holding steady for next year at the university, according to information from its education program, the teaching crisis has impacted alternative certification program enrollment.
Just 40 students will participate in the Tarleton program this summer, whereas past summers' have attracted between 100 and 150 teacher hopefuls, according to information from the school. State Education Service Center Region 12's fall alternative certification enrollment is also expected to be down, program director Wayne Rolf said, although he's "holding out for July and August." The region, based in Waco, offers a program in Nolanville.
Vernon Reaser, president of Texas Teachers, the state's largest online alternative certification program, said dips in enrollment are to be expected at such times, but with the state growing by up to 85,000 school-aged children each year, Texas will always need teachers.
He believes that the state has already begun to turn the economic corner and that its estimated education budget shortfalls will be smaller than predicted, he said.
Corderro-Hilfman, 27, hopes that's true, and that she'll find a full-time job. She doesn't know when or where that will be, she said, but she's hopeful her bilingual skills will play to her advantage in her search.
Retired Killeen police officer Andrew Pence of Kempner will begin his education career this summer through Tarleton's accelerated program.
The timing is less than ideal, he said, but he's mentally and financially prepared to wait out the market, at least for a year. He's hoping that his law enforcement and life experience will give him a leg-up on recent college graduates, and he believes he'll make a good fourth-, fifth- or sixth-grade teacher.
"There's a not a lot of men in the field anymore," he said. "It's great to have those role models in the school system."
Herald reporter Andy Ross contributed to this report.
Contact Colleen Flaherty at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7559. Follow her on Twitter at KDHfeatures.