Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath, from left, Temple ISD Superintendent Bobby Ott and Belton ISD Assistant Superintendent Deanna Lovesmith chat during a luncheon hosted by the Greater Killeen Chamber of Commerce, Temple Chamber of Commerce and Workforce Solutions of Central Texas at the McLane Great Hall on the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor campus in Belton on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. Michael Miller/Telegram

BELTON — Mike Morath, Texas Education Agency commissioner, compared teachers to brain surgeons Wednesday.

The two professions are not held in the same regard, said Morath, the featured speaker at the Central Texas Education Summit. The event was sponsored by the Temple and Greater Killeen chambers of commerce and Workforce Solutions of Central Texas.

Teachers, he told several hundred attendees at the summit, are often dismissed while surgeons are treated with the utmost respect.

A teacher’s job is not too far off from that of a brain surgeon’s, Morath said.

“Our teachers walk into operating rooms every day,” he said, standing at the front of the McLane Great Hall in the Bawcom Student Union at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. “There’s not one mind they’re responsible for — there’s 20 — and there’s no anesthesia involved in that operation. The patients are very wide awake and giving active feedback during the surgery. It is very difficult work.”

Teachers, Morath said, should be treated with the same — or more — respect as brain surgeons, engineers and other highly regarded professions.

“Our entire mindset about the profession has to change,” the state’s top education leader said.

HB 3 bringing changes

Morath expects House Bill 3 — the comprehensive school finance and property tax reform measure the Legislature approved earlier this year — to begin changing people’s perception of teaching.

Teaching is just as complex as brain surgery, the commissioner said.

“So what do we do? The short version is it comes down to two things: It comes down to pay and working conditions,” he said.

HB 3 — which Morath described as “transformational” — addresses full-time teacher pay. The measure will boost the state’s share of public education funding by $6.5 billion and use $5.1 billion to lower school district tax rates.

For example, the Belton Independent School District plans to spend 81 percent of its proposed $111 million budget in the 2019-20 school year on personnel. That figure is 79 percent in the current budget.

Students, Morath said, often cite low pay as a reason for not becoming a teacher after they graduate high school.

“When we start paying teachers more, when we start recruiting teachers based upon their performance and build compensation systems around that performance, that leads into significant shifts in how we view, collectively, the profession,” he said. “It leads to significant shifts in how our 17-year-old hotshots will choose their careers in the future.”

Morath wants teaching to become a highly competitive profession.

“We have to reach a point where we bump into a 17-year-old and we say, ‘You know, you’re pretty sharp. You’re pretty good at math, you might consider a career in engineering or law or something like that. But I’m not sure you’re quite cut out to be a teacher,’” he said. “That is where we have to get to.”

Mental health challenges

JoAnn Purser, a Killeen school board member, asked Morath about mental health in Texas schools.

“Do you have an opinion about mental health counselors (being) on every campus in the state of Texas so that we continue to keep our children on track with academics and also safety?” she asked.

Mental health is a challenge, Morath said. Education is more than just teaching reading and math — it’s about forming a fully functional adult who knows how to go through tough situations, he said.

“We have students who need more significant support, and it is incumbent upon us to make sure we create that right system of support for that,” Morath responded to Purser. “Does that mean we have mental health counselors on every campus? I’ve seen the state; I don’t think that’s practical. Does it mean that we need to have an effective way to deliver that support? Absolutely.”

Balancing accountability

Randy Pittenger — the Belton Area Chamber of Commerce president and a former Belton school board member — said he is concerned about the contradictions he sees in the state wanting to better support teachers while also calling for more accountability testing.

“We grade schools and teachers, (and put) labels that are demoralizing. They’re not helpful,” Pittenger said.

The commissioner said the accountability system does create pressure. But that pressure, he said, has created good results for students.

“Nobody wants to work in an environment that is solely focused on talking about the accountability results because that’s not going to help you,” he said, adding specifics are needed to improve schools’ weak areas. “It is a cross that we bear, in public education, to try to balance the need of evaluating students, and continuing to grow student knowledge and skills while not making our approach to evaluating that demoralizing.”

Morath said he was unsure if Texas would ever be able to find the right balance between these two conflicting needs.