At the beginning of her now nearly 30-year career, Leslie M. Gauna was given a warning: Bilingual education wouldn’t be a viable career option in the long term.

Yet nowadays the need for Spanish-speaking teachers in the United States is as strong as ever, with districts around the country struggling to hire them fast enough.

The dearth of bilingual teachers is especially counterintuitive in Texas, where Gauna is a professor and where she conducted a qualitative research study on what she calls the “The Leaking Spanish Bilingual Education Teacher Pipeline.” In the paper, Gauna and her fellow researchers identified major life experiences that bilingual Latino teachers said made their paths to becoming educators all the more difficult. Gauna is an associate professor of bilingual/ESL and multicultural education at the University of Houston-Clear Lake’s College of Education.

“A typical situation is that you are speaking the Spanish language at home, and then English in the school setting, and that’s something that sometimes is seen as the de facto,” Gauna says. “[It’s] unfortunate because then the Spanish language at home doesn’t get nurture or doesn’t get developed, and by the time that the candidates wants to reclaim that language — and show proficiency in that language when the state requires them to — they have been robbed, really, of opportunities to keep developing that language.”

The U.S. has nearly 41.8 million Spanish speakers, giving it the fifth-largest population of Spanish speakers in the world, according to data from Spain’s Instituto Cervantes. In Texas, where roughly 40 percent of residents are Hispanic, nearly 1 million students in public schools are English learners who speak Spanish at home.

The Lone Star State’s bilingual students could be considered its pool of future bilingual teachers, according to the research paper. So why is there a shortage of these educators? Through interviews with three bilingual teachers-in-training, Gauna found a series of potential roadblocks that start much earlier in life than when students declare a major in college.

Two Languages Not Equally Valued

One “leak” in the pipeline of bilingual students potentially becoming bilingual teachers starts with how they are treated during grade school, according to the paper.

Interviewee “Esmeralda” started third grade in the U.S. after moving from Mexico with her family, but she wasn’t placed in a program for English learners. She recalls the first American teacher she had thought Esmeralda was faking not knowing English.

“When she called on me and I would answer her in Spanish, she would get so mad, she would stop everything and she would just scream at me . . . Say it in English!” Esmeralda told researchers. “I don’t know how to say it in English [I thought]. Eventually she just stopped calling on me.”

Interviewee “Oscar” had the opposite problem. Despite growing up with Spanish-speaking parents, Oscar eventually lost proficiency in the language and decided to take Spanish classes during high school.

“In class he became the subject of derogatory comments, made by his teacher, referencing Oscar’s limited Spanish proficiency while having a Spanish last name,” researchers wrote. “He remembered how, to cope with the reiterative embarrassment he suffered, Oscar gave up on learning Spanish and told himself, ‘from now on, is nothing but English’ and, as a result, barely passed the class.”

While both Esmeralda and Oscar eventually went on to master English and Spanish, their experiences give examples of how both languages are not equally valued in schools.

This presents a hurdle to growing the number of bilingual teachers, she says, because educators who teach children in Spanish obviously need to be proficient in the language.

But Spanish literacy — reading, writing and speaking — is not nurtured throughout K-12 schooling the way English is, even if children speak both languages when they start school. Rather, Spanish speaking is treated as a barrier to overcome, Gauna says, and schools try to get students into all-English classes by third grade, when standardized testing starts.

That means that bilingual-teacher candidates have the extra burden of becoming proficient in Spanish on top of all the same work as their peers.

To combat this, researchers recommend teaching students to read, write and speak fluently in both English and Spanish, rather than pushing them to transition into English-only classes as quickly as possible. That’s because “becoming proficient in English at the expense of losing the Spanish represents a major leak” in the pipeline of bilingual teachers, the paper states.

Gauna says that the education system must also be affirming of bilingualism, as it’s easy for students to feel as though they’re not good enough in either language. Students may say things like, “My Spanish isn’t good enough for my parents, and if I speak English, I have an accent,” she explains.

She wants students “feeling they have an asset, something to be proud of, not something to be hiding,” Gauna says.

Other Cracks in the Pipeline

All three interviewees reported hearing negative messages about college from their families. Esmeralda’s family of entrepreneurs didn’t understand why she would pursue what was, in their view, a low-paying college major like education. Oscar’s family, on the other hand, pushed him to pursue a trade rather than college. For interviewee “Marlene,” her dedication to school work made her the odd one out among her U.S.-born cousins, who saw it as a waste of time.

Once they were in teacher prep programs, the report’s subjects said they didn’t feel like they had adequate support in their pursuit of bilingual certification. Esmeralda said she felt pressured to teach in English to get a good evaluation from a supervisor, even though her students wouldn’t understand the lesson.

“Because [the supervisor] doesn’t speak Spanish . . . she [didn’t] pay as much attention as she pays when observing someone in English,” she told researchers. “Afterwards my [cooperating] teacher told me ‘whenever an administrator comes to observe, try to get the main things in English.’ I had to pick [to speak Spanish to] the students because they are the ones who get the most affected.”

Bilingual teacher candidates in Texas also must take an intensive five-hour exam, Gauna says, to prove their competence not only in the language but in the pedagogy of teaching English learners.

“These are the only teacher candidates in Texas, and I would say in the entire U.S., that they have to create a lesson on-the-spot, right there and then, to show proficiency in Spanish,” Gauna says, adding that a Texas law passed in 2023 will change the exam over the next two years to focus on language mastery. “That is, I think, attending to the cry of teacher educators like ourselves, where we believe it is an unfair burden to the candidates and also contributing to the scarcity of [bilingual] educators.”

A Need That’s Not Going Away

Even if universities don’t always have enough support for bilingual teacher candidates, Gauna says the interest for that certification will remain even if the support does not.

She recalls how the number of bilingual tenure-track faculty at her own alma mater, the University of Houston main campus, in the education program dwindled to none between the time she graduated with her master’s degree to her later return for her doctoral degree.

The people who kept that program alive, Gauna says, were the students.

“It was because my students at UH Main, they knocked on our door to be certified, even though they were not any tenure-track [bilingual education] faculty anymore,” Gauna says. “‘I want to help people like me,’ that’s the most common phrase I heard, I would say 100 times or more.”

It’s those students, in addition to the data, that have proven the naysayers from the beginning of Gauna’s career — the ones who said bilingual education was a risky path — wrong.

“It really makes me want to clarify that there’s no such thing that, ‘Bilingual education is going to end,’” Gauna says. “Even 200 years ago, we had bilingual education in this same state. We had German. We had Spanish. Bilingual education is going to exist because it’s a need, and because it’s part of the languages that we have.”