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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

5 Reasons Why the Oklahoma Teacher’s Walkout Needs to Be a Turning Point in Education

By Peter DeWitt — April 05, 2018 6 min read
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Over the last few years, we have seen many negative changes to public education. As a former school principal in New York State, I not only remember when a few of us wrote a letter voicing our opposition to the New York State Education Department tying teacher evaluation to state assessments; I also remember the devastating effects of budget cuts, teacher layoffs, increased accountability measures and unfunded mandates.

We often felt as though we were in the eye of the storm, and too often we lacked support from the state education department, and we certainly did not get any help from the US Department of Education. Sadly, back then we saw the end of relationships among colleagues who worked closely together because it came down to two sets of people; those who wanted to speak out, and those who complained behind closed doors but didn’t want to speak out.

It wasn’t that those of us who were outspoken didn’t want to see changes to public education, because we knew, and still understand now, that public education is far from perfect. For every good story that one side can report based on real events, the other side can report a negative one on real events as well. There will always be a handful of administrators and teachers who can ruin the reputation of the profession.

A Perfect Storm?
There seems to be a new perfect storm that is taking place lately, all of which are based on tragic and devastating events. Fed up with school shootings and massacres becoming the norm in the United States, students took to the streets to voice their opposition to gun laws. The protest began after Parkland, but it really has been festering for much, much longer.

Some adults did not like seeing the student protests happen. It’s strange because there are some people who wish the youth in our country would break away from their handheld devices and online games in order to go outside and do something productive, until that productive stance of going outside goes against the beliefs of the adults who have been complaining about the youth in the first place.

Recently, we have also seen teachers voice their opposition to gun laws and school shootings. And now, we have seen teachers in several states voice their opposition to low pay and a lack of resources in their classrooms due to inequitable funding. It may seem like the protests against gun laws and school shootings is not related to the protests about equal pay, but I believe that they are very much related.

Educators are tired of the negative rhetoric, and unsafe situations in school. They are tired of politicians giving lip service by saying, “Pray for the families,” and then going back to doing the same backdoors deals party politics that they have always done. They are tired of hearing politicians during election time say that teachers deserve better, and then after the elections are over those same politicians say, “Be patient, we have other things that take precedence,” and then go on arguing over trivial issues.

Why the Narrative May Change This Time
The rhetoric around public education has not been kind. We have seen our last few US Secretaries of Education say deplorable things about public education. The public education that they are hired to lead, but too often try to separate themselves from on a regular basis. That negative rhetoric carries through to the way public education is reported in the media and on television shows. We always seem to be confronted with the negative and seedy side.

And then along comes a few protests that may be changing the way we view public education. The very strong youth in our country fighting for a better school climate where active shooter drills should not be the norm, and teachers standing up and fighting for better pay and more equitable resources.

There are 5 reasons why the strike on the part of teachers in Oklahoma may be the turning point that public education needs. Those five reasons are:

Teachers buy their own supplies - I remember when I was a teacher in a high poverty city school, a student showed up on the first day of school with an empty backpack. When I began to help him put his supplies away, and then noticed he didn’t have any in his backpack, he simply said, “My mom said you would buy them for me.” It seems to be a forgone conclusion that teachers should pay for their own supplies. This strike addresses this issue at an important time. After all, Ben Carson didn’t pay for the supplies in his extravagant HUD office, and yet teachers are expected to pay for theirs? People are tired of the inequalities.

There is not enough time for learning in just 4 days - Don’t know what I’m talking about? Did you know that there are numerous schools in Oklahoma that are only open 4 days a week, and yet are expected to cover the same amount of learning as their colleagues in schools that are open 5 days a week? Why are they only open 4 days a week? Budget cuts. It’s disgusting that this is being allowed to happen to our students, teachers and leaders. I hope this strike brings an end to it.

Leaders, teachers, students and families are fighting together - In Oklahoma, leaders from the Oklahoma State Education Department, universities, school-based leaders, district leaders, teachers, students and families are all protesting together. It is not often that leaders from the state education department, those at universities, and school-based stakeholders strike together. That will send a very loud message to politicians and policy makers. Support us or we will remember who you are and vote you out.

Tired of scraps - Most people get into teaching because they love students, content or a bit of both. They don’t often ask for much. Just a room with supplies so they can set up an optimal learning space for students. Too often they get placated with minimal supplies and then go back to their classrooms thankful for the small amount of help they received, and feeling a bit selfish because they had to ask in the first place. Active shooter drills should no longer be the norm in schools...proving equitable supplies should be the norm if we truly want to help students reach their full potential.

Teachers are dealing with more than you can imagine, and need help - It’s easy to sit behind the computer screen on Facebook and complain about how easy teachers have it. 10 months of work, snow days that inconvenience families, and a 6 ½ hour work day. Very few teachers actually have this luxury. Most teachers work several jobs to make ends meet so they can support their families at home, and their students at school. They also have classes with students who excel at learning, mixed in with those students who have social-emotional issues because they come from a background of trauma. School shootings and strikes are making others aware of it, and we shouldn’t have to go back to those devastating circumstances.

In the End
For the last year, I have had the good fortune of running a collaborative leadership competency-based course through the University of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma State Education Department. I spent over six months with twenty-five school leaders, several retired school leaders who work as amazing leadership coaches, and a few impactful leaders from the university and state education department.

Those individuals work extremely hard to have an impact on students and teachers. They have spent countless hours trying to engage families, at the same time those leaders and teachers have worked for salaries that many of the naysayers of the strike would never work for on a daily basis.

In the last few days I have seen them striking together, posting on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets. I believe if any group can help change the narrative about public education and make it a better climate for students, those educators in Oklahoma are the ones who can do it.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017). Connect with him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Cutler.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.