There's No Place Like Home

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Teachers tend to use their degrees not as tickets to see the world but as ways to get back home.

Midwest City, Okla.

Midwest City lies smack-dab at the bellybutton of the United States. The land is flat, the summers are stiflingly hot, and the local drive-ins do a brisk business in icy-cold chocolate malts and 99-cent corn dogs.

It's not everyone's idea of paradise, but the Oklahoma town does have enormous drawing power for teachers who grew up here, went to college, and came back to teach in their old school. In fact, in some local schools, at least one in every three teachers is an alumnus, and many of the rest hail from other nearby towns.

For Pam May, a 7th-grade English teacher, Midwest City holds special appeal because it's where she has lifelong friends, family, and a spot in local history. In 1964, she was named Carl Albert High School's first-ever Miss Titan, an all-sports queen that still gives her mini-celebrity status here.

After graduation, May attended Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Along the way, the former cheerleader married a high school football player (they are now divorced), embarked on her teaching career, and gave birth to three daughters. She taught in nearby schools for 15 years before finally landing a job back at Carl Albert Junior High.

Her two youngest daughters--twins--just finished their senior year at Mom's high school alma mater. Stacey made the town a little nostalgic earlier this year when she captured the 1996 Miss Titan crown. Her sister Casey was first runner-up.

Maybe May's story is just one of the many ways history repeats itself in small communities, where family ties and tradition are a big part of why so many teachers return home. Or maybe there's more to it.

According to national estimates, three-fourths of teacher candidates--most of whom are women and attend in-state colleges--want to teach in the small towns or suburbs where they grew up. Education observers admit that home-grown teachers help preserve local values and lifestyles. But they worry that a teaching force made up largely of people who don't venture out of their home states--for training or jobs--has led to parochialism in K-12 education. Others say the employment pattern feeds an already troublesome shortage of teachers in urban areas and isolated rural communities. Still others worry that local teachers might be more inclined to cling to traditional teaching practices rather than embrace new ideas and reform strategies. What's more, experts say, these teachers may lack the broad perspectives they need to serve a student population that becomes more diverse by the year.

May, who lives a stone's throw from her childhood home, admits that she may not be as worldly as the next teacher. But she insists that she strives to be a caring and dedicated teacher to all her students. And for that, she adds, there is no substitute. As far as living here, the third-generation Oklahoman is equally certain that, for her, there's no place like home. "I liked the school when I was here, and this is where I wanted to be," May says. "I think there's a lot to the idea of stability, as long as you look at it as stability and not stagnation."

When Carl Albert Junior High Principal Joyce Honey first estimated how many of her 60 staff members attended the school or grew up here, she guessed about 10. When she did the official tally, the number doubled to 20. Though Honey was surprised, education experts say Midwest City is exactly the kind of town that recaptures many of its own teachers. And why not, ask the teachers who live here.

Midwest City's population of 54,000 is neither tiny nor particularly large. Flowering crepe myrtles line neighborhood streets. The adjacent 5,000-acre Tinker Air Force Base provides a steady revenue stream to local businesses. And a three-bedroom house with a two-car garage and a spacious yard can be had for around $75,000.

On Sunday mornings in Midwest City, family vans crowd church parking lots and shopping centers are empty.

On Sunday mornings, family vans crowd church parking lots while shopping centers stand empty. By afternoon, sprawling parks become a concert of playful children, Little Leaguers, and parents doling out picnic fixings. And for a change of pace, downtown Oklahoma City is only 20 minutes away along a stretch of open highway that any city-dweller would envy.

"We have a good police department, a good fire department, a nice hospital, and a regional park," says Ann Creider, the junior high school librarian, former teacher, and lifelong resident. "We have the facilities and services of a nice urban area."

And, residents say, there's plenty to brag about in the schools, too. Though Oklahoma ranks in the bottom quarter of teacher pay nationally, teachers in the 15,700-student Mid-Del school district are among the state's best-paid. Voters have defeated just two of the district's annual bond initiatives in the past 50 years--despite the 60 percent supermajority needed for approval.

"There's support from the community and a belief that people from the school system are doing a good job," school board member Richard N. Corwin says.

The district does recruit teachers from outside the area, especially minority educators, but it doesn't hurt to have local school colors as part of your hometown credentials. "There's the pride that exists in wanting to serve the community you grew up in," Corwin says of the local teachers. "They're more apt to not jump and go to another district. We have a lot of veterans who have been here 20 to 30 years."

Still, residents are not immune to the social ills of major metropolitan areas. Any innocence was lost after the April 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. Even before that, school officials were working with police to squelch spillover gang activity from the city.

It's just that local teachers have a lot of positives to focus on. "We are respected as professionals," says Rita D'Andrea, a 7th-grade geography teacher and a 1969 Carl Albert High graduate. "When we go down the street, it's 'Hi, Mr. and Mrs. D'Andrea.' It's not like that everywhere." Her husband, Mark, a high school classmate, teaches science down the hall. Their daughter, Holly, is a 9th grader here.

"The biggest discipline problems at our school are little things like stink bombs and tardiness," says Teresa Wilkerson, who teaches English at her alma mater, the 800-student Carl Albert Junior High. "I don't have any real problems, but I hear from other teachers about disrespect."

Wilkerson, who has also coached the school's cheerleading squad to three national championships insix years, likes to tell the story about asking her former principal why he hired her. She remembers his blunt, but honest answer: "Because your blood runs red and gray."

Education experts have long known that teachers tend to pick the familiar over the unknown when looking for work. In that way, Midwest City is the rule--not the exception. Teachers from Boise, Idaho, to Bangor, Maine, no doubt have similar stories to share.

But in recent years, data have emerged to dramatically underscore the prevalence of hometown teachers. Moreover, growing pressures to deliver a world-class education to an increasingly diverse student population have prompted many observers to question the long-held employment pattern.

From 1987 to 1994, the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education studied the backgrounds and employment patterns of random samples of education students from across the country. The findings were telling: Seventy-six percent of the students were female, 91 percent were white, and nearly half spoke no language other than English. But even more to the point, more than 75 percent of them attended college within 100 miles of their hometowns and said they wanted to return to their suburban or rural small towns to teach.

It's hard to find national statistics that compare the number of teachers who return home, say, to hometown accountants. But experts suggest that other professionals are more willing to spread their wings.

"Teachers are more likely to take positions in their home states than are business or liberal arts graduates," says Larry K. Hannah, the career-services director at Emporia State University. Though most of the university's 6,000 students are from Kansas, almost 90 percent of its teacher education graduates stay in state. That's higher than the rate among students in other fields, Hannah says, where just 65 percent to 70 percent of Emporia graduates stay in Kansas.

Education observers offer up various explanations for this homeward-bound attitude.

"People like to teach people like them."

Gary R. Galluzzo
University of Northern Colorado

"People like to teach people like them," says Gary R. Galluzzo, the education dean at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley and a member of the AACTE research team. "Where's the easiest place to find people like you? Where you grew up."

Other theories hold that teachers are often first-generation college graduates with family obligations, such as helping support siblings, that keep them close to home. And for some, simply enrolling in a local college, not to mention a distant out-of-state campus, is a big step.

These first-time collegians may also be more inclined to go into teaching to replicate the positive school experiences they've had as students, suggests Nancy L. Zimpher, the dean of education at Ohio State University in Columbus and another member of the AACTE research team.

Allen Glenn, the education dean at the University of Washington in Seattle, also sees the trend beginning when students attend local teacher colleges. It continues when they parlay hometown student-teaching stints into full-time jobs. And once employed, he adds, teachers often stay put because it is difficult to transfer benefits. "Is it good or bad?" Glenn asks. "It is good if they are good teachers who can help kids learn. It's bad when they are not particularly good teachers, and they stay because they are tied to the community."

But at a time when the nation's school population is becoming more ethnically diverse, the teacher candidate pool is not keeping pace. "I think that in our contemporary and diversified population, you'd be looking at a different profile," Zimpher says. "But to our concern, it looks like it always has."

In particular, some observers worry that when teaching staffs are mostly white and homogeneous, minority students are deprived of role models and teachers have a harder time adjusting to influxes of racially and ethnically diverse children.

"It may be good for teachers to return to their hometowns," says Mary E. Diez, the dean of the school of education at Alverno College in Milwaukee. "If schools are meant to pass on the mores of society and culture, they surely know best their own areas. That's also a problem, of course, in a multicultural society where children need to be initiated as citizens of the world."

Says David Haselkorn, the president of Recruiting New Teachers Inc., a nonprofit group in Belmont, Mass., that promotes teaching as a profession, "Teachers need to meet the needs of every child, not just ones who look like them or bring similar backgrounds to the classroom."

Some school officials, indeed, count on outside recruits as a way to infuse new ideas and experiences into the classroom. "Because we draw teachers from across the country, this is a melting pot of ideas," says Brian Cram, the superintendent of the 178,000-student Clark County school system in Las Vegas. "We don't have the problem of the same old folks talking to the same old folks."

Critics also charge that by favoring their own suburban or small towns, local educators are leaving urban school systems and the most rural of American towns hard-pressed for teachers. Even in communities with a glut of teachers, educators tend to take jobs outside of their profession rather than relocate to where jobs are.

"The implications are that, if there is a teacher surplus or deficit somewhere," says Penelope Early, a senior director at AACTE, "we can't be assured that teachers educated in Florida will want to go to Montana."

School administrators, however, say it's a real advantage to have a pool of local applicants. Honey, for one, likes local alumni but adds that past residency is neither a requisite nor a guarantee for a job at Carl Albert Junior High. "I think the fact that they spend time here means they bring a lot of loyalty to the community," she says. "They're less likely to be mobile." On the other hand, Honey adds, she has turned away her share of local applicants. "I don't need people who just want to be faculty members."

Janell Jones would be a prize catch at any school. As it happens, she teaches chemistry at Carl Albert High, her alma mater. This year, she coached her varsity girls' basketball team to the 1996 state championship. And she's involved with the community, spending summer days coaching her 11-year-old son's "Hotshots" basketball team in a gymnasium that feels more like a sauna.

Jones, unlike many of her native Midwest City peers, has taught outside of Oklahoma. She was in Rochester, Minn., from 1986-88 while her husband attended graduate school at the Mayo Clinic. But her local ties illustrate just how hard it is to permanently lure someone like Jones from her hometown. Her parents live two miles away in the same country home where she grew up. And, like many teachers, she is the family's secondary breadwinner. Her husband, Darryl, also a Carl Albert High graduate, is a nurse anesthetist whose 25-hour workweek affords a lifestyle complete with a backyard swimming pool and motorboating on weekends. Darryl's job--and the reasonable cost of living here--would be hard to replace.

When Jones talks of her return home to teach, she points to certain freedoms that she missed in Minnesota. She says she feels more comfortable sharing her Christian beliefs with students here. She leads her teams in prayer before games and has given her players a key chain with the same prayer on it that her Carl Albert coach once gave her."We couldn't mention Christmas when I was in Rochester," she recalls.

Janell Jones is paying back a debt of gratitude to her own high school teachers.

Jones also speaks of a debt of gratitude to her high school teachers, many of whom are now her peers. "I was an ugly, nerdy girl," Jones claims. "I sat home Friday and Saturday nights and watched Lawrence Welk. But my teachers made school a good place for me. They got my heart."

Even so, Jones says her time in Minnesota was invaluable. Regular lab projects at her school, combined with the hands-on chemistry training she received there, define how she teaches today. It also outstrips any experience she has gotten here, she says.

"Honestly, I don't feel like I would be as good a teacher as I am now if I had not gone out and experienced something else," she says. "No one at Carl Albert was teaching the way I learned out there."

But teaching in a community where so many people know you can have its drawbacks.

Jones found that it took some time to establish her identity as a grownup and a teacher with Carl Albert peers who used to grade her tests and give her advice about boys. "At one time, they were on pedestals," she says. "It was hard to be at their level and say, 'I don't agree with you.'"

And then there's the toll hometowns can take on privacy. Wilkerson was 18 when she married the man she had been dating since 5th grade. So it came as quite a shock to their longtime mutual friends when the couple recently decided to divorce. But what shocked Wilkerson was the amount of talk the breakup generated among adults and students who read about it in the legal notices of the local paper or heard about it through the grapevine. "It was the buzz of the town," says Wilkerson, who has two young boys from the marriage. "I teach standards of loyalty and self-pride. As a teacher, it was hard to say I failed."

And peer pressure--when it comes from people you grew up with--can be even more daunting. When Wilkerson recently tried to step down as the cheerleading coach, she was so overwhelmed by the outpouring of emotional pleas from friends and acquaintances who wanted her to stay that she retracted her resignation.

But such inconveniences apparently aren't enough to coax these local teachers into calling personnel departments in, say, Los Angeles or even Oklahoma City, where they could maintain a lower profile. "To deal with those kids in that setting, you really have to be a true teacher," Jones says. "I've got it easy compared to those teachers, but they must get terrific rewards."

"Would I do it?" she asks, shaking her head before admitting that she probably would not. "It's like dreaming you're a professional basketball player."

May has become a frequent visitor to Chicago since her oldest daughter, Amy, moved there to begin a career as a stand-up comedian. One day, May says, she wants to visit a school there. But is there anything that would make her want to import her trade there?

"I'm not sure there's anything that would make me," she concedes. "But I think it would be interesting to observe a school in Chicago."

But just as local teachers generalize about urban schools, Midwest City transplants--especially teachers who move here from urban settings--have their own fears and misperceptions about smaller communities.

Joy Ahmad grew up in the predominately black Watts area of Los Angeles. She earned undergraduate and master's degrees at Stanford University, where she met her future husband, an Oklahoma native.

When they moved here 20 years ago, Ahmad home-schooled their young daughters rather than place them in the local schools. "I was apprehensive about letting my kids go to school here," says Ahmad, a counselor at Putnam City High School in Oklahoma City. "I worried, 'What if they've never seen a black kid in their lives? How are they going to handle it?'"

Two years later, Ahmad took a teaching job at nearby Rose State College and put her children in public schools. All four of the Ahmads' daughters have attended Mid-Del schools, including Carl Albert Junior High and Carl Albert High. (Her second oldest, Basheerah, is the reigning Miss Black America.)

"I was so pleasantly surprised. We found a satisfactory experience at Mid-Del," says Ahmad, who adds that there were few minorities in her daughters' classes. "Their most exciting and interesting teachers have been from here."

But Ahmad, who now leads cultural-sensitivity workshops for educators, knows that race-related tensions and questions do exist for some local teachers, especially as more minority students settle in the area. Midwest City's population is now 77 percent white, 16 percent black, nearly 4 percent American Indian, and 3 percent other minorities.

Mostly, she says, teachers worry about whether minority students will accept them. But they also wonder if they'll be tempted to overcompensate by tolerating bad behavior to prove they're not prejudiced. "Some teachers think they need to understand everything about a child to teach him, and that can get in the way of teaching," Ahmad says. "I tell them that these are children first. As an educator, you have to let go of that fear of a new culture."

New York native Silvya Kirk, an assistant principal at Carl Albert High, put her children in a private school after moving here from Miami in 1987. Her husband had been transferred to nearby Tinker Air Force Base. But after a year of hearing good reports about the Mid-Del system, she, too, put her children in the local public schools.

Kirk, who is also African-American, admits that the district does lack the breadth of offerings available in a larger system. She even concedes that some local teachers have a limited world perspective. But, in the end, Kirk praises schools here for embracing new ideas and making the most of their resources. To help bolster local minority teacher ranks, for instance, Kirk helped the school start a teacher-cadet program a few years ago to introduce minority students to education as a career. It's vastly unfair, she says, to assume that, "because a teacher's from here and will be here until he or she leaves the earth, there's no growth."

Canadian-born teacher Mary Porter says her peers at Carl Albert Junior High have always welcomed her as a member of their community, though it's obvious she's not from Oklahoma. But she does have one pet-peeve: what she calls a sports-crazy attitude that includes competitive sports between primary schools. In her opinion, such programs in the schools prematurely point out who's good in competition and who's not. "We lose some of these kids in the early grades," says Porter, who coaches golf and volleyball. "I'd prefer intramural sports, but I'm told that's not discussed."

When pressed, her colleagues explain that this is how sports have always been played in the Mid-Del schools. Like so much of life in small towns, it's all about tradition.

But as long as tradition runs strong here--for better or worse--Pam May hopes it will play a role in bringing at least one of her daughters back home some day. "I don't even want to think about them leaving," she says of her college-bound twins, both of whom are now studying business at Oklahoma State University, her college alma mater.

And she may get her wish.

"It would be neat to move away," Stacey says. "But once I got married, I'd like to move back here. I want my kids to go to Carl Albert."

And maybe, just maybe, Stacey will even teach there.

Vol. 16, Issue 03

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