Commentary

I Was Tired of How Politicians Treated Teachers. So I Became a Politician

—Jonathan Bouw for Education Week

One teacher explains why he left the classroom for the statehouse

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This is a story about how I lost my cool.

As a teacher, I learned to put up with a lot of nonsense: disruptive students, lame excuses, and dumb bureaucratic rules. For 25 years, I handled classrooms with a smile and learned to kill with kindness. The truth is, I loved my job. I went to work every day thinking about the possibilities ahead of me. But over the last few years, it became harder and harder to keep that smile on my face.

If you're a teacher, too, you know what I'm talking about. Politicians cut education budgets everywhere, leaving teachers with larger class sizes and fewer resources, even as new education standards increased workloads. In my state of Oklahoma, teachers went a decade without a raise. All too many of them left the state or the profession to provide for their families.

"Where I had been one of the only teacher candidates, I now had lots of company."

I decided to do something about it. I went to talk to my state legislators several times, asking them to reverse tax cuts to pay for necessary public services. One time, I brought a novice teacher with me. She told a representative that she had to live with her parents to make ends meet. His response: "You knew that going in, didn't you?"

I think that's when I snapped. A few months later, I posted something foolish on Facebook—a declaration of candidacy. I was committed. I ran for a state Senate seat in the middle of Tulsa, Okla. I was a Democrat, and the district leaned heavily Republican, but I was too mad to care. I put together a team, knocked on 25,000 doors, and made education a central issue of the campaign. And I lost. In 2016, the year of Trump, it was too much to ask in such a red district.

But the issue didn't go away. Two years later, teachers were ready to revolt all over the country. Where I had been one of the only teacher candidates, I now had lots of company. I declared my candidacy for a House of Representatives district. And there was the walkout. For nearly two weeks, teachers, supported by their local school boards, shut down the school system statewide and assembled at the capitol. The politicians did everything they could to avoid us, and after two weeks of demonstrations made only minor concessions to our demands for smaller classrooms and greater support.


See Also: Over 170 Teachers Ran for State Office in 2018. Here’s What We Know About Them


I went back to the campaign trail. Rage was again my ally. I had seen too many colleagues walk away, too many children denied the full benefit of the education that is their birthright. So I went back to knocking doors. I knocked doors when it was raining. I knocked doors when the wind was blowing beer cans down the street. I knocked at zero degrees and at 110 degrees. I went to meetings, rallies, and gatherings. I spoke to journalists and (of course) posted lots of stuff on social media. This time, more people were listening. I went on to victory this past November.

Here's what I learned: To paraphrase Gordon Gekko, rage is good. We teachers have to be ready to say, "We're not going to take it anymore!" In Oklahoma, West Virginia, Arizona, California, Colorado, and elsewhere, teachers have been learning how to stand up for the kids they serve.

I know—good teachers were already standing up for their kids all the time. But we depend on politicians and legislatures to take care of us while we take care of the children. That's not enough anymore. Teachers have to become more effective advocates for their profession if we want to see public schools thrive in the 21st century.

At the beginning of this month, I took my seat in the Oklahoma House of Representatives as we take up the people's business. There's a lot on our current agenda: proposed Medicaid expansion, criminal justice reform, and the future of our public schools. Teachers gained a lot of ground in the last election, but I can already see some warning signs. The governor wants to keep most of this year's budget surplus (gained by making some overdue tax corrections in the last legislature) for a rainy day fund, even though most state agencies remain starved of funding. And there's a slew of bills designed to extend vouchers, mostly to enable middle-class families to drop their public school obligations in favor of private schools.

Sounds like I'll need to stay angry.

Vol. 38, Issue 23, Page 24

Published in Print: February 27, 2019, as I Channeled My Rage Into Winning an Election
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