Heather Sparks has spent her nearly three-decade career in Oklahoma in K-12 education, starting as a public school teacher in Oklahoma City, advancing to administration, and currently serving as director of teacher education at Oklahoma City University.
During this time, Sparks has witnessed a significant decline in fellow Oklahomans committing to the teaching profession. Just this spring, Oklahoma City University suspended its early-childhood and elementary education program due to low enrollment. The dwindling teacher pipeline has had a direct impact on the state’s pool of teaching candidates.
“Once upon a time, we would have 15 qualified applicants for a teaching position. Now we are lucky to have one,” Sparks said.
Teacher shortages present a problem nationwide, as evidenced by teacher vacancies and a precipitous enrollment decline in traditional teacher-preparation programs. Between the 2008-09 and 2018-19 academic years, the number of people completing a teacher-education program dropped by nearly a third, according to a report by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.
Almost half of district leaders and principals labeled their staff shortages as “severe” or “very severe” in a fall 2021 survey by the EdWeek Research Center. AACTE data also revealed that, over the past 50 years, the number of education degrees awarded plunged from 200,000 annually in the 1970s to fewer than 90,000 in 2019. But in Oklahoma, the problems run deeper than in most other parts of the country.
Oklahoma teachers for decades have been among the lowest-paid in the country, though average salaries have improved in recent years. The state was a center for widespread teacher activism and protests in 2018. Teachers there staged a nine-day walkout, which resulted in pay increases, though not as much as originally sought.
A 2018 report by the Oklahoma State Department of Education illuminated a higher-than-national average exodus of Oklahoma teachers. Over a period of six years, 30,000 of Oklahoma’s teachers—about 10 percent of the states’ total teacher workforce—left the profession, compared to 7.7 percent nationwide. And that was before the pandemic.
“I think we’re just starting to see the impact of the pandemic [on teacher attrition],” said Tiffany Neill, deputy superintendent of curriculum and instruction with the state education agency. “We’re still watching the numbers steadily decline in our teacher-preparation programs.”
What will it take to get more teachers into the pipeline?
Recent and proposed statewide initiatives aim to encourage more Oklahomans to train for and teach in the state’s public schools. Launched in the fall of 2021, the Paid Student Teaching Initiative provides students in traditional college-based student-teaching programs a stipend of $1,625 during their student-teaching internship and a second stipend of the same value if hired by an Oklahoma public school after completing their internship. The program will be funded through the 2023–24 school year with federal COVID-19 relief money. Since the program started, 1,120 students have taken advantage of it.
Faith Swart is one of them. The early-childhood education major at Northeastern State University in Broken Arrow, Okla., plans to graduate in December 2022. A first-generation college student, Swart says she has cobbled together the funds for college through multiple scholarships and various side hustles with a goal of graduating debt-free.
As for the stipend she’ll get, Swart says it will go largely toward transportation to and from her student-teaching position at Roosevelt Elementary School in Pryor, Okla., about 25 miles from her home.
“I am hoping to be able to get hired by this school; that is why I chose to stay, even though it is not the closest option to where I live,” she said. “To me, the 50 miles a day is worth it if I can start my career at this school in December when I graduate, or shortly after.”
Some state legislators want to place less of a financial burden on college students like Swart who prepare for and start their teaching career in Oklahoma. One example, introduced during the current legislative session, is House Bill 3564. It would give Oklahoma college students studying to become teachers $1,000 during their first three years of college and an additional $2,500 in their final year. Recipients who are then hired to teach in an Oklahoma public school could be eligible to receive up to $4,000 in an “incentive payment” by the state for up to five years.
Affordability concerns don’t end after college
Jacqueline Rodriguez stresses the necessity of initiatives like this.
“When students consider what their future looks like, they’re all thinking about how they’re going to afford it,” said Rodriguez, vice president of research, policy, and advocacy for AACTE.
For students studying to become teachers, these financial concerns don’t end with college.
“We know that a student who goes into the field of education and takes out student loans may or may not take out more loans than their peers, but their debt-to-earnings ratio is so much greater—it’s almost an unaffordable degree,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not the kind of quality of life a student wants to pursue when they have other options.”
Pursuing work in another industry is one option. Looking for a teaching job in a bordering state is another, says Sparks.
“They reason: I can make $22,000 more just going two hours south,” she said, referring to surrounding states, all of which she says pay teachers more. “That makes perfect sense to our graduates who don’t have ties to the state.”
“We know that a student who goes into the field of education and takes out student loans may or may not take out more loans than their peers, but their debt-to-earnings ratio is so much greater—it’s almost an unaffordable degree.”
Swart, whose ties to her community run deep, isn’t entertaining either option for now.
“I was blessed to grow up in a small town where the community support is above and beyond,” said Swart, who estimates she earned between $5,000 and $8,000 in college scholarships while in high school, mainly through community businesses as well as private foundations. She’s a recipient of the Gatlin Scholarship, offered to local residents who are current college students.
“I think that because I grew up in a small town where money wasn’t everything to us, to me it’s more of how much of a difference I can make, rather than how much money I can make,” Swart said.
Swart strikes mainly an optimistic tone when she talks about her future. She says that some of her biggest inspirations were her elementary school teachers, and she hopes to one day be that same inspiring teacher for children. But into this idealistic vision creeps some wariness.
“I do worry about the salary,” Swart said. “I guess we’ll do what we have to do to make ends meet.”