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Recruitment & Retention

This State Is Giving New Teachers Up to $20K to Stay on the Job. But There’s a Catch

By Madeline Will — November 30, 2023 8 min read
Third grade teacher John Watkins works in his classroom at Grove Elementary School on Aug. 11, 2022 in Tulsa, Okla.
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Clarification: The story has been updated to clarify that all University of Central Oklahoma students enrolled in the scholarship program are education majors.

Oklahoma’s teacher pipeline is buckling.

It now has far more emergency certified teachers in classrooms—who have no formal training—than it does yearly graduates from its university-based teacher education programs. Through a new scholarship program, the state is trying to reverse those trend lines.

This school year alone, the Sooner State has issued at least 4,450 emergency teaching certificates to people who hold a bachelor’s degree but haven’t met the state’s teaching qualifications. And there are hundreds more adjunct teachers, who typically have work experience but not a teaching certificate or a college degree.

Superintendents, teacher educators, and some state policymakers say this is a real problem: Emergency certified and other underprepared teachers are associated with decreased achievement for all students, research shows. Traditionally prepared teachers have a stronger level of content knowledge and remain in the classroom longer than emergency certified teachers, according to state data.

“We have to have professionals in those classrooms,” said Goldie Thompson, the associate vice chancellor of teacher preparation and special programs for the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, the coordinating board for the state’s public colleges and universities.

Yet fewer and fewer people are enrolling in and graduating from university-based teacher education programs in the state, data over the past decade show. And teacher educators say those who do graduate are often reluctant to teach in Oklahoma, where average salaries lag behind those in neighboring states, and teachers are under scrutiny on how they teach difficult subjects.

One way the state is attempting to solve the problem is through the Inspired to Teach scholarship and employment incentive program, which was established by the state legislature last year and is administered by the higher education regents’ board.

Any full-time undergraduate student who’s enrolled in an accredited university teacher education program in Oklahoma and has a minimum 2.5 grade point average qualifies. The students have to commit to teaching in any Oklahoma public school, in any grade or subject, for five consecutive years upon graduation.

The benefits rack up over time: Program participants receive $1,000 in their freshman, sophomore, and junior years; $2,500 in their senior year; and $4,000 per year for their first five years teaching in an Oklahoma classroom—a total of up to $25,500.

Student-teaching counts as full-time work, opening up the scholarship to non-traditional students, such as paraprofessionals who are working in schools full-time and earning their teaching degree on the side.

While many states offer financial incentives for going into teaching, the Inspired to Teach program stands out for casting such a broad net, as does its focus on the first five years of teaching, when many new teachers are likely to leave.

“Our dream was to have a program that will address all of the needs we have in teacher education,” Thompson said. “It’s one thing to have a scholarship program, ... but it’s something else all together—even more effective, if you will—to retain” those already in the classroom.

Thousands of teachers and candidates have signed up

There are about 3,600 people currently enrolled in the Inspired to Teach program, Thompson said.

As of last school year, program participants’ top fields of study are in elementary, early childhood, music, history/social studies, and English/language arts, a state report found. Most program participants are white, with Native Americans comprising the second-largest ethnic group (1,393 and 238 participants last year, respectively).

The state initially required participants to have graduated from an Oklahoma high school, but as of Nov. 1, the program is now open to out-of-state high school graduates, too, expanding the pool even further.

Teacher educators say they’re hopeful that the program will not only encourage their students to stay in Oklahoma to teach—but to graduate in the first place. Some principals are so desperate to staff classrooms that they encourage student-teachers to bypass the rest of their preparation in favor of starting full-time work.

When Jennifer Burris, the coordinator of teacher recruitment and retention at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond, prepares candidates for their student-teaching, she warns them that their principal might say, “Actually, you should quit your major and come teach for us as an adjunct teacher full-time, and then you can start getting paid.’”

Many students strongly consider that option, she said. “But with Inspired to Teach, I get to say, listen, if you finish out this degree and get that remarkably valuable experience of student-teaching, that’s when that $20,000 bonus kicks in,” Burris said.

It’s also a helpful selling point that there’s no clawback clause attached, Burris said. If students don’t end up teaching in Oklahoma all five years, they won’t have to pay back any of the money they already received.

Thompson said the program was designed to maximize participation, and given that many students are cautious of taking on debt, she worried that a clawback provision would have discouraged enrollment.

Many eligible candidates don’t want to stay in Oklahoma

The University of Central Oklahoma—the largest distributor of Inspired to Teach funds—has about 70 percent of its undergraduate education students enrolled in the program, Burris said.

Some of the remaining students are not yet or have not been eligible, and some don’t know about the program, despite the college of education’s outreach. Others think free money sounds too good to be true.

“I’ve had to have several conversations that are like, ‘This is not a scam—I promise you,’” Burris said.

But others simply don’t plan on staying in the Sooner State.

Less than half of the undergraduate education majors at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater are enrolled in the program, and that’s largely because many don’t plan to stick around after graduation, said Shelbie Witte, the senior director of teacher education at the university.

Oklahoma State is among the largest universities in the state, and a large portion of its students hail from Texas, Arkansas, and Kansas and want to return home after graduation, Witte said. Even so, some would like to stay in the Stillwater area—but don’t want to teach there.

The No. 1 reason why is pay, she said. The average teacher salary in Oklahoma was $55,541 last school year, but early-career teachers make closer to $40,000. Teachers can make more crossing the border into New Mexico, Colorado, or Texas.

The $4,000 annual bonus with the Inspired to Teach program will help, but it will still be hard to compete with teaching jobs in metro areas of other states, said Toni Ivey, an associate professor at OSU and the director of accreditation and certification for the Oklahoma State University system. In Fort Worth, Texas, for example, teachers start with a $60,000 salary.

Prospective teachers want “to be able to pay their mortgage and feed their family and raise their kids, and it’s a lot easier to do that with a higher salary,” she said.

Another major deterrent to remaining in Oklahoma is the state’s climate and culture around education, Witte said. There have been “continued challenges, left and right, to teacher autonomy, to curriculum, to just every aspect of teaching,” she said.

The state has passed restrictions on how teachers can discuss race and LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom, which has led to an onslaught of book challenges and some teachers being disciplined. Some of the political rhetoric has taken a toll on candidates.

“It’s really hard for me to want to stay with all of the negativity around education, especially in Oklahoma,” said Isabelle Esau, an elementary education major at Oklahoma Central University. “Sometimes it is frustrating to see how educators are being talked about ... and the names we are called.”

She’s heartened by the incentive program, though. The $4,000 annual checks during her first few years of teaching will help keep her afloat until she earns her master’s degree, Esau said.

Can this program stop the churn?

Teacher educators are hopeful that the Inspired to Teach program will boost retention, leading to more stability in classrooms. Last school year, the turnover rate for teachers in the state was 24 percent, the highest in a decade, the state education department estimates.

Faculty say that the constant churn has created a climate where their graduates don’t have the support they need—or are given tasks beyond their experience levels, like taking on a mentoring role in their first year for an emergency certified teacher.

“It makes such a difference when I walk into a school to check on our student-teachers, and it’s a school where I know there’s a lot of career teachers,” Ivey said. “There’s a true culture of education and caring, and the pedagogy is solid, and they are mentoring the newbies as they come in—versus when I go into a school where you don’t have those career teachers, and it’s kind of like, every man for themselves.

“You can feel it in the air. And it’s not that [emergency certified teachers] can’t do the good work, but it’s so much easier for all of us when we go into a role where we have people who can properly mentor us and serve as models for what to do in our classrooms.”

The program participants who are furthest along are just now completing their first year of teaching in Oklahoma, so it’s too early to tell how well the program is working in terms of retention.

But Thompson is hopeful that it will be a step foward for the state: “I believe that programs like Inspired to Teach will help change the narrative of our state in terms of the teacher shortage.”


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