Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

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

By John Waldron — February 26, 2019 3 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as I Channeled My Rage Into Winning an Election

Events

Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Efforts to Toughen Teacher Evaluations Show No Positive Impact on Students
After a decade of expensive evaluation reforms, new research shows no positive effect on student test scores or educational attainment.
10 min read
Man and woman evaluating and rating profiles by giving them stars.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Teaching Profession Teachers Who Refuse to Comply With Vaccine Mandates Won't Face Consequences in Many Places
Some districts and states aren't even keeping track of how many teachers are vaccinated.
8 min read
Teachers protest against COVID-19 vaccination mandates in New York on Aug. 25, 2021. On Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor denied an emergency appeal from a group of teachers to block New York City's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for public school teachers and other staff from going into effect.
Teachers protest against COVID-19 vaccination mandates in New York on Aug. 25.
Mary Altaffer/AP
Teaching Profession What New Teachers Need
Ideas from the real world on making teachers' first years less overwhelming and more fulfilling.
5 min read
Illustration of a classroom diorama sitting on a student desk.
Illustration by Laura Baker/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty)
Teaching Profession Opinion This Year Almost Drove Me Out of Teaching. The Right Leader Made Me Stay
After seven years teaching and one class away from becoming an education specialist, I have seen the highs and lows of education leadership.
Samantha Richardson
4 min read
Illustration of woman sitting on a mountain top looking into the distant landscape.
iStock/Getty