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
  • 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

An incomplete United States of America flag puzzle.

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.

A version of this article appeared in the February 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as I Channeled My Rage Into Winning an Election


Reading & Literacy Webinar A Roadmap to Multisensory Early Literacy Instruction: Accelerate Growth for All Students 
How can you develop key literacy skills with a diverse range of learners? Explore best practices and tips to meet the needs of all students. 
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Supporting 21st Century Skills with a Whole-Child Focus
What skills do students need to succeed in the 21st century? Explore the latest strategies to best prepare students for college, career, and life.
Content provided by Panorama Education
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum What Will It Take for Schools to Get Better?
Find out what educators and leaders can do to incite lasting and productive change that will make a difference in the lives of students.

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 Letter to the Editor Validated by EdWeek, Not by My Administration
"I feel like public school in America is broken," writes a former teacher in this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Illustration of an open laptop receiving an email.
Teaching Profession Most Americans Support Raising Teacher Pay. But There's a Partisan Rift
Public support for teacher pay raises is at its highest level in at least 15 years, an Education Next survey found.
6 min read
Illustration of woman jumping across piggy banks.
Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Teaching Profession Opinion Searching for Common Ground: Rick and Pedro Go to the Movies
A few education-themed films aptly capture the fact that teachers are people with huge challenges in their lives.
5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Teaching Profession From Our Research Center 'Over It': Most Educators Say They Won't Mask This Fall
But teachers are more likely than administrators to keep masking, EdWeek Research Center survey data show.
7 min read
Image of a face mask on a school notebook.
Steven White/iStock/Getty