First Person

How Oklahoma's Low Pay Dashed My Hopes of Teaching in My Tribal Community

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In my school newsletter from the 1st grade, there is a black and white photo of me smiling with a handwritten caption underneath that says, “When I grow up, I want to b a teacher.” I had carefully labored over my penmanship that day because I knew it would be in the newsletter, but in my haste to fit all the words on the lines, I had missed the e in be. However, that caption, written over 30 years ago, was oh so true. I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher.

As I started college, I was very confident in my decision. At the age of 19, while I was working toward a degree in elementary education, I found a part-time job as a teacher’s assistant that was flexible with my school schedule. At the beginning of my junior year, I was accepted into the Native American Teacher Preparation Program at Arizona State University. Through the grant-funded program, I became one of 18 students training to serve as teachers in schools with high Native American populations.

The program recognized and was responsive to the ongoing underrepresentation of Native American educators in tribal nations across the United States. Some studies find that when the teacher shares the same background as the students they teach, it has a positive effect on the student’s education. In his 2017 dissertation on Navajo education, Oliver Tapaha, then at Oregon State University, wrote, “When I was an elementary student, I was able to establish an immediate rapport with the Diné teachers because of my connection to their teaching methods and backgrounds. The Diné educators told stories, created engaging cultural activities, and spoke the Diné language, when necessary, to enhance my understanding of the subject matters.”

—Jennifer Johnson

Our teacher-education program required that we conduct our field experiences in an urban public school located in a Pascua Yaqui community, and school sites located on the Gila River and Salt River reservations. The program encouraged us to utilize our languages and knowledge as Native teachers to explain academic concepts

After getting my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, I accepted a position to teach on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Laveen, Ariz. My 4th grade team consisted of myself and another Native teacher. At this particular school, we did not have science or social studies textbooks, and we needed to develop our own curriculum. We worked furiously after school and on weekends to develop units that were respectful of the community.

For example, in teaching about the water cycle and related concepts, we included a study of the significance of water to the Gila River community. We partnered with tribal departments to show students firsthand the places where the Gila River had once flowed and then been diverted in the 1880s, which had a devastating impact on the community. We relied heavily on local knowledge and made learning tangible and relatable to our students.

Although I was not from that particular tribal community, I feel that the community members were receptive to us because we were Native teachers and showed we cared about their children and surroundings.

Later, I moved to south Florida and had an equally positive experience teaching kindergarten on the Big Cypress Reservation.

Although the pay scales in both Arizona and Florida were not the highest in comparison to the national average, my salary was respectful of my education and experience. Both of my school administrations were very supportive of their faculty and I felt valued as a Native educator working with Native students. I did not go into the education field because I wanted to be wealth—I don’t think any teacher does. I went into teaching because I truly loved working with students.

"Although I moved here a decade ago, not much has changed in terms of pay since then."

Despite these positive experiences, I always felt a yearning to return to Oklahoma, where I was raised. I come from a rural community with about 1,400 people. Almost all of my family still lives there, and it is where my tribal Nation, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, is based. After careful consideration, I decided to return home. I wanted to be near my aging family members and to be present in my nieces’ and nephews’ lives.

I specifically wanted to teach in school districts that had high Native populations. Oklahoma is home to 39 tribal nations, most of which were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands in the 19th century. With approximately 124,000 Native students enrolled in public schools across the state, I figured it would be easy to find such a district.

However, as I began researching teacher salaries, I became deeply troubled. At the time, Oklahoma was near the very bottom of the national scale for teacher salary. As I reviewed wages, I realized that I would have to take a pay cut of at least $17,000 if I wanted to continue in the profession that I loved. I was raising my then-11-year-old nephew, and as the sole financial provider of my household, it would be a struggle to make it off of a teacher’s salary in my home state. We did not live an extravagant lifestyle by any means—I often went thrifting for clothes, etc. After crunching numbers to see if I could make it work, I was disheartened. I had been in the field of education my whole career. How could I walk away from a profession that I loved?

Although it was heart-wrenching, I made the choice to leave the classroom I accepted a position to work in language revitalization within my tribal community. Although I still took a pay cut of about $9,000, the cut was not as severe as it would have been had I stayed in the classroom. Plus the new job had opportunities for advancement and pay raises. I had my nephew to think of, and as he was growing, so were his expenses. Anyone who has raised a teenage boy knows how much food they can pack away, and the costs associated with school-based athletics (he played football, basketball, and baseball).

I am grateful that my position enabled my return to Oklahoma with a respectable salary, but I know many educators within the state are not as fortunate. Although I moved here a decade ago, not much has changed in terms of pay since then. A 2017 Teacher Shortage Task Force Report from the state education department mentions several factors that contribute to the state’s teacher shortage, including pay. Today, Oklahoma finds itself in crisis mode as the state has now dropped to the lowest level of teacher pay across all 50 states, according to some calculations.

Last year, the 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, Shawn Sheehan, announced on his blog that he and his wife were going to clear an extra $40,000 per year just by moving to our neighboring state of Texas. I know that some teachers who have the financial support of a partner or other sources of income are able to live off of their salary. However, many teachers I know work extra jobs in order to support their families. These issues are not isolated to only teachers, but school support staff as well. Last week at the state capitol, in a meeting with state legislators, one teacher shared that her paraprofessional was making just $14,000 a year.

Teachers across the state are planning a strike on April 2 if the state legislature does not pass a plan to address the low salaries for education professionals and staff. This past week, during spring break, I joined my fellow educators in meetings with state legislators to discuss these issues. Although the state House of Representatives passed a plan this past Monday to address some of the points, it has fallen short of what educators and support staff are requesting.

I still have hope for my home state. I hope we equitably address funding for public education. I hope that we pay our educators and support staff a salary that reflects their education and experience. Someday, I hope that we can truthfully tell children who know they want to be teachers that they will be able to make a living by teaching in Oklahoma.

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