First Person

The Hope and Despair of Being an Oklahoma Teacher

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Last spring, I was at the Oklahoma state capitol with thousands of other Oklahoma teachers. Schools had closed as teachers left their classrooms and banded together, demanding that lawmakers take action to fund a long overdue teacher pay raise and provide additional funding for Oklahoma students. It was a time of optimism and hope for teachers who had long endured some of the lowest wages in the country and had not seen an increase in funding for classrooms in 10 years. The collective feeling was that finally the voices of teachers would be heard, and we would bring about change for the good of the profession, and most importantly, for the good of our students.

At the time of the walkout, I was in the middle of my student-teacher training. (I’m now a certified high school English teacher.) My path to becoming an educator was not linear in its course—I’m in my 30s and a first-year teacher. I come from a family of professional teachers going back several generations, but I entered the field of education somewhat reluctantly. Although I loved working with kids and had witnessed firsthand how transformative education could be, I was reluctant to pursue teaching because of the low pay and disrespect Oklahoma teachers have suffered.

I will finish my master’s degree in education from the University of Oklahoma this year, and throughout my time in the program, I have seen many talented and capable colleagues recruited by school systems in surrounding states. Many teachers would love to stay here, but Oklahoma ranks 49th in teacher compensation. Higher pay and better resources entice too many trained and talented educators to leave the state and pursue positions where they feel more valued and fairly compensated.

Transitioning into professional teaching has been a joy, but also an incredible challenge. When I saw my blank canvas of a classroom in July, I knew it was my responsibility to create a space where students could grow as a community and learn effectively. The creative part was exciting, but the financial obligation to make that happen was less than thrilling. I outfitted my classroom and have bought books and curriculum for the benefit of my students out of my own pocket.

In addition to the financial burden, the hours of extra work I have put in to be at the top of my game in the classroom have also been a surprise. I come in early and stay late and have worked through the weekends. I work with kids before school, after school, and during my lunch break in an effort to help them be successful. I have learned that teaching doesn’t stop when the kids go home. There’s planning to do, papers to grade, parents to contact, and meeting after meeting to attend. Teaching is not for the faint of heart … especially in Oklahoma.

'Remember in November'

The efforts teachers made for themselves, their students, and the good of the profession were not fruitless. After nine days out of the classroom and at the capitol, teachers came away with a modest pay raise. The walkout also forced lawmakers to approve additional classroom funding for the first time in 10 years.

But, tired of scraping the bottom of the barrel, Oklahoma teachers wanted more. We wanted to make a living commensurate with the effort and investment we have put into our education and training. We wanted smaller class sizes and more resources for our students. We wanted to be able to attract and retain talented, dedicated, and trained teachers that have been bleeding into Texas and Kansas and other surrounding states. When the walkout finally ended, we felt we were going back to the classroom with scraps fallen from the table. However, Oklahoma teachers were not pacified, and a new motto emerged: We will remember in November. Teachers would use their votes to effect change that was so sorely needed.

Oklahoma teachers largely united around Drew Edmondson, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. He was with teachers at the capitol each day of the walkout and had a plan to increase education funding by raising the ridiculously low gross production taxes on the oil and gas industry, adding taxes on tobacco, and eliminating capital gains tax deductions. Widespread support of the teacher walkout and dissatisfaction with Republican Gov. Mary Fallin’s administration and other GOP lawmakers made it seem possible that Edmondson could be competitive in Oklahoma. Edmondson believed that the $6,000 raise for teachers was just the first step in the process of Oklahoma becoming competitive with surrounding states in recruiting and retaining skilled educators. There was hope that this election would be the turn of the tide for Oklahoma education.

Edmondson was opposed by Republican candidate, Kevin Stitt, who followed the popular narrative of being a businessman “political outsider.” Stitt opposed the teacher walkout and pay raise, supported Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite, an anti-tax group, and had no plan to increase funding and teacher pay other than auditing and oversight of current spending that has already been cut to the bone. It was abundantly clear that he was not a candidate who would be a champion for public education.

Looking for Reasons to Hope

The election results in the gubernatorial race were not what the majority of teachers wanted for Oklahoma education. Stitt’s victory was a slap in the face because our fellow citizens voted for leadership that was blatantly opposed to public education. Political tribalism has resulted in public education being torn apart and the good folks of Oklahoma have forgotten that their real tribe is their local school, their local hospital, their local place of worship … not a cable TV network.

This election cycle has made me question my future as an Oklahoma teacher. Is this a career I could see myself thriving in long term? I think it is. However, I am not quite as sure that I could continue being a teacher in Oklahoma for years to come if the outlook for the profession in our state does not improve. The amount of work that dedicated and trained Oklahoma teachers put into their jobs is staggering. They deserve to be compensated fairly.

Although the result of the governor’s race was a crushing defeat for Oklahoma education, there is still reason to hope. The teacher walkout spurred an influx of pro-education teacher candidates and six classroom teachers won their races. Sixteen members of the Oklahoma teachers’ union’s “education caucus,” current or former educators and support staff, were elected to the state House and Senate.

Governor-elect Stitt claims that one of his main priorities as governor is making Oklahoma a top 10 state for education. Although this is a goal that all educators can rally behind, many remain skeptical. In one of his first interviews as governor-elect, Stitt remarked that “teachers would not be controlling the narrative” when it comes to public education. As a public school teacher, I am anxious to know who will be.

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