Stories From the Trenches: The Oklahoma Teacher Walkout
By Jessica Tate
(*Title photo by Adrian Henington)
I went back to school in 2011 to get my Masters of Education in order to become an English teacher. I had to do this because my Political Science undergraduate didn’t qualify me to teach English, and since I’d clepped out of my undergraduate English and composition classes due to AP/IB testing in my public school; I didn’t have the hours to earn an English certification. It was a lot harder to become a teacher in Oklahoma back then. The reason I wanted to do this was because of my English teacher, long ago. My great-grandmother was a teacher, too, in 1906, before Oklahoma was a state. I left law, my previous field, where I have about a decade of various experience, in order to pursue teaching. I love it. I will teach English to anyone, anywhere, any time. I will teach English at work, at home, out and about, on the clock or no. I will teach English on a plane, in the rain, AP, IB, remedially, on-level, or on a train in China. Or in an ESL school in China. Or an inner city classroom. To kids. To adults. Whatever, it’s good. I teach English because I love literature. I love poetry and I love language. I study Latin and Greek roots for fun and compose haiku in Mandarin as a brain exercise. I have a problem, and the only cure for it is more funding.
More funding for my classroom, and for my students. I never expected to get a raise, and frankly, that’s what has me so surprised. It’s odd…the legislature approved 3/5th’s of the teacher pay ask, 1/2 of the support staff ask, and 1/4 of the ask for classroom funding, after slamming our classrooms with budget cuts since after the strike in 1990. If you look at those numbers, it seems pretty obvious what the goal of the bill that passed was; to cause the teachers to appear overreaching and ungrateful if the bill was contested. That is exactly what happened, and that is how this has been framed in the news media. What is truly disgraceful when you look at those numbers is the obvious prioritization, with students coming in dead last. Again.
This is what has us up in arms. The misplaced priorities of our state funding allocations leave our students coming in last. It seems disingenuous to tell them that they are the future and that so much hinges upon them, while placing them so low on our State’s agenda. It’s hypocritical and I won’t do it. I would feel like a tool returning to my classroom with money in my pocket and nothing for my students. They have it harder than I do, to be honest. With my second income from music, and a two-income household with my partner (also a teacher), we do ok. We are frugal, and budget relentlessly, but we are artists and are used to it. Personally, I wouldn’t have walked out if it was just about my salary. Other teachers aren’t in my situation, and they are literally scraping by every paycheck. I feel fortunate. By the way, I make about $36k a year. I have 6 years of collective teaching experience and a Masters’ degree. My partner is a new teacher, and he makes less. We get by.
But my kids. They don’t do so good. There are 36 kids in my 3rd hour, and 30 desks. I figure I have about 150 students, all told (five classes). We have a smart board, and I love that thing. We are in a portable building though, because our school has an attendance larger than its capacity. That’s because we have a good reputation as a school offering a high quality education. Kids go here that technically live in other districts, often using a relative’s address.
We have 30 textbooks, from 2008. I get one case of copy paper per semester. I beg and borrow more from friends. My kids share handouts. They know why, and don’t mess them up.
We get pencils and paper from our school. That’s fantastic, actually. I buy a lot of my own supplies, but not as much as an Elementary or Middle School teacher. It’s High School, so there is less coloring. ;) Sometimes we do art/prose/poetry projects though, and the state of the supplies is sad. There aren’t any of those things in the supply closet, so I bring them.
But that’s not really representative. I teach English, so if I have paper, pencils and a whiteboard, I’m good to go. Not so for a science lab. Not so for an art class, music class or computer class. It would be great to be able to request classroom sets of books, or have new textbooks, but it’s not necessary for ME. It’s necessary for many other teachers. Choir teachers with no sheet music. Art teachers with no paint. Librarians with no budget to order books.
I want them to have supplies to do chemistry and biology lab experiments, to have calculators for every student in their upper math classes, and to have money to take field trips and do community projects to expand their minds. I want our after school creative writing club to be able to publish a 'zine of our students' work, without having to worry if we will be able to afford to print it. I want their school lunches to be chosen for nutrition and not for cost. I want their music teachers to have a budget for new sheet music and instruments for all the students. I want their art teachers to have paint, clay, canvasses and supplies. I want to be able to request classroom sets of novels for them to read, in the hope of getting them.
Again, as we are HS, we don’t have the supply needs of a teacher for younger kids, but a functional building and functional equipment would be nice. Smaller class sizes would help us make sure that each and every student gets what they need.
But this is for the students. It's always for them. They deserve to have teachers that don't feel conflicted about dedicating their lives to education. They need professionals with passion and experience. Ya know, the kind of employees you have when you treat them commensurate with their work and expertise, and give them the necessary tools and resources for success. They make pretty durn good teachers, turns out, and if you keep them around, kids get a good education. Those kids turn out to be successful and make good, informed decisions for themselves and for their society (our world).
Parents, we are doing this to ensure a better future for the education of your children. If you've ever worried about the quality of education your child is receiving, or have taken measures to get them into charter/magnet/'good' schools, you know what I'm talking about. Imagine if ALL schools in the state had the resources that the 'good' schools do. Imagine that your children had access to tech, new materials and books, and plentiful art, music and extracurricular academic funding. Imagine that they had teachers and support staff who were competitively attracted to the field and wanted to stay for many years and perfect their craft and vocation. Imagine the education your child would receive, and what they could do with their lives with that education. It would be pretty cool, yeah?
Oklahoma has the resources, both natural and human, to be a wonderful place to live. It's my home, and I'd love to stay here and be a teacher. Oklahoma needs to make smart decisions about what the future of our state will look like. We need to change that future to reflect the values that we all share, and that make us Oklahomans. We are a driven, hardworking and innovative people. We are tough, smart and resourceful. We are Okies. We can do better, for ourselves and the generations coming after us.
I must say, spending our days at the Capitol this week has made me develop a newfound appreciation for my colleagues and principal, as well as new teacher friends from near and far. Our principal is standing there, either shivering or sweating with us every step of the way. He is compassionate to his teachers and concerned for his students. I spent some time talking with a math teacher at my school today, with whom I normally don't get much of a chance to talk, as our school is big, our departments separate, and our schedules full. She has been arriving at 6 am every day (with a small core group of 3 others), loaded down with tons of gear and supplies, snacks and drinks, to secure our spot so our school would be represented. She stays until the very end, every day. I spoke with another teacher from another local high school today about the joys and trials of teaching high school English. She is on FIRE in her classroom, and can't wait to get back. She wants to come back in with good news for her students, and so do I. I have gotten to have more prolonged chats with many of my colleagues, both in and out of my department, and I'm proud to say that we have a great bunch of educators out there who are very concerned about the outcome of this. So much hinges on the legislature hearing our voices, combined and strong with the voices of all Oklahomans.
Me? I came with my partner, a teacher, his child, and my little dog, too. We are in this to win it.
The entrance of the teachers from Tulsa who marched here. From Duncan. From Mustang. From Moore. This was democracy in action, with people putting their actions where their words are. My school is in town, but we still led students marching from there. More of this will be needed, but we are making headway and having an impact. This is for the future of Oklahoma. This is not a dress rehearsal. It is game face and GO time.
We are grateful for your continuing support, and are doing our best to earn it with our continued efforts. Stand strong. We can do this.
Concerned citizens? Please find out who your representatives are, find out what their voting records are, and then call them and tell them what you think they ought to do. They vote for YOU. Educate yourselves, and demand they represent your interests.
1. Find your representatives.
2. Find out their voting records
3. Think about whether you like that or not.
4. Call them (their contact info is on the 'Find my Legislature' page.
5. Tell them your opinions.
6. Find out when your local elections are, and locate your polling place. If you are not yet registered to vote, do so. https://www.ok.gov/elections/ Voter_Info/Register_to_Vote/