Walking Out: A Teacher’s Perspective

Tomorrow morning I’ll join many of my colleagues in voting yes to walk off my job as a teacher on April 2nd. It’s a vote that comes with a lot of anger, a lot of concern for my students, and a lot of fear for my own future.

Today our district superintendent laid out what will happen in terms of our salaries if this walkout drags on for an extended period. It isn’t pretty, folks. In terms of salary, there’s a cutoff date and if the walkout goes beyond that, teachers won’t get 1/6 of their annual salary. Typically, that means two months’ pay at the end of June. With Oklahoma teachers being the lowest paid in the nation, it isn’t hard to guess that most of us do not have the savings to survive a summer without a paycheck.

If the Oklahoma Legislature refuses to raise the GPT to fund teacher pay raises and return the money taken from education over the past several years, many teachers will be forced to take other jobs or leave the state as the walkout continues. It’s something that’s already happening way too often, but it’s one thing to limp along with a little money and another thing to suddenly face a total lack of income (except for the 2nd and 3rd jobs many of us already have). Oklahoma’s GPT, by the way, is the lowest in the region, about half of Texas’ GPT … Texas, where teachers earn about $20,000 per year more than in Oklahoma. It’s not going to hurt the big oil companies to pay more taxes for drilling here.

Salary issues aside, what about the students? Will my students miss out on taking their Advanced Placement tests in May? If teachers are out for a while, will the students be adequately prepared for those tests? What about the kids who rely on school for two meals a day? The ones who need a teacher or counselor to turn to when home life is bad? What about sports? Band and choir concerts? Prom? Graduation? Can parents afford to pay more for childcare when school isn’t in session? What trouble might bored teenagers find with extra time out of class?

One of our state representatives has already said the teacher walkout is “extortion.” The students Rep. Coody said this to responded well, hitting several important issues, such as unqualified people teaching our students as qualified teachers flee the profession or the state, the lack of supplies, overcrowded classrooms, etc. The students understand we are not abandoning them. They work every day with books missing covers and pages, watching YouTube videos of science experiments because they don’t have lab supplies to actually do the experiments, and trying to get the most from their class periods when there are 35+ students in a room designed to hold 25. Our students support us. They know we’re not the greedy people the legislators are already making us out to be.

Already the Oklahoma lawmakers are acting to punish teachers with recent bills passed through committees. In one instance, violent students who have assaulted teachers will be allowed to return to school, putting teachers, staff, and their fellow students in danger. HB 3539 seeks to eliminate minimum teacher salaries and annual step increases under the guise of allowing districts to compete for the best teachers. However, districts can already pay more than the state minimum, so in reality the bill simply gives districts a reason to do away with step increases, which typically are about $200 per year. Another bill limits the time period teachers can look for employment in other districts, threatening to revoke teaching certificates if teachers resign after June 15.

Hopefully the parents — the Oklahoma voters — understand all this. Hopefully they will join teachers on April 2nd at the State Capitol. Hopefully they will call their representatives and senators and demand that lawmakers give teachers their first pay raise in 10 years and restore education funding.

Failure to act together as a state right now will likely mean a very long-term failure as our education system continues to crumble and Oklahoma students fall further and further behind their peers in our country.

Another Open Letter to Oklahoma Lawmakers

State Question 779 was not a good bill. It put the burden of the legislature’s job of funding teacher salaries onto the shoulders of everyone in Oklahoma, hurting the poor the most. And so it failed. One can hope people voted it down because it was a regressive tax and not because they feel like Oklahoma teachers are overpaid, but … Who really knows?

Oklahoma ranks 48th out of 50 states and D.C. in the quality of education our kids receive. You get what you pay for, as we also ranked 48 in per pupil spending. Prior to the start of this school year (2016-2017), 1,530 teaching jobs were eliminated due to the Oklahoma Legislature’s failure to diversify state revenue and mismanagement of the funds that did come in. Despite that, school districts had a hard time finding teachers to take the open positions they could fill. There were no teachers left to take those jobs. Between May and August the State Board of Education had issued 730 emergency teaching certifications to people with no prior teaching experience, and that’s after issuing 685 last school year.

Classrooms are overcrowded. Untrained people have been put in charge of kids. Student achievement is getting worse. Oklahoma is getting dumber.

And you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

The failure of SQ 779 means that the floodgates are about to open in a way you haven’t imagined. The $5,000 pay raise the penny sales tax would have provided still wouldn’t have brought Oklahoma teacher salaries within range of our neighboring states, but it would have been something, a frayed rope thrown to a swimmer in a stormy sea. The legislature has shown over and over that it doesn’t want to pay teachers. Now the people have supported that view.

Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, even Kansas all pay their teachers salaries that, by comparison, show just how little Oklahoma cares about having quality educators. When those states start posting their openings for 2017-2018, they’re going to be swamped with applicants from Oklahoma. This state is about to see a teacher shortage so severe that it may finally kill public education here.

Let’s play with numbers.

My current annual salary is $38,000, which is the state minimum for someone with my credentials. I have a master’s degree and 11 years experience teaching. According to Sperling’s Best Places, the cost of living in Oklahoma City is 87.2 percent of the national average. A teacher with the same credentials earns $54,480 in Springfield, Missouri, where the cost of living is 84 percent of the national average. In Ft. Smith, Arkansas, those credentials would bring a salary of $52, 045 at a cost of living that is 82.1 percent of the national average. In Wichita, Kansas, the pay is $52,768 with a cost of living at 84.6. My favorite, though, is Amarillo, Texas. They don’t have their detailed pay schedule online, but based on the information they do offer, a mid-range salary for a classroom teacher is $59,640 and the cost of living comes in at 83.3.

Let’s sum that up. I could go a few dozen miles west of the state line and increase my pay by over $21,000 per year and it would cost me almost 4 percent less to live there.

I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave my students to suffer with whatever warm body my current employer can find to replace me next year. I don’t want to leave Oklahoma, the state I’ve called home for all of my 50 years. But as a Republican myself, I do adhere to the credo of, “If your current situation isn’t good enough, take responsibility and change it.” That’s what we said when middle-aged McDonald’s workers wanted $15 per hour, right?

Like many of my colleagues, I’m working more than one job. I teach high school English full time. I also adjunct teach at a local community college, bring in a little bit per month with my fiction writing, and sometimes I get lucky and can officiate a wedding for a few extra bucks. It doesn’t pay extra, but most of my “free time” is spent grading papers from those first two jobs. Also, my wife works. Still, it isn’t enough.

You people in the state congress will bandy about words, pretend you care about us, but in the end you probably won’t do anything to help. In the spring we’ll apply in other states, we’ll pack up our belongings, cut our losses on our homes with the earthquake damage done by your pet injection wells, and we’ll go away and leave kids who need us. It won’t be easy for us, but sometimes we have to put our biological kids ahead of our school kids and do what’s best to provide for our own families.

We’ll also leave the stress of multiple jobs, of having more students than we can reasonably manage, of having to buy our own school supplies, and of looking at our neighbors and wondering why they turned us out by voting no on SQ 779 and and yes on putting the party with an anti-public education track record back in power.

If you really care about education in Oklahoma, you have until the first of May to show it. We’re waiting.

The case for alt certified teachers

A friend and colleague recently showed me this article in last Sunday’s Oklahoman newspaper. The article quotes an educator with some pretty derogatory and fallacious things to say about teachers with emergency and alternative certification. For instance:

“Emergency certified personnel may have had zero experience with children, may have achieved a 1.0 grade-point average or lower with a major in physical education at University of Phoenix, may be alcoholics with pornography addictions, but they have been hired by the state to teach English at the local middle school,” said Lawrence Baines, associate dean for graduate studies and research at the University of Oklahoma’s Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education.

Seriously? Look at this quote from the American Psychological Association:
Various international studies have put porn consumption rates at 50 percent to 99 percent among men, and 30 percent to 86 percent among women, according to Gert Martin Hald, PhD, and colleagues in The APA Handbook of Sexuality and Psychology (Vol. 2).
Here’s a bit from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:
About 1.5 million adults received treatment for an AUD at a specialized facility in 2014 (8.9 percent of adults who needed treatment)5. This included 1.1 million men (9.8 percent of men in need) and 431,000 women (7.4 percent of women who needed treatment)5

The point I would make to Mr. Baines is that it’s very likely he has colleagues at the great University of Oklahoma who are alcoholic porn-watchers. Does he know they fall into this category?

The thing is, if a person has no history of getting in trouble for being an alcoholic or looking at pornography, it won’t come up in the mandatory background check done for anyone who works with students. That includes teachers with traditional certifications.

Mr. Baines goes on to say that alternative and emergency certified teachers have a higher rate of misconduct. He provides no statistics to prove this, and the reporter didn’t bother to fact check him. So, if anecdotal evidence is good enough, how’s this: The high school where I work has been notorious for misconduct by coach-teachers. All of those people had traditional certifications. Hmm.

Why am I defensive about this? There are several reasons. The most obvious is because I am alternatively certified. After 10 years in machine shops, I finally went to college. I started as an English education major, but a series of hyper-liberal closed-minded English professors at the University of Central Oklahoma and the adrenaline rush of journalism diverted me. I earned a BA in journalism in 1999 and spent the next seven years working for newspapers or doing public relations work. I’d been doing PR for a while when I looked at my life and decided I wasn’t making a positive impact in the world, so I got my teaching certificate. I worked as a substitute for one semester, then got hired full time with my current employer.

I’ve now been at my job for over 10 years. In that time I’ve been named Teacher of the Year once and consistently score Highly Effective on my evaluations. My former students routinely thank me for preparing them for college after their freshman years. But if one only goes by what Baines says, non-traditional teachers “are not just under trained, but may be a risk to students.” Nowhere is he quoted to say anything positive about non-traditionally certified teachers, so one can infer that the above quote is his attitude toward the entire group.

I currently have and have had many colleagues who are very good teachers who are also non-traditionally certified. I have had colleagues with traditional education degrees tell me that they didn’t learn anything in college that was actually useful in the classroom.

Personally, I think it’s a good thing to have teachers who did not follow the traditional path of high school to college back to public education. What do they know about the world outside of academia? Not much.

We have a teacher shortage in Oklahoma. This shortage is caused by legislators who reduce education funding, who refuse to pay teachers a salary comparable to surrounding states, and who continually fault teachers for students who don’t learn, ignoring more dominant and negative factors in the lives of those children. When people are willing to leave private sector jobs that typically pay more and step into the classroom they face the scorn of snobs like Mr. Baines. Is it any wonder Oklahoma can’t keep teachers?

Finally, my last problem is with this article itself and the reporter, Ben Felder. I contacted him and complained about the tone of his article. His response was that he didn’t personally say bad things about non-traditionally certified teachers. True, Mr. Felder, true. But it’s your article and you had access to sources that would have shown you a different perspective. You chose to only give voice to Baines’ point of view. From a former journalist and a current teacher who isn’t an alcoholic or porn addict, I say that’s just bad reporting.

Too Bad Durant Didn’t Take the Thunder with Him

I have several former students who left me at the end of their senior years filled with determination and plans to inspire young minds the way some teacher(s) had done for them. Some of them are close to graduating from college now. One of them posted a link about yet another school cutting its budget on Facebook tonight, adding that she thinks she has wasted her time in college.

This comes the day after Kevin Durant announced he’s leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder and people all over the state acted as if the sky was falling. But how many teachers have we lost? They weren’t looking for championship rings. They weren’t looking to make millions of dollars in a few short years. They were looking to pay their bills. They were hoping to have paper for their classrooms. Maybe even air conditioning in August when class resumes.

One Oklahoma teacher recently received a new home from Habitat for Humanity. That’s right, a person with a college degree and a salaried job that makes her responsible for the education and well being of dozens of children qualified for a Habitat house. A typical Oklahoma teacher salary usually leaves the teacher qualified for food stamps. And SoonerCare (Oklahoma’s welfare insurance) is a heck of a lot better than the “free” insurance the state gives teachers. Take it from one who’s still paying the bills from late 2014, you don’t want to have even minor surgery and only have HealthChoice for your insurance.

When my former student made her post, I pointed out the obvious. We don’t go into teaching for money, but to make a difference in the lives of kids. No matter how much money our legislators misspend or how much our districts have to cut their budgets, the kids will come to class. They will be there, looking to learn, looking for someone to make their lives better. Who will they find? In Oklahoma, it looks more and more like they’ll find either unqualified long-term substitutes or bitter teachers unable to relocate to another state.

Some of you will read this and say, “Those teachers are always whining about their pay. They knew the pay going in.” That’s true, and fair. What we didn’t know was that our pay would freeze, that the supplies we need to do our job would stop coming, and that our colleagues would be let go and not replaced, leaving them unemployed and us with classes too big for most teachers to manage.

Meanwhile, our elected officials are using taxpayer money to help subsidize the payroll of the Oklahoma City Thunder. The 168 employees of the team received $4 million in taxpayer money last year. That would have paid an army of teachers, although it wasn’t even the full salary for a starting player. Our teachers are the recipients of charitable handouts and welfare while our education budget is slashed more than a horny teenager in a Friday the 13th sequel, but our leaders are giving taxpayer money to an NBA team that that has a net worth of $950 million. We’d be better off if Durant had taken the whole team with him so our taxpayer money could be redirected. (Don’t give me the line about how much sales tax revenue is made thanks to the Thunder being here; you get my point.)

I finished telling this soon-to-be teacher that the school districts need to put the burden of making up the lost money on the parents, and explain to the parents the reason for this expense. The only way we’re going to see a change in the financial priorities of our legislature is if we can get angry parents into the voting booth. With July 1 behind us and schools finalizing the 2016-2017 budgets, be ready to learn what essential items you will now have to provide for your child, then make a change in November.

Fate and Legacy

Tonight I said a final farewell to the Western Heights High School Class of 2016.There has really only been one other time I was so reluctant to let go of a group of kids, and even then there weren’t as many that had come to be like family. The idea that I’m going to work tomorrow and won’t see these kids is really hard to accept.

20160520_143859I’m tempted to name all my AP Lit students here and tell a story about them, but that wasn’t my intent with this post. There are some good stories. I’ll only tell one, and it’s one from Friday, the last day of class. The seniors were dismissed after their assembly that day, which ended around 10:30 a.m. A couple of my girls, Sarah and Casidee, had been working for a couple of days to surprise me by getting most of my 6th hour AP Lit class to come back during their regular class time; they’d even arranged with another teacher to get me out of the room so they could get in undetected. That’s them in the photo, along with a few of my 2nd hour AP Lit kids. They also gave me a photo album with pictures going back to the beginning of the school year. There were flowers, food, some letters, and a couple of other gifts. It was an overwhelming display of affection and I doubt they’ll ever know how much it really meant to me.

As I told them, I didn’t want to come back to Western Heights this year. I tried very hard to find another job last summer. I won’t go into all the reasons, but one of them was because my best friend left the school. Left public education for a charter school. Now two more friends are leaving the Heights for the same charter school. I’ve applied at that charter school at least three times and can’t get an interview.

Tonight, after the graduation, two of my girls from last year, Daniela and Christine, stopped to talk to me. They told me about an event they organized at the Oklahoma Capitol a few months ago to raise awareness about the budget crisis and its effect on public education. They explained how they were telling everyone who stopped at the table they set up about me and how they were doing that for me. Someone else was telling me his brother, Class of 2008, still talks about me, wishing he’d been in my class; that was my first full year as a teacher and I didn’t even know what I was doing. Demarcus’s mom thanked me tonight for being a great teacher and said Demarcus talks about me all the time. Demarcus is an amazing young man … but I’ve never had him in class. Why would he talk about me? Why would a 2008 senior, who I didn’t have in class, talk about me?

I’m not fishing for compliments here. I don’t consider myself a great teacher. I’m no Wilda Walker, Gladys Lewis, or James McCurtain. Those are great teachers. I’m just a guy who decided to try teaching after several other careers left me unfulfilled. I love reading and writing, and have learned that I love helping kids. I am in awe of someone like James, who is all business and passion but who has the love and respect of his students without having to resort to jokes and teasing them.

Another of my girls, Lyndie, gave me a journal as a gift. She wrote a letter on the opening page and I’d like to share a small excerpt of that here:

I hope that one day I can inspire my future students in the same way you have countless others. I’m very blessed to have spent my senior year with you … One day I will look into my very own classroom and I’ll think of you, the person who has opened my eyes to the magic English has to offer, and smile. Smile not just for the good memories I have, but also for the ones I have yet to make.

I can’t read that without getting a lump in my throat. I don’t know when I inspired her, or even how. This is a kid I admired long before I realized I was having any impact on her. She’s smart, she’s got it together, she’s a good person. A virtuous person. I inspired her? Oh Lyndie, thank you, but it’s the other way around.

I wanted to be a rich and famous author. (Okay, I still do.) I thought nothing less than a literary legacy would ever make me happy in terms of a career. I was wrong. Sure, it’d be great to write something kids will study in school a hundred years from now, but is that a better legacy than the words Lyndie wrote to me? Better than having a group of incredible girls become politically active on my behalf? Lyndie will go on to inspire thousands of kids herself because she’s smart enough to know what she wants to do with her life at age 18 (unlike me, who began teaching at 40). As Tom Joad would say, when she smiles at her students, I’ll be there.

There are things I don’t like about Western Heights, but I have to wonder if it is my fate to stay there, at least a while longer, helping the kids who come through Room 42. (And apparently some who never do.) Does that sound arrogant? Or like I’m making an excuse for no other school wanting me? I don’t know. I just know I’ve come to the point that I’m okay with it. Where else could I go and find another Casidee, or Sarah, or Ben, or Jess, or Lyndie, or … You get the idea. And those are just names from this year. Shellby? Lacey? Tarryn? Chanh? So many others. So many others who have enriched my life. And so many more to come.

I’ll likely never see my name on the New York Times bestseller list. I don’t need that now. I won’t stop writing and publishing, but I do that for me now, not for a dream of wealth and celebrity. That picture up there and the things I was told tonight are better than fame and money, even if they don’t pay the bills.

No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another. — Charles Dickens

Thoughts on Turning 50

I’ve joked for a while about “turning fiddy” and then today it really happened. My odometer of life rolled over the half-century mark. A feeling of depression started to settle over me yesterday, and I really didn’t want to get out of bed this morning.

But I did. And I went to school. And magic happened.

If you’ve never been a teacher it’s hard to explain something like this. It’s hard for most people to understand how the acts of a group of teenagers can mean so much. Many people would struggle to understand why I continue to do a job that pays so little into my bank account without ever knowing how rich I felt today.

Some of my Advanced Placement Literature students got the assistant principal to let them into my room early this morning, and the decorating began. Not your typical streamers and balloons, though there were balloons. A cardboard fort was built around my desk, rising almost three feet higher than the desk. Several sheets of poster board were taped to my walls and my history-fanatic, serial-killer, dictator fangirl had filled the poster boards with a timeline of important historical and pop-culture events that have happened since 1966. A large banner was taped to the wall and all day kids added notes and signatures to it.

There was food. Oh my gosh, was there food. I didn’t eat anything that wasn’t chocolate until I got home for dinner. Second hour, fourth hour, and sixth hour brought new waves of food. There were store-bought cookies, bag after bag of chips, soda, homemade cupcakes and brownies, and a very sweet Mexican dessert that I can’t remember the name for (it starts with an F).

And there were gifts. I feel so guilty getting gifts from kids. It’s one thing to spend their money on food they’ll help eat, but something different when they bring items just for me. I got a stuffed Paul Stanley doll, a KISS Pez dispenser, a Half-Price Books gift card, and a service bell (I can’t explain why, but I’ve always wanted one, but had never mentioned it).

I got a couple of cards, too. One of them, given to me by an amazing young lady who aspires to be an English teacher herself, nearly forced me out of the room as I read it. There was some kind of evil spell on the card that made my eyes misty as I read. (It seems sentimentality is another symptom of my advanced age.)

I didn’t have to clean up hardly any of the party stuff, either. That is thanks mostly to this incredible young lady named Daisy. Daisy plays Mom to so many of her peers that it’s almost ridiculous. She’s a girl who’s going to make a huge difference in a lot of lives.

I came home to KFC and Creed on DVD. As cheesy as it is at times, I love the Rocky movie franchise. Although the focus was the young son of Apollo in this one, I couldn’t help but focus on the aging Rocky and thinking back to the character and actor and 1976 when it all began. (And yes, Rocky was included on my historical timeline.)

Time slips away from us. There’s no going back. Few of us will end up where we expected to. Many of us won’t even travel the road we expected to when we thought we knew where we wanted to go with our lives. It really is so important to make the most of the days we have. I can’t say I regret all the dead ends I took before becoming a teacher because they all helped make me who I am today, but it’s days like today that remind me that there is no other job I’d rather do.

Teacher Asks for Books

As the fallout continues from the incompetence of the Oklahoma legislature, next school year is starting to come into focus, and trust me, it isn’t pretty. The budget cuts to education are going to be very costly to students and to the teachers who remain in the profession, or are able to keep their jobs.

With 10 years at my school, I’m pretty safe. But we’re looking at much larger class sizes and an emphasis on saving money anywhere we can, which will undoubtedly include paper rationing. This means I will no longer be able to copy the binder of notes I give to my Advanced Placement English students. This is a binder I’ve built over years of teaching that includes many, many pages of vocabulary, test strategies, a reading list, a practice test, etc.

I’m having to look for alternatives to get this test prep information into my students’ hands. And so, I’ve turned to the public to ask for help. I currently have two fundraisers going.

The first one I set up through DonorsChoose.org, a leader in helping teachers get what they need. This one asks for 40 copies of the latest Barron’s AP English Literature and Composition test prep workbook. This is the 12th grade AP English class. With expected class sizes of 35, I went with 40 in case of loss or damage.

The second fundraiser is through GoFundMe.com. The purpose this time is to pay for 40 copies of Barron’s AP English Language and Composition test prep workbooks. This is the 11th grade AP English class. Again, class sizes are estimated at 35, which is actually the across-the-board number for all classes.

I’ll have kids answer the workbook questions on notebook paper, so these books should actually last for several years.

Why different forums for the fundraising? DonorsChoose is a trusted source where the administrators of the site purchase the specified products and send them to the school. In other words, I never actually touch the money. However, the $387 cost of the workbooks becomes a goal of $529 when you add in the administrative fees. When I saw that, I decided to set up the other through GoFundMe and hope that people trust I’ll buy the workbooks. Believe me, it’s much more important to me that my students pass the AP exam than buying anything $387 would get me.