“Should I stay or should I go now? Should I stay or should I go now?” The Clash’s song plays in my head. Then the music switches to Anna Kendrick’s “Cups”. “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.” These are the tunes that accompany my thought processes on whether or not I should continue to teach in the state of Oklahoma. Such is the soundtrack for hundreds of other educators in our state, too.
The news is grim. We’re now in our third consecutive year of enduring mid-year cuts to education funding and we've been dealing with a downward spiral in funding since 2008. I saw a story on the news this morning about Dallas Independent School District holding a job fair in Oklahoma City. They’re in OKC because they know two things: Oklahoma educators are some of the best in the country and Oklahoma educators are among the lowest paid in the country.
School districts in Texas and surrounding states seeking to fill positions don’t fuss with semantics or details about whether or not Oklahoma is last or second-to-last in teacher pay. They don’t have to. They have figured out how to properly fund education and how to retain and reward excellent educators. Some school districts in Texas are offering starting salaries at numbers higher than I will ever see. Let me say that another way: there are college grads with zero teaching experience who will be making more than 30-year veteran educators in our state.
How do we compete with that? How do we keep our teachers who have dedicated their lives to this profession and are committed to helping students, but are struggling to make ends meet? I have asked this question multiple times. My last blog post in December caught a lot of attention when I asked Santa for a reason to keep teaching in Oklahoma. I told him about how I made $1860 per month and how after rent, daycare, and half of a car payment, my check was gone. My wife’s paycheck covered the remaining car payment, student loans, credit card, utilities, cell phone, and Internet bills. The thing is, she’s a teacher, too, and there’s little left afterwards to pay for groceries and diapers for our family of three.
Unfortunately, Santa never answered. And neither did the Oklahoma legislature.
So, my wife and I did the logical thing. We went and got certified to teach in the state of Texas and have been certified for the last few months. We love our school, our district, our city, our students, and their families, but what’s happening to education in the state of Oklahoma is criminal. And the thing is, it’s not just education. The recurring budget deficits have reduced all core state services to scraps.
How can I ask for a raise when we don’t have the money to fund police and firefighters, DHS, and our prison systems, let alone education? You don’t have to be a math teacher to know that our budget simply doesn’t work. And yet, as a state, we’ve continued to elect the same folks who create the same problems and approach them with the same ineffective solutions.
My wife and I went to a career fair in Texas last weekend and were overwhelmed with the options available to educators. I received quite the response when I introduced myself by saying, “My name is Shawn Sheehan and I’m the 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year and I’m considering relocating here.”
The Sheehans and many other educators in Oklahoma have been waiting a long time, hoping and praying that the state would do what’s right and find a way to fund education and other core services. We’ve asked for some sign of hope that things will get better and it seems unlikely. In fact, it seems quite the opposite - that things will worsen. So the ball is in your court, Oklahoma. It has been for a long time. The Sheehans haven’t accepted any job offers yet as of this blog post on March 30, 2017. We want to stay and serve our students, but what choice do we have? I know this much - I will not be made to feel guilty for wanting to provide for my family anymore. And for the potential ill-informed comments this blog post may receive, here are my responses:
“You should have known going into this profession you wouldn’t make much money.”
-Correct. But I expect to be able to pay the bills and have a livable wage. All 49 other states have it down. What I do is not mission work. I earned my Master’s in education and I believe my work and my talents are worth more than what I receive.
"But cost of living..."
-My wife and I went down to the DFW area over Spring Break and did some searching, shopping, and dining and the difference isn't significant. With the potential increase in pay, it'll balance out with money left for savings.
“It’s all about the students. We don’t need you if you’ve forgotten that.”
-I agree that it's all about the students and I’ve been saying that for years. But, which students? Because students everywhere need talented teachers. If I choose to help students in DFW, I’ll make $20k+. And if it’s all about the students, tell me why our state has schools closing and an increasing amount of districts going to 4-day school weeks?
“Stay and fight!”
-I want to. I really do. I’ve done everything I know how to do to make things better, but it’s not working. And I’m not going to subject my daughter to this perpetual struggle. I’m also concerned about what the schools will look like when she’s school-age and the quality of services available to us. Unless my wife and I find a way to earn more money, we're going to have to make the financially responsible decision for the sake of our daughter.
“You’re being greedy. Stop whining. You have summers off. What you do isn’t technical like an engineer or doctor etc.”
-Yeah, this article wasn’t for you. Thanks for reading, though!
I look forward to seeing what the final education budget will be and hear what plans our legislators have for generating revenue for our state. I hope they know the stakes are high.