Lessons From A Teacher Who Ran For Office
“We gave it a good run, friends. #SheehanforOK”
That was my concession Tweet after I lost my bid for Oklahoma State Senate. The sting was pretty powerful having only earned 38% of the vote in my district, which amounts to over 12,000 votes. The Republican opponent/incumbent received over 21,000 votes. The math teacher in me kept running the difference in my head - approximately 9,000 votes. I’ve come to terms with the fact that, no matter how many doors I knocked, I’m certain I wouldn’t have overcome that 9,000 vote deficit, thanks to straight party ticket voting. And even though there wasn’t a Democrat in my race, it was still tricky because I ran as an Independent candidate in this very red state.
That same day, my state voted down a state question aimed at providing a $5,000 base salary increase for all educators via a 1% sales tax increase. I was one of the initial three petitioners to sign the petition last spring and when the case went to court over its constitutionality, my name was among those appearing on the court documents. We won that challenge, but we lost in the end. Now, as a sixth-year math teacher with his Master’s degree, my base salary will remain at $35,419 and my total compensation including benefits amounts to $38,100. To be clear, my net income per month is just under $2,100.
It’s taken a lot to reflect on the deeply personal loss I’ve experienced this week. I’ve been so frustrated with the state of public education in Oklahoma since I entered the profession in 2011, but I haven’t let up in my effort to make things better. It began in 2013 when I created the Teach Like Me Campaign which aimed to improve teacher recruitment and retention as well as boost morale among educators. It’s now a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and we’re still trying to find out ways to redefine perceptions of the educator profession and you can check it out at www.teachlikeme.org.
But that wasn’t enough. After being selected as Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year and Finalist for National Teacher of the Year, I realized that I had a duty to advocate for educators in Oklahoma and beyond. So when I was approached about a state constitutional amendment to provide much needed funding for education, I signed on, quite literally. And after being frustrated at the lip service I’d receive from legislators who weren’t doing their part to fix education budget issues, I decided to run for office - State Senate, specifically. We needed representation at the State Capitol and fortunately I was accompanied by over 40 educators who ran for office in their respective districts; 16 of them made it past their primaries with me.
And yet, last Tuesday, it feels like the message we teachers received in Oklahoma was: 1) you have no place at the State Capitol and 2) we will keep saying we want to fund education, but we won’t follow through. I believe only one actual teacher won election and he will join the other educator next legislative session. So, I suppose two teachers in office is better than none. Nonetheless, I genuinely wanted to have a seat at the table, too. All the door knocking, phone calls, fundraising, speaking events, and time away from family and friends didn’t net me the win I was seeking. But, I trust God with everything and I learned some valuable lessons from my campaign.
I’m still processing everything that’s happened this week and included in this was the arrival of my first child less than two weeks ago. I’m admittedly a little “fuzzy-brained” from the unusual sleep schedule and adrenaline rush of having a beautiful, healthy baby girl and an amazing wife to spend time with the last two weeks. Life in the Sheehan household has been anything but ordinary to say the least. We’re truly thankful for the incredibly supportive friends and family who have rallied around us in this time. But back to the lesson learned…
I was at school this morning for a meeting and a former student passed me in the hallway and said, “Hey, Mr. Sheehan! I voted for you! I’m sorry you didn’t win but you’re gonna go for it again in four years right?”
My face was probably less than enthusiastic. I imagine I looked something like that indifferent emoji face coupled with a tinge of the angry faced one and a sliver of the sleeping one. I thanked her for her sweet comment and responded, “Ooohhh, I dunno.”
Her response perfectly captured my lesson learned in all of this. She said, “Well, I hope you do. Don’t give up on us. We need you!”
Aaaand cue the internal emotional outburst of tears and joy and everything I love about this job. Neither of us broke our stride while we talked, which was just as significant to me. She was hurrying to whatever she had to get to and I was headed in the opposite direction to a meeting. But that’s how it goes for me and my students. That’s what I taught them. When things don’t go your way, don’t let up. Keep moving forward. Literally. Keep. Moving. Forward. That’s what happened in the main hallway at Norman High School in Norman, Oklahoma. This math teacher/president of a non-profit/former candidate for State Senate/new father was reminded by a former student of the standard I had set for them.
So it’s back to the drawing board. And the election loss still results in a win for me because I get to continue doing the thing that I love - the thing I’m very good at - which is teaching math to students who really struggle with it. Honestly, my students and their parents, my teacher family, and my community is still thrilled to have me at home teaching in room 509. And I’m just as happy. But there’s a fire that’s been lit on a torch I promised I’d carry for all the educators out there. It hasn’t been extinguished. Far from that, actually. The flame has flared up with intensity and I will continue to fight for public education in a different, new way. Now more than ever, we educators need to let our lights shine brightly so our students may see in the darkness. My question is who’s next? Who will carry this torch with me? I need just a little break to recover, refocus, and strategize. Any takers?