Love of Learning: OKC Teachers Dedicated Despite Budget Cuts - MetroFamily Magazine
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Love of Learning: OKC Teachers Dedicated Despite Budget Cuts

by Erin Page

Reading Time: 7 minutes 

For more than half of her teaching career, Stephanie Anderson has had to work a second job to help off-set her low salary. She took a drastic pay cut leaving her first teaching position in Texas to be with her now-husband in Oklahoma. She still holds her Texas teaching certificate and the lure of a bigger paycheck is appealing.

“We want to live in Oklahoma and raise our children in Oklahoma,” Anderson said, “but we also have to provide them with a college education and a better financial future than I may earn while teaching in Oklahoma.”

Recent state budget cuts meant Anderson didn’t receive her small “step” raise for the year, though that didn’t surprise her. She recently helped her brother, also a teacher, and his family pack up and move to Texas in pursuit of a more lucrative teaching position. At the end of the day, Anderson said, the money isn’t as important as the impact she makes on her students.

“I love working with young adults and helping them realize a love of learning,” she said. “There is no greater pleasure or satisfaction than knowing I made a difference to someone.”

According to the National Education Association’s annual report, Oklahoma ranked 48th in the average salary of its teachers at $45,317. The national average is $12,000 more. Oklahoma teachers wouldn’t have to travel far to make more money. In fact, any of the surrounding states would likely offer more pay. The average teacher salary in Texas is $50,017, Colorado is $49,828 and Kansas is $48,990.

Already struggling with low salaries, Oklahoma teachers face further ramifications from state budget cuts, like fewer and outdated materials, larger class sizes and reduced spending per student. District and school leaders are doing what they can to address the plight of their teachers, but despite staying positive within school walls, they are concerned. 

“My biggest concern is losing good teachers through retirement and attrition and not being able to replace them with quality educators,” said Jason Engelke, assistant principal at Washington Irving Elementary School. “There are fewer college students going into teaching and who can blame them? The creative and brightest minds who have a heart for teaching are going elsewhere, either out of state or to other careers.”

Parents also fear the state’s best teachers leaving for better working environments. 

“We recognize the work that they do, but expect them to continue doing it without raising their pay and expecting them to pay for supplies out of pocket,” said Misty Warfield, a local mom of three.

Teachers supplement student funding shortfalls 

Teacher pay isn’t the only thing suffering in our state. According to the NEA, Oklahoma also had one of the lowest per-student expenditures in the 2015-2016 school year, around $8,000 per student, nearly $3,700 less than the national average. 

“My biggest concern is that they will not have enough supplies to complete their work,” said Warfield, whose second son received only two kindergarten work packets the entire school year, thanks to paper scarcity. Her first son received one every month. “[His teacher] did a fantastic job teaching with the resources available. I fear that schools without much parent support or a lower socioeconomic status will feel the brunt of this even more.”

Less money for students means teachers often reach into their already stretched-thin personal funds to pay for classroom materials. According to Agile Education Marketing’s annual survey, teachers across the country spent an average of $487 out-of-pocket to purchase items for their classrooms in the 2015-2016 school year.

In her first year of teaching last year, Rebecca Argo, an English language arts teacher at Capps Middle School, spent about $200 on pencils, erasers and copy paper for her students. She also ensured those of her students she calls “habitually hungry” could always find a snack in her desk. Lisa Laughlin, an English teacher at U.S. Grant High School, has access to copy paper, pencils and some additional materials, but typically spends $100 to $150 of her own money on notebooks and project supplies for her students. Lauren Collings, a media specialist at Central Elementary School, said she spent at least $250 annually when she was a classroom teacher, and Jennifer Defee, a teacher at Centennial Elementary School, spent upwards of $500 annually in the early years of her career when she was establishing her classroom. Anderson spends about $200 per year. She asks her students to donate optional classroom supplies, like tissues, hand sanitizer and pencils, as they are able. Anderson calls the “classroom money” Putnam City School District offers its teachers a blessing, especially in light of budget cuts. 

“We are given $120 each school year to spend on supplies for our classroom,” said Anderson. “I use this money to purchase paper, Scantrons and novels.”

Districts try to attract, retain teachers despite funding crisis

Before Anderson had her diploma in hand from Oklahoma State University, she had already been recruited by a Texas school.

“Oklahoma colleges do a wonderful job preparing future teachers,” she said, “but our surrounding states are more than eager to take a recent graduate and move them to their state.”

While Oklahoma schools can’t offer teachers more money or higher per-student budgets, administrators are getting creative in attracting and recruiting teachers. Greg Waggoner, principal of Fairview Elementary School in Moore, said like Anderson’s experience, his district now moves quickly when a student teacher is performing well. The best often get offered a contract for the following school year during their first semester of student teaching.

“They are proactive and don’t wait until June to fill teacher positions,” said Waggoner.

Moore Public Schools took a $1.5 million hit on the district’s textbook allocation but a community-supported bond issue with money built in for textbooks, equipment and technology will ensure Moore teachers have access to the materials they and students need to keep progressing. That allocation means fewer cuts across the board.

Norman Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Joseph Siano said Oklahoma has to make a commitment to raising teacher pay but in the meantime his district seeks to provide other incentives, including quality facilities and professional development opportunities.

“We have a responsibility when we hire you to help you grow as a professional,” said Siano.“It doesn’t take the place of money, and it shouldn’t, but if you had money without all these other pieces, you’d have just as much trouble retaining teachers.”

Out-of-state travel for professional development has been cut for many districts, spurring some to provide more opportunities at home. Putnam City has implemented weekly Professional Learning Communities into teachers’ contract days. Anderson values this fellowship and professional development with her team of teachers, who review data, strategize curriculum, work through struggles and celebrate successes. Giving her this paid time tells her the district values her creativity and wants to foster her continued growth as an educator. 

Even with a building full of kids and other educators, teaching can be a lonely profession. Perhaps most important to our state’s teachers is a community of support during uncertain times, which administrators say doesn’t have to cost a dime.

“I’ve received a collective message from my district leadership that we are in this together, creativity will ensue and I am not alone in problem-solving,” said Jonathan Atchley, principal at Irving Middle School. 

Why they stay 

For many metro-area teachers, their concern about the state of public education in Oklahoma is the very reason they remain. In light of budget cuts and what she calls the “reckless behavior of our state government,” Collings worries about the wellbeing of Oklahoma’s children and the state’s inability to retain talented teachers.

“The most important element in the classroom is a dedicated and caring teacher, and Oklahoma children deserve this as much as anyone else,” said Collings. “This knowledge keeps me motivated to remain here and continue working for our kids.”

Teaching is a shared profession in Argo’s family; she said she knew exactly what she was getting into, and that’s part of why she became a teacher.

“I think it's our responsibility to fix the awful situation here and now, not to run,” said Argo.

For Engelke, who has struggled for years with the idea of leaving teaching to pursue a more advantageous career, it’s the growth he sees in his students that keeps him tied to the profession he loves. 

“What helps me day-to-day is the kids,” said Engelke. “I absolutely love bringing a smile to their face, teaching them something new or talking to them about what they are learning.”

Engelke jokes that his wife supports his “teaching habit,” as her salary surpassed his early on in their careers. He finds it especially hard for men to work in education long-term because of their innate desire to provide for their families. With three children, he can qualify for state aid because of his low salary. That fact is hard for him to swallow.

It was hard for Waggoner, too. He felt a tug at his heartstrings to become a teacher, just 30 hours shy of finishing his sports broadcasting degree. Waggoner switched majors and put his love of sports to use teaching PE and coaching. In the late 90s when he began his teaching career, teachers didn’t receive paid health insurance. When he and his wife wanted to start a family, he realized it would take a quarter of his salary to pay for the medical costs of having a child.

“It was very expensive to have a child and be a teacher,” said Waggoner, who left teaching to work as a pharmaceutical sales representative for four years. 

When teachers started receiving paid health insurance, Waggoner returned to the career he loved.

“I left a job making twice as much because God called me to do it,” he said.

Despite an atmosphere of uncertainty in many of our schools, Engelke said teachers remain dedicated and committed to working hard for their students. 

“I can walk my halls two or three hours after school is out and find more than one teacher working away in their classroom and that includes on weekends,” said Engelke. 

Make a difference 

As metro teachers consider what parents and community members can do to help them and their students realize success, the message is clear that change begins at the top. 

Edmond Public Schools Superintendent Bret Towne’s wish is well-trained, highly motivated and caring teachers in every classroom in the state, which requires Oklahoma to offer higher salaries and benefits. It also requires lawmakers to take a hard look at how government is funded.

“We need a bi-partisan plan to adequately fund education and all core services,” said Towne. “That means that we look at revenue sources, tax breaks and incentives with the thought of how each affects the state's overall revenue stream.”

In his discussions with lawmakers over the past legislative session, Moore Superintendent Dr. Robert Romines was pleased to find many eager to work with school administrators to develop solutions to the public education crisis. As the state faces elections in November, Siano said it’s imperative community members look beyond candidates’ vocal support of public education to their history of supporting education with resources. He hopes to see candidates with a long-term funding plan for public schools prevail. 

“I believe that Oklahoma is at a crossroads and that voters who truly care about Oklahoma need to support those candidates who wish to address the key issues affecting the state,” said Towne.

For educators who enter their classrooms every day determined to make a difference in the lives of their students, support from community members and legislators is critical.

“Save our public schools by investing in a system that produces highly successful graduates,” said Collings. “Our future doctors, politicians, police officers, journalists and more will come from these schools around the state. Every child’s education is worth the investment.”

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