Seven years ago, Dr. Christina Kirk left behind a lucrative career as an attorney to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a teacher. Now an 8th grade English Language Arts teacher at Star Spencer Mid-High, Kirk can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I had been looking for how to become part of a change, and I kept circling back to education, but the deterrent was always the financial side,” said Kirk, who waited to change careers until her daughter received a full-ride college scholarship. “Once my daughter was financially secure, I was able to be more of a risk-taker with my career and do something I’m passionate about.”
Like many teachers, Kirk holds a second job as a municipal judge to fulfill her financial commitments. She’s also a coach, serves as the middle school ELA department chair and heads the AVID college prep class for high school juniors. On top of that, the 2019-2020 Oklahoma City Public Schools Teacher of the Year is now helping her students and colleagues navigate life and learning in a pandemic while caring for their and her own mental health. She recalls comforting a panicked student afraid he was going to die after being diagnosed with COVID-19. She’s also had to encourage colleagues who have a hard time getting out of bed in the mornings, knowing the nearly unbearable weight placed on them by society as the pandemic continues.
“When you are empty, you can’t continue to pour,” said Kirk. “It’s not that teachers don’t care, but some are ‘cared out’ and don’t have anything else to give.”
Jessica Eschbach, Oklahoma’s 2021 state teacher of the year and an innovation learning coach for Norman Public Schools, says as she’s traveled the state meeting with educators, the term she hears most often is “overwhelmed.”
“Teachers want to meet the needs of their kids, socially, emotionally and educationally,” said Eschbach. ”It was never easy, but coming back after a year of uncertainty, when you have kids at all ends of the spectrum in one classroom and figuring out what they need in terms of instruction and emotional support, while making sure their families’ needs are met, on top of our own families and worries … there just aren’t enough minutes in the day. That feeling of overwhelm really easily shifts to burnout.”
Susan Pinson, executive director of professional learning for the Oklahoma State Department of Education, agrees the top challenge facing educators is their emotional wellness. Teachers are feeling increased pressure to assess students’ current skills and knowledge and fill in gaps accordingly, all while dealing with inconsistency of schedules and teaching formats due to the pandemic. Pinson says not only does increased stress and exhaustion lead to higher levels of illness among teachers, it’s also contributing to a lack of joy.
The solution is not to place even more expectations on educators but rather to rally communities to help restore the respect and support teachers deserve, which ultimately benefits the students in their classrooms.
“Teachers want to feel respected, that there is a sense of mutual trust and to really have open communication,” said Pinson. “That opens the doors for schools and communities to work together, and that’s when creative ideas surface.”
Oklahoma’s education statistics reflect the overwhelm of teachers around the state. Summertime teacher retirements were up 38 percent in 2021, compared to 2020, with more than 2,200 Oklahoma teachers leaving the profession, according to the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System. Teachers have been managing from crisis to crisis throughout the pandemic especially, amidst fickle and often negative public sentiment.
“Being in education right now is heavy,” said Kirk. “Two years ago, everybody was talking about how important teachers are, and in less than 18 months, that’s switched to how lazy teachers are. That public sentiment swayed quickly.”
The Oklahoma State Board of Education reports issuing 2,673 emergency teacher certifications prior to the start of the 2021-2022 school year, already nearing the total of 2,801 for the entire 2020-21 school year.
Oklahoma’s average teacher salary lags behind the national average by more than $10,000, according to the National Education Association. Across the United States, Oklahoma ranks 30th in teacher pay, according to Wallet Hub, with an average of $53,617, compared to the national average of $65,090. In Oklahoma, starting salaries for teachers average $36,601, or $39,381 for those who enter the profession with a doctorate degree, like Kirk.
Low pay coupled with increased burdens due to the pandemic, an educator shortage and general lack of respect for the profession only serve to frustrate and undercut the individuals who are committed to teaching the next generation.
“There’s a growing sentiment to undermine expert and professional expertise,” said Sen. Carri Hicks, a former educator and member of the Oklahoma Senate Education Committee. “Educators are highly trained, but the mentality is that anyone can do it.”
Hicks joined her first picket line with her father during the teacher strike of 1990 to support her dad, who taught for 32 years. Ironically as the Teacher Walkout of 2018 loomed, Hicks and her dad were on the picket line yet again, this time her father supporting her as a classroom teacher.
“It’s frustrating that the more things change, the more they stay the same,” said Hicks. “We’ve over-regulated public school systems to the point where teachers feel micromanaged. The walkout was never about teacher raises but ultimately the result of dwindling investment for kids and a growing need for teachers to feel supported in the classroom. We have to find a way to stop telling schools ‘this is what we have leftover in the budget’ and instead ask what investment they need.”
Hicks said what keeps her up at night is the record number of teachers leaving the workforce in Oklahoma, in addition to fewer students interested in careers in education.
“It feels like we’re not ever getting ahead in the teacher shortage to get the results we want,” said Hicks. “The strongest indicator of a child’s academic success in the classroom is their teacher. We need to be smart about investment and honest about what kids need to thrive.”
The OSDE is on a mission to prioritize retaining and supporting teachers statewide.
“We have announced many initiatives under our Ready Together Oklahoma plan,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister. “What one teacher needs to reduce stress and burnout may vary vastly from what another teacher needs. But we believe that each initiative has something to offer that will benefit both teachers and students.”
A new teacher induction program provides wraparound support for early career educators, pairing rural teachers with an urban or suburban veteran teacher coach as well as a mentor in their school to help them get to know the community. The new teacher receives instructional and curriculum coaching as well as social-emotional support. Coaches and mentors like Eschbach receive professional development and support from the OSDE, building renewed dedication to the profession among teacher leaders.
“The more we can support new teachers, the more they will be able to stay in the job, hone their craft and be there for generations of kids in Oklahoma,” said Eschbach.
The School Counselor Corps program will add 300 counselors to Oklahoma schools to support student mental health. The OSDE is investing $35 million in federal COVID relief funds to cover half the cost of the program, which helps address students’ academic and social-emotional needs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As Pinson notes, when students receive that support, it transfers into the classroom, improving performance and allowing teachers to focus their energy on teaching.
“Oklahoma’s current student-to-school counselor ratio of 411:1 is significantly higher than the recommended ratio of 250:1,” said Hofmeister. “School counselors and school-based mental health professionals play an integral role in helping students build academic, college and career, and social and emotional skills. This help, in turn, positively impacts student mental health and well-being.”
Kirk is grateful for the Employee Assistance Program, which provides teachers free, confidential counseling and referral services through the U.S. Department of Education, and she’s actively working to encourage teachers in her site and district to take advantage of it when needed.
“The district has put an effort into recognizing that teacher work is hard and stressful, that we can’t turn it off and that we’re thinking about our kids while we are at home, wondering if they are safe,” said Kirk. “We take on the emotional energy of our students, and knowing we have services that we don’t have to worry about how much they cost or if taking advantage of them will affect our jobs is comforting.”
For the first time in 2021, Oklahoma college students in their final year of a teacher preparation program were paid during their student teaching. This initiative removes obstacles for those who have to work in addition to completing their student teaching and helps with housing and transportation costs they would otherwise need another job to fund.
“Student teaching is a really challenging time for a lot of students because you’re essentially paying to work, which can be a huge burden,” explained Eschbach. “This program is revolutionary, paying student teachers a stipend and then an additional stipend to stay in Oklahoma, adding qualified teachers to our workforce.”
While Oklahoma lags in terms of average pay, Pinson said the state has increased teacher pay over the past two years, with an average increase of $7,400. She said just as important as the pay raise is the message conveyed that educators are valued and respected.
For future initiatives, Hicks would like to see the state invest in educators’ professional development. Currently, Oklahoma has 26 professional development mandates that teachers must complete annually, on top of federally-required mandates.
“We mandate professional development but haven’t paid for it in over a decade,” said Hicks. “The state professional development budget is zero, so it’s up to local schools to try to find a cost-effective way to meet all of those mandates, like an online module, which diminishes the quality significantly. While it might have been a good idea, the execution doesn’t have the proper resources to have the intended effect.”
A reduction of class sizes, which Hicks notes would increase student academic achievement and reduce teachers’ workloads, could also help reduce teacher turnover and burnout. In 1990, state House Bill 1017 mandated class sizes, curriculum standards, testing and early childhood education programs, with schools subject to accreditation and financial penalties for failure to comply. Without the necessary budgeting, though, many of the mandates couldn’t be maintained, and in 2010 a moratorium was passed. Hicks wonders what educators and students could achieve with lower class sizes if districts had the funds to invest equitably in teachers and facilities.
“We build new buildings but don’t have the money to hire more teachers,” said Hicks. “We need both in equal proportions.”
Kirk would like to see state university education programs require more time in real-world classroom management experiences. She also says it’s necessary to place more veteran teachers in schools with the highest need, which currently often receive the most emergency certified teachers instead. In addition, Kirk believes an increase in teacher pay should not be based on performance or student outcomes because while some students will never test at a specific proficiency level, that doesn’t mean they haven’t achieved tremendous growth, and teacher pay shouldn’t be penalized for it. At the end of the day, though, Kirk believes the current climate and negativity surrounding the education industry in Oklahoma is one the state “can’t legislate its way out of.”
“Changing mindsets can’t be done legislatively,” said Kirk. “We have to promote the positives of education so communities and partners understand and value education.”
Because teachers are quite literally molding the next generation of our communities, all Oklahoma citizens have a collective responsibility to support the industry.
“The number one way we can help educators in 2022 is simply by offering support,” said Hofmesiter. “Each member of the community has something unique to offer.”
At the beginning of the pandemic, Hicks recalls talking with administrators in the public schools in her district to ask what they needed in terms of financial support to reopen.
“You could have knocked them over with a feather,” said Hicks, who adds that educators, unfortunately, have gotten used to receiving whatever is leftover, not being asked (and provided) what they need most.
Hicks remembers from her classroom days when her school received a set of materials or software that either didn’t align with curriculum needs or they weren’t provided proper training to use effectively, all of which can add to that feeling of overwhelm. On the contrary, she has witnessed in both Putnam City and Deer Creek school districts what can happen when community members, nonprofit partners and corporate sponsors band together to fulfill needs or support initiatives schools are already engaged in.
“Those big ideas can have a really profound impact,” said Hicks, recalling the success of a grant for a school to build a greenhouse and community garden.
In Deer Creek, a parent legislative action committee, launched while Hicks taught in the district, recently worked with district leaders to secure monies from pandemic relief funds as well as ongoing investment for the district to provide dyslexia specialists and curriculum at every level in the district, a testament to the power of parents banding together to achieve a major initiative.
The Putnam City Schools Foundation launched a community engagement program called Community And Schools Together in 2021, thanks to a grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation. The funds allowed the foundation to hire three community liaisons, who assess needs in their school sites by interviewing teachers and administrators and then work with community partners to fulfill those needs.
“In every school building in Oklahoma, there are kids and families who need hope and there are principals and teachers not trained or who don’t have the time to be social workers, community liaisons, pastors and all the different roles they try to fill,” said Jennifer Seal, president of the Putnam City Schools Foundation. “We want to alleviate some of that burden so they can focus on teaching and loving kids.”
Seal recalls a teacher spending 30 minutes of her day trying to find a place one of her student’s families could wash their laundry, and similar scenarios are on repeat for most teachers throughout the state every day. When teachers are focused on helping kids and families meet those basic needs, which must be attended to before a child can generally feel safe and ready to learn, notes Kirk, their ability to focus on instruction is hampered.
So far, CAST has secured donations of water bottles, a refrigerator, supplies for grounds beautification, a little free library for an elementary school, meals for band students and more.
As the program continues to develop, Seal says the liaisons are proactively meeting with community partners, religious organizations, nonprofits and businesses to create a resource pool so when they have requests from schools, they have organizations ready and willing to meet the needs. Seal is not aware of another similar program in the state or the country.
“In 10 years, I’d love to have a community liaison in every building; that’s 27 schools and that would be a considerable investment,” said Seal. “It’s going to take time to build this out, but I see no end in sight to the growth of this program.”
Thanks to an award from the Oklahoma School Foundations Network recognizing CAST, Seal also has the opportunity to share information about the program with other foundations across Oklahoma in the hopes they will be inspired to start something similar in their districts.
Seal adds that another opportunity for community members to directly impact their local school district is to get trained as substitute teachers, which schools are desperately lacking.
“When we don’t have substitutes, teachers feel such a strong responsibility to be there for their kids that they will sometimes forgo what they need in order to be at school,” said Eschbach. “Anybody who wants to help, your presence would be so important.”
Classroom support from parents is important, too, but Eschbach adds that supporting teachers does not have to translate to giving money or purchasing goods. Volunteering in the classroom or simply reinforcing a teacher’s instructional goals for your child, like ensuring they are reading and completing homework, go a long way. Taking a few minutes to send teachers an encouraging note means more than many parents might realize.
“A note that says I see what you’re doing and see the positive benefits to my kid even outside the classroom … we love to see that growth and have that confirmation that parents are seeing it, too,” said Eschbach.
The pandemic has affected every member of the community and state in some way. Eschbach says acknowledging that impact and connecting the time and talent of community members with their public schools are the next best steps to move forward.
“People want to help, and getting community groups and support into our schools is going to be important to regain a sense of normalcy,” said Eschbach. “Despite our differences, we all want the best for kids — that’s a collective goal we can all share.”
Hicks hopes to see a focus on empowering teachers to regain their joy.
“There are a lot of things at the state level we can do to empower teachers to fall in love with learning all over again,” said Hicks. “They love kids and are capable of the job they’ve been hired to do. Every child deserves the opportunity to thrive and deserves a well-funded education, which means resisting the temptation to micromanage educators.”
Kirk is committed to infusing her positive energy among her colleagues. At a recent review focused heavily on opportunities for improvement, Kirk made a point to end the meeting on a note of positivity, asking everyone to share something in their week that reminded them why they teach. Despite the current sense of overwhelm and burnout for Oklahoma educators, Kirk says, with the community’s help, the industry can and will continue to make strides for our children.
“There’s always hope,” said Kirk “We might be tired but we’re not going anywhere. We entered this profession knowing it was challenging. We need everyone else to collaboratively get on board. Our kids are too important — so when you remove the option of walking away, all you have left is hope.”