If I had to use one word to sum up the news that’s come out about Oklahoma education in the past year it would be grim. So when I got an email invitation from Oklahoma City Public Schools to attend their Teacher For A Day program, I honestly felt some trepidation. After all, reading about an issue and commiserating about it to your peers is so much easier than experiencing it firsthand (which I’m sure is the point of the program).
But grim is the last word I would use to describe my day with Mrs. Price’s fourth-grade class at Arthur Elementary. The students were eager to learn, the facility was impressive and the administrators and teachers were obviously passionate about their jobs. So why all the bad news about education?
Well, the teachers are educating against all odds. When Price wasn’t being given the basic tools to do her job, she got them herself.
Price is an award-winning, Nationally Board Certified teacher with 23 years of experience who hasn’t gotten a raise since 2008. But she helped write a grant a couple years ago that resulted in every student at Arthur receiving his or her own iPad. Apple provided the 715 iPads to students and about another 50 iPads and MacBooks to teachers and administrators through their ConnectEd initiative. The company launches the program in schools where at least 96 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch programs in an effort to level the playing field with technology.
The Apple partnership is just one of many things Price rattled off she’s gotten through grants. So I asked her, "If you’re a teacher and you don’t write grants, are you basically screwed?"
"Oh yeah," she said. "In fact, nobody does that anymore. Either the teachers buy it, they clean out their closets at home to bring it here or they ask for it on donorschoose.org."
Donorschoose.org invites public school teachers to post classroom project requests that are fulfilled by the general public. Price pointed out some of her own classroom materials provided by donors on the site, including her printer and printer ink. It’s a huge resource for all OKCPS teachers. A search on the site at the beginning of December showed 285 unfulfilled needs posted by local teachers.
But surprisingly, a lack of classroom resources aren’t Price’s biggest pain point. I asked her to tell me the biggest change in her job in the past 23 years.
"Teaching with people who aren’t teachers," she said.
Dipping teacher salaries combined with growing classroom sizes are just a couple of the challenges OKCPS has faced while trying to recruit teachers in the past few years. District officials have tried a variety of tactics to get teachers into classrooms, Price said, but many of the students in her fourth grade class today have spent the past couple years without consistent instruction from certified teachers. Teacher recruitment issues led to her fourth graders being taught by a combination of student teachers, substitutes and teachers with emergency certifications in second and third grade. Those experiences have snowballed into fourth graders who are behind.
"If you are a warm body without a felony on your record you can get emergency certified," Price said, only half joking (there are some other requirements to obtaining an emergency certification).
Granting emergency certifications to make up for a teacher shortage is a problem the state Department of Education is aware of and wants to address. There were about 1,800 emergency certified teachers statewide at the end of November when the department set a goal to reduce the number of emergency teaching certificates to less than 60 by 2025. Price said even as an accomplished teacher herself, she finds it challenging to bring other teachers up to speed who aren’t specifically trained to work in a classroom setting.
Spending a day at Arthur Elementary made me realize there are teachers in OKCPS classrooms who will do what it takes to make their students successful regardless of actions from legislators. My best hope is that anyone reading this will find the same passion Price has found for teaching kids at all costs. Regardless of decisions made at the Capitol regarding Oklahoma kids, there are 285 teachers on donorschoose.org right now asking us to step up and help them do their jobs and I pledge to pick one of them to fund today. Who’s with me?