Decreasing funds, large class sizes and low wages made it difficult for teachers to stay in Oklahoma despite efforts from the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education and other sources.
by Kerry Friesen & Casey Wilson
Putting the last of her belongings in the box, teacher Kaysi Sheehan walked out of room 404 for the last time. As she rolled the keys off the ring, it was done. She was leaving Norman High, and would soon be leaving the state of Oklahoma for a job a few hours south in Lewisville, Texas.
“Packing up my classroom was heartbreaking. I loved Norman High and everyone in it,” Kaysi said. “I honestly thought I was going to spend my entire teaching career at NHS and retire in that classroom.”
Leaving Norman High was a difficult decision as Kaysi had many friends and memories at there.
“I am going to miss my teacher family the most. We were far more than colleagues, we leaned on each other for everything,” Kaysi said. “I met my husband at Norman High, got engaged in the library, and had my first baby while working at NHS.”
Kaysi and her husband Shawn were by no means the only teachers to leave Oklahoma to head for greener pastures, but, as the 15-16 Oklahoma State Teacher of the Year, Shawn’s story made for more publicity. In March of 2017, Shawn published a blog questioning what he and his family should do with their future. Ultimately, the pair decided to move to Texas.
“Deciding to move to Texas was hard,” Kaysi said. “Post November election, and as the state legislature was making no progress in funding education, it became clear that I needed an exit strategy.”
Even though the pair struggled with the decision, Kaysi is excited for a new challenges and opportunities.
“I will go from 170+ students a semester to 75 or less per semester. I will also have an extra 30 minutes of grading/prep every day. So that’s less papers to grade and more time to do it. This extra time will allow me to really reflect on my teaching and spend more time prepping and preparing more innovative lessons” Kaysi said.
In addition to the extra time and fewer students, financial security was a major draw for the Sheehans.
“I will be able to teach and not be worrying in the back of my mind how we are going to make ends meet that month,” Kaysi said.
The Sheehans’ story is becoming common across the state of Oklahoma as funding continues to lag behind other states and as the possibility of a pay raise remains a pipe dream.
Even though improvements haven’t come, the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education at the University of Oklahoma is trying to encourage new teachers to stay.
Dr. Gregg Garn, dean of the college of education, has been working to implement new policies to encourage new teachers to stay in Oklahoma and balance the lower pay.
According to Dr. Lawrence Baines, associate dean for Research and Graduate Studies, Dean Garn worked to amass an endowment to help make it cheaper to come to OU for a degree in education. According to Baines, Garn has also been working with the Chamber of Commerce, realtors and banks to help secure low-interest home loans.
Garn plans to work with Homes for Heroes to decrease the amount of money a teacher would need to have for a down payment on a house. Through the program, down payments would be less than $1,000.
The college has also started a reimbursement program for students taking the certification tests.
“For the three Oklahoma tests, it’s about $300, but for a college student $300 could be three months of food,” Baines said.
For Baines and Dr. Crag Hill, associate professor, the main job of the college is to prepare teachers to be the best they can, even if it means losing them to another state.
“We want to encourage them to stay in Oklahoma, but we know they’re going to do what they’re going to do,” Baines said.
Both Baines and Hill work to show what might be attractive in Oklahoma teaching. Hill is responsible for managing the intern class most semesters.
“In my experience as a teacher and working with teachers is that teachers stay that have autonomy and are expected to be creative and expected to be innovative, and that’s doable. That doesn’t cost money,” Hill said. “At some point, the best teachers are innovators. I love this shit because it’s creative. I mean, it’s an art.”
In addition to creativity, Hill believes going into teaching is an act of social justice and giving young teachers a voice will keep them in the profession, and, hopefully, Oklahoma.
“I want to make sure kids can read and write so they can speak back to power,” Hill said. That power might be other teachers, might be principals, might be their own parents. Or to politicians. Anyone who can make decisions over them.”
Despite the efforts, the numbers still trouble Baines and others in the college. When Baines interviewed the graduating class in May 2017, approximately forty percent were leaving for different states.
“Those [interns] who leave are often those with the most snap, some of the better teachers,” Baines said.
With many teachers leaving, the number of emergency certifications increase, a statistic that also worries Baines. Over the last two years, Oklahoma has seen more than 2,000 emergency certifications issued.
“These are teachers who’ve never had a class in education, they’ve never worked with children before and I’ve seen some of those who are a lot of times complete disasters. They can be especially harmful in the early grades.”
Though Baines is concerned about emergency certifications, Baines is more concerned with the overall trend.
“If they were a producer, emergency certification is the largest producer of teachers in the state by far, and the next is the big regional institutions,” Baines said. “If you look at the state as a whole and you look at the Title II website that tells you where all the graduates are, we have just a trickle of graduates from OU. It’s around 100.”
For Kaysi, though she is sad to leave Oklahoma, her love for education endures.
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else,” Kaysi said. “I love being with young people and teaching, so it’s perfect for me.”