In Their Own Words: Teachers Share the Personal Cost of Low Pay
Earlier this month, I traveled to Oklahoma to hear more about why teachers across the state are preparing to walk out of their classrooms if the legislature doesn't pass a funding package that includes a $10,000 pay raise and a $200 million boost to public schools.
I learned that teachers don't necessarily want to walk out—but they are fed up with the legislature, which has consistently failed to pass a pay raise in the past several years. They feel like walking out is their last resort. Teachers in Oklahoma are among the lowest paid in the nation.
We asked teachers in the state to share how the issue of teacher pay affects them. You'll see their responses in the short clips below.
Sara Doolittle is a high school English teacher in Norman, Okla., who has 20 years experience. When she moved from Colorado to Oklahoma eight years ago, her teaching salary was nearly cut in half. After the birth of her son, Doolittle decided to go to graduate school so she could use student loans to cover the cost of daycare. She is now a full-time teacher, a full-time graduate student working toward her Ph.D., and a part-time research assistant.
Ed Week's videographer and I spent the evening at her house—we filmed the below video after she put her 4-year-old son to bed and before she started writing a paper she was planning to present at a conference. She would be back at the high school where she teaches bright and early the next morning.
Many people can't afford to teach in Oklahoma at all. I heard stories of teachers quitting to earn more by working at a Goodyear tire plant or managing a tanning salon. In the video below, Jenn Johnson discusses how she made the "difficult choice" to leave the classroom when she moved to Oklahoma. Previously, she taught in Arizona and Florida, and she said that teaching in Oklahoma would have meant a $15,000 pay cut.
Shelly Unsicker-Durham, a veteran middle school teacher in Norman, Okla., said she has other resources so she "could afford the hobby that I do called teaching." But watching other teachers leave the profession has been disheartening, she said.
Brandi Jones, a 5th grade teacher in Duncan, said in the video below that teachers who want to stay in the profession just can't afford it anymore. The Duncan superintendent Melonie Hau is one of many district leaders who supports a teacher walkout, in part because it's gotten so difficult to retain teachers.
Many teachers in Oklahoma have a second or even third job to make ends meet. Marissa McGinley, a 4th grade teacher in Oklahoma City, used to work at the department store Kohl's to pay the bills.
In 1979, her parents went on strike to protest teacher pay in Oklahoma. Her father soon after quit teaching—"his passion"—to make more money to support his family, McGinley said. "I'm just really disappointed that this cycle keeps happening to where teachers aren't getting what they need," she said.
Teachers in Oklahoma haven't gotten a pay raise in a decade. Emily Clark, a 4th grade teacher in Oklahoma City, said this walkout was "long overdue."
"I'm a very proud teacher," she told me. "I'm proud of what I do every day. But I'm almost embarrassed when I talk to my friends who got out of education, because I'm like, 'Oh, they're the smart ones, they got out. Here I am, I must be stupid if I'm still in and make so little money, and I'm willing to put up with this.' I don't want to feel that way anymore. I want to feel like I'm appreciated by the state government."
Will Blair, a special education teacher in Norman, said low pay is hurting the quality of teachers in the state. There are about 2,000 emergency certified teachers in Oklahoma right now because districts are struggling to fill positions. Certified educators are leaving in droves to teach in neighboring states where they can make about $15,000 more off the bat.
Of course, teachers in Oklahoma are not the only ones frustrated with their compensation. We are gathering stories from teachers around the country, many of whom say they feel buoyed by the successful strike in West Virginia, where teachers received a 5 percent pay raise. You can share your own experiences and thoughts about teacher pay with the hashtag #HowTeachersGetBy.