Stop Equating Teachers With Martyrs

We're expected to take bullets for students but most of us can barely make rent.

In Oklahoma, teachers' wages are among the lowest in the nation. This Monday, in protest of stagnant wages and reductions in education funding, Oklahoma's teachers staged a strike. They were joined in their walkout by educators in Kentucky, where, per NBC News, every public school is closed.  Below is an op-ed written in advance of the walkout by Beth Wallis, an assistant band director in Morris, Oklahoma. It was posted on Facebook early March, per a fellow teacher's blog, and we republish it here with her permission.

With the imminent threat of a statewide teacher walkout on the way in Oklahoma, let me take the time to let everyone know what today was like for me, the average Oklahoma teacher.

I woke up this morning to a bank account in the red because a gas bill had accidentally deducted twice-over this month. My gas bill isn't extravagant, but 2x means that my once-a-month public school paycheck can't budget for any sort of emergency. I can always wait more tables, right? Maybe sell some plasma? At least I don't have massive student loan payments like most teachers who are working their whole lives literally to pay off the training it took to get them the job in the first place. I file this all away, compartmentalize it, and tell myself that somehow I'll work it out.

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Over the weekend, I was informed that one of my kindergartners died and her twin sister is in critical condition. I teach their classes every week. This is the third student of mine in four years that has passed and it never gets easier. We love these children, we care for them,  we will protect them with our bodies from bullets and tornados. We watch every school shooting go by, wondering if our district will be next; wondering if we'd be able to save them all before inevitably getting shot ourselves. We wipe their noses and dry their tears. We hold their hands and do everything we can to make sure they grow up to be strong, successful adults. We stay after school for hours listening to middle and high-schoolers crying over their parents' divorces or identity struggles, taking on the roles as therapist and advocate. We truly, genuinely, and deeply care for their happiness and well-being. I file this all away; compartmentalize it; and tell myself that somehow it'll all work out.

I'm a band director and our biggest contest of the season to date is tomorrow. The kids are stressed; the directors are stressed. If we don't make the scores we need, we won't be advancing to State contest. The energy in the band room is high, the tension is even higher. Our seniors want so badly to go to State contest; I can't imagine letting them down. I'm dealing with having to reassign parts last minute because of eligibility, hoping things will finally come together tomorrow... but I don't know if it will. I file this all away, compartmentalize it, and tell myself that somehow it'll all work out.

Courtesy Beth Wallis

After school, our district held a meeting on potential action. Emotions ran high. Teachers are torn between doing what needs to be done for the schools and kids, and in turn putting a major burden on the community in the process. How will those kids eat? What about parents who work all day? 

Our first instinct as teachers is to do anything to protect the kids. But it's gotten to the point now that we can no longer keep filing it all away, compartmentalizing it, and hoping it'll all work out in the end. Because every year we do, and every year our state legislature absolutely and totally fails all of us. And every year, we file it all away, compartmentalize it, and we're told that somehow it'll all work out.

Full stop.

Let me tell y'all right now, we have waited, and waited, and waited, and this is never going to work itself out.

Oklahoma has set a NATIONAL record for the highest cuts to education ever seen, period. We're nearly last in per-pupil spending, and we're DEAD LAST in teacher salary. If you think this is about greedy Oklahoma teachers who drive Mercedes-Benzes and just put a down payment on a summer home, you're dead wrong. 

Our students don't have BOOKS, guys. Our classrooms are sitting 30-deep and my district has it MADE compared to any of the major public schools in the state (40-50 students per class).

We had over 1,800 emergency certifications this last year in the state. You think your kids are being taught by the most qualified, experienced teachers? They're gone. The few of us who've stayed behind do it ONLY for the kids. Oklahoma kids DESERVE quality, compassionate education and I will provide that as long as I am able... but that's not going to be forever. What if I were ever to want kids of my own? I can't even afford an extra gas bill, much less provide for a child. I'm nearly 30 with a master's degree and still live in a rented house with a roommate in a state with one of the lowest cost-of-livings in the country... and I will never be able to afford an actual mortgage if I stay here.

STOP EQUATING TEACHERS WITH MARTYRS.

We are professionals. We are trained, educated, hardworking professionals who deserve to be paid for the work we do. We're expected to work before and after our contracted hours every single day to get our grades in and plan for quality instruction, but most of us pray that our car can run off fumes just one more day.

We're expected to take bullets for students but most of us can barely make rent.

A woman holds a sign advocating for equipping teachers with resources at a March For Our Lives sister rally in Sacramento. Chris Allan / Shutterstock.com.

Yes, we work with children. 

Yes, we care deeply about those children and will without hesitation put our lives and our own time on the line so that they stay safe and cared-for. I just don't understand why we're expected to do this all for pennies. 

No, none of us got into this profession "for the money".  But we still have to feed our families, and a government-salaried, full-time job that requires a college education and certification should at bare minimum provide for a middle-class life, and it just doesn't.  And if you can't see how that has created a massive vacuum of teachers in this state, and how your children are being majorly affected by the enormous exodus of educators to the surrounding states (starting around $15,000 more for nearly or exactly the same cost of living), you've got to be walking around with your fingers in your ears.

It's not just educators who are suffering. It's YOUR children, Oklahoma. YOUR children's art programs are being cut. YOUR children don't have music anymore. YOUR children are splitting a math book with three other students. YOUR children's track coach left for Texas and your district can't afford to replace him, so your program no longer exists. YOUR children are playing on equipment that is 20 years old and riding on buses that are older than you are. YOUR children are being taught by emergency-certified teachers hired by districts that STILL have job openings (Oklahoma, in MARCH, still has over 500 certified teaching positions that have not been filled), who are desperate to fill those spots with any applicant. YOUR children are drowning in classrooms 30, 40, or 50 students deep while teachers exhaustively try to teach every student at every level.

Enough is enough.

We are taking action because Oklahoma will die without it. 

We are taking action because the students of Oklahoma deserve it. 

We are taking action because our legislature has proven to us that it's never just going to "work itself out," because they've had damn well over a decade to figure this out.

Oklahoma: your educators, your children, and your communities are desperate for your immediate attention. And if you don't give it to us...

We'll demand it.

Cover image via  Sheila Fitzgerald / Shutterstock.com.

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