The promise of a teacher pay raise seemed real this year, like lawmakers were actually going to get it done. But, they didn’t. And so, once again, some teachers are packing their bags in search of more money elsewhere. However, one teacher is asking them to stay in Oklahoma, and keep fighting.
This year’s legislative session began with high hopes of a teacher pay raise.
Governor Mary Fallin stressed the need for one in her February State of the State speech, and lawmakers put multiple pay raise plans on the table.
Almost every time House Speaker Charles McCall held a press conference about the budget, reporters asked him about teacher pay. And every time he would assure them that at least one of these plans was bound for success.
But in the end, lawmakers failed to fund even a $1,000 raise for teachers.
Senator David Holt (R-Oklahoma City), who proposed a $10,000 pay raise plan at the beginning of session, said he’s really disappointed.
"I’m still sort of in a state of some sadness about what happened at the end of session," he said, "Because we have just about hit rock bottom in terms of functionality of state government."
Many of Oklahoma's teachers said they're disappointed too.
Some, like Hope Cory, are leaving.
"I think a lot of people don't really know what it's like in the battlefield," she said, meaning the classroom.
Cory taught at Northwest Classen in Oklahoma City Public Schools for two years, but just in that short amount of time she said the job put her over the edge.
Cuts to her school’s teaching staff caused her workload to double, she said, and on top of that, she had to pick up some extra work outside of teaching to make financial ends meet.
"I'm not asking to be rich! I don’t want to be rich at all. I don’t!" she said. "But like, I don’t want to be struggling all the time."
Cory isn’t moving to Texas like many other teachers—including Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year.
She’s actually moving to Spain to teach. She said the pay won’t be much better there but at least she’ll be in Spain.
Cory said she'd like to come back to Oklahoma eventually, but a lot of things would need to change first. More than just teacher pay.
"The type of change that's needed is not going to happen over night. It's not going to happen within a year. It's probably not even going to happen within five years. It's a huge, huge, huge problem," she said.
Over the past couple of years, class sizes have grown, resources are in short supply, and some classes have been cut all together.
Cory said this is stressing teachers out, so they're leaving the classroom for easier work, or more pay elsewhere.
But Oklahoma’s 2017 Teacher of the Year—Jon Hazell—said leaving is not the answer.
"Oklahoma children aren’t leaving the classroom," he said. "So who’s going to teach them? Who’s going to mentor them? And who’s going to bring them up in this climate that’s really tough?"
Hazell said he understands teacher’s frustrations, and said they have every right to be mad. But, he said, going to Texas isn’t going to change anything in Oklahoma. Staying might.
"Things are going to get better," he said. "They’re not going to stay down all the time. And the way they’re going to get made better, is by the people who just have the grit to say, okay, this is my home, these are my children, this is where my family lives, this is what I want to do, and I’m going to try and make this better, for everybody."
So, stay and fight. That's Hazell's message. But, he said, he wants to change the way teachers are fighting.
"There’s way more than one way to fight. Just screaming at the legislature to give us more money, that’s not the only way to fight," he said.
His plan going forward is to bring people together.
"We’ve got to get the businesses and the community and everybody back at the table – focused on the same purpose, going the same direction, and not fighting each other."
Hazell reached out to his local Chamber of Commerce, and with their help, established a scholarship for high school students headed in to the teaching field. That’s one example of fighting, he said.
He also wants Oklahomans—including the media—to focus more on the positive things happening in education.
"We have got to start showing people the amazing things that are happening because there are some awesome things happening."
He thinks that will encourage more people outside the teaching profession to get involved in education, and hopefully make it better.