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Oklahoma Teacher of the Year struggles to 'find a hope' after State Question 779 fails

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Shawn Sheehan

Shawn Sheehan, 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year and former Oklahoma Senate candidate, addresses the education issue of The Daily during the Daily Talks forum Nov. 3 in Gaylord Hall's auditorium. 

As Oklahoma continues to become a less hospitable environment for teachers, some educators are doubting their futures in the state.

With the Nov. 8 failure of State Question 779, the penny sales tax proposal, Shawn Sheehan, the 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year and an algebra teacher at Norman High School, said the future is uncertain for educators.

“It’s admittedly kind of hard to find a hope right now,” Sheehan said. “Teachers are feeling pretty disenchanted. Seven seventy-nine was what was going to provide hope to us — it was an immediate hope ... in the form of a $5,000 salary increase.” 

Sheehan was one of the original petitioners for 779, and ran for the Oklahoma Senate this year to try to implement more local change for education. After losing the election for the senate seat and 779's failure, Sheehan said he is not confident in Oklahoma’s ability to change.  

“As someone who has a 2-week-old baby girl, it’s frustrating that … it feels like the message from the state is ‘Hey, we’re good with what we’ve got; we’re good with the status quo,’” Sheehan said. “It makes for a nice talking point, how we’re behind teachers 100 percent, but we’re unwilling to do the things that it’s going to take to properly fund education."

Now that there are no upcoming incentives for educators to stay in Oklahoma, Sheehan said he is interested to see what choices teachers will make come June 2017. 

“I’m certain that we’ll see teachers finish the school year — my question is what is it going to look like come June? How many teachers will have put in for jobs in Texas and in Colorado?,” Sheehan asked.  

Despite his love of Norman and his job here, Sheehan said he cannot disqualify the possibility of he and his family leaving Oklahoma next year.

“I think my wife and I will be considering all options. We really do want to stay — we’ve got family here. This is our home,” Sheehan said. “I’m really proud of this city, I’m proud of this community — you know, they really rallied around me. But we will be considering options, because the bottom line is it doesn’t matter what state we live in, we still have the same amount of student loan debt.

“I’m 31 years old, and we’re still renting a house,” Sheehan said. “We really do want to be able to establish roots, so I wouldn’t say that looking at other options out of state is out of the question. Our preference is that we really do want to stay here in Norman.”
Until that choice comes, Sheehan said he will continue to advocate for his profession. Though many of his options have been struck down for now, Sheehan said he is still grateful to be able to do what he loves.

“The good news is it’s an opportunity for me to have a concerted effort to pause, focus on my family, focus on what’s really important, and then you know, I’ll be back at it again,” Sheehan said. “I’m not going to fade into the background — people will still be hearing from Mr. Sheehan."

"The kids at Norman High, they won’t be losing me, and I’m really excited — it wasn’t a loss for me,” Sheehan said. “It was gonna be a win-win — if I won my seat, I was going to get to advocate for education and all the other important issues as a legislator, and then if I didn’t, I’d still get to do the job that I love, that I’m really good at. I still get to teach math. That is totally fine for me.”

Sheehan also encouraged his fellow educators and said they should keep in mind that the kids they teach are the most important part of their work.

"I guess my message to educators is to not give up hope and keep fighting the good fight," Sheehan said. "Like I was saying earlier, it’s back to the drawing board for us, so let’s see what else we can do."

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