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State elections loom as Oklahoma educators face teacher shortage

rainbolt classroom

A classroom in the Jeannine Rainbolt College of Education on Nov. 2. 

Motivational posters cover the walls of PJ Siharath's classroom, a space where books and open curriculum foster curiosity and creativity and where students are taught how to be the next generation of civil leaders.

Teachers like Siharath are still adjusting to the post-pandemic classroom, all while facing recent legislation that has changed the trajectory of public school education and left many educators feeling unsupported and unappreciated. 

Siharath, a fifth grade teacher at Jackson Elementary School in Norman, said teachers are having to fend for themselves, as in-class support to accommodate growing class sizes and classroom funding is severely lacking. 

Siharath said this year he has 24 students in his class, nine students more than Norman Public Schools' average class size of about 15 students, yet he has not received additional help.

"We usually have a (teaching assistant) that kind of floats around to help out because those numbers are a lot," Siharath said. "But we haven't had that ability to have somebody come in because of funding and because of this lack of a pool to pull from as far as TAs go. So that's been kind of difficult."

In 1990, the Oklahoma Legislature passed House Bill 1017, an Education Reform Act that appropriated more than $560 million over five years for several education reform policies, which included limiting class sizes to no more than 20 students per teacher in first through fifth grade, and 140 students a day for middle and secondary teachers. 

In the years following HB 1017, class sizes dropped significantly, but this progress was short-lived. According to the Oklahoma State Department of Education, as of 2019, all school districts in Oklahoma are exempted from HB 1017 class size limits. 

"Our ability to be the best teacher that we can be has been kind of limited," Siharath said. "We (are) being stretched so thin."

Larger class sizes are one of the many consequences resulting from Oklahoma's ongoing teacher shortage.

In the past six years, 30,000 teachers in Oklahoma have left the profession, representing 10 percent of the state's teacher workforce, 2.3 percentage points higher than the national attrition rate. 

Katherine Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said the teacher shortage is largely due to a lack of respect and competitive pay for teachers. Educators are frustrated, she said, adding that the government is not doing anything to address the situation and invest in Oklahoma students' future. 

Jami Cole, a fifth grade teacher at Duncan Public Schools and leader of Oklahoma Edvocates, agreed, saying it is a perilous time for public education. 

"If things don't change immediately, there won't be an educator in that classroom to teach your child," Cole said. 

According to the Oklahoma State School Board Association’s annual teacher staffing survey, Oklahoma schools reported 1,019 teaching vacancies as the 2022-23 school year began, a jump from 680 vacancies reported last year. This increase in teaching vacancies occurred despite the record number of emergency-certified teachers employed. During the 2021-22 school year, nearly 4,000 emergency certifications were issued, with 2,969 issued so far this school year

Teachers are very grateful for the Oklahomans that have stepped into the field and received an emergency certification, Bishop said, but this measure was not supposed to replace traditional education degrees. 

"We know the importance of our colleges of education, (the) students that are graduating through that (program and) the amount of expertise that they're coming out with," Bishop said.

Bishop, Cole and Siharath all said emergency certified teachers should reduce vacancies, but filling those positions often comes with additional responsibilities for veteran teachers.

When you have someone who is emergency certified, teachers have to take on the additional role of mentor, Siharath said. Not only are teachers doing their normal jobs, they're also having to train and oversee new hires, he said. 

As the second year of COVID-19 concluded, teachers and students have continued to face unforeseen challenges while adjusting to a post-pandemic classroom. 

Schools have found that students have lost between one to two years of academic gains and social development, resulting in many teachers trying to play "catch up" with their students, Bishop said. 

"(Teachers are) making sure that our students, throughout all the disruptions that have happened, (are) still learning, they're still growing, they're still developing," Bishop said. "It's not only academically, but it's their social (and) emotional development."

Teachers are having to find where those developmental holes are so they can adjust their curriculum and help students bridge those gaps, Siharath said. 

Public school administrators and principals realized that, in addition to teaching students about mental health care, teachers need to attend to their own mental health as well, Siharath said. 

"I lost two sisters within a month of each other to COVID-19. … That was devastating for me," Siharath said. "It kind of put things in perspective, as far as what is important. That was one of the reasons why I decided to kind of stick it out (as a teacher), because I know that if I leave, there's not going to be people with my experience and my ability to work with these kiddos."

Cole said that she is immunocompromised and that her husband, who is also a teacher, has leukemia, so going to work every day was a risk. 

While facing personal challenges, teachers also felt discouraged from a lack of respect and appreciation, Cole said.

"We gave a whole lot during the pandemic, and teachers were seen as heroes throughout the state. And then all of a sudden that (was) flipped, and we kind of became the villains," Cole said. "I don't know how that happened, because we were literally working our best and trying our best to keep everybody caught up and do exactly what we needed to do. But it just didn't seem like it was enough for some people."

Cole and Siharith also said recent legislation has been decimating educators, specifically with House Bill 1775, which prohibits curriculum and materials that are believed to discriminate on the basis of race or sex.

"(Many legislators have) never stepped foot inside of a school building. They don't know what we're having to deal with," Saharith said.

Siharath pointed to a bin of books on a shelf behind him that are under scrutiny because of the bill. He explained the strenuous process of vetting all of his books and deciding which follow the conditions outlined by the bill as he sorted through them, eventually holding up a "Harry Potter" book with an incredulous look on his face. 

Anytime a book is suppressed, student's opportunities to explore and learn about new perspectives is limited, Siharath said. 

"It's no coincidence that (many of) the books that we're pulling, that we can't give out, have brown people in it, have people with different perspectives, different thought processes."

Siharath said there is a sensitive political climate right now, and teachers are having to be very careful with their words. Educators have to teach directly from the curriculum without straying, whereas before they were able to make personal connections to better explain certain concepts to students, Siharath said. 

"It only takes one parent, or one thing that is overheard or said that somebody doesn't like, and then your career's on the line, your certification is on the line, your district certification is on the line," he said.

Summer Boismier, former Norman High School English teacher, resigned after a parent complained she was violating the terms of the bill by providing a QR code to students that led to the Brooklyn Library Books Unbanned. Ryan Walters, Oklahoma secretary of education, has called for Boismier's teaching license to be revoked

Due to the broad terms of HB 1775, Siharath said the Second Step educational program is being questioned as well for teaching "wokeness" to students. Second Step is a learning program that teaches various social and emotional skills, including bullying prevention, emotion recognition and management, and conflict resolution.

Teachers are trying to produce citizens that will contribute to society, Siharath said. To do this, students need to be taught how to be nice and work as a team. 

"If we can't teach that, then what are we doing?" Siharath asked.

Every time the government goes into a legislative session, teachers know there's going to be a bill written against them for some reason, Cole said. Teachers feel attacked.

As the election draws near, teachers and education advocates said it is imperative that Oklahomans elect candidates that are pro-education. 

Teachers need government leaders that will prioritize education by providing schools with the funds and resources that they need, as well as increase teacher pay, Cole said.

Both Cole and Siharath voiced concerns about Ryan Walters, a candidate for state superintendent of public instruction who wants to pull federal funding.

"If we pull federal funding, that means not only do we lose the (teaching assistants) that we have, but we lose a lot of funding that goes into providing food for low-income kiddos," Siharath said.

Siharath said Jackson Elementary is a Title I school, with 67.1 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunch assistance

"I probably spend about $2,000 of my own money feeding (students), giving them snacks (and) buying materials," Siharath said. "And that's with all the federal funding that we have. So if that gets pulled, we're screwed."

Oklahoma is ranked 49th in the nation for education. Cole said the state of public education in Oklahoma lies in the hands of voters. 

"(The election) is really going to turn the tide," Cole said. "This is a real pivotal turning point for public education and (for) our public school kids."

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