Deborah Gist: We have to help our teachers

Tulsa World
March 20, 2016

By Deborah Gist | Superintendent, Tulsa Public Schools

In 1988, I left Oklahoma and moved to Texas to teach first grade in a public school in Fort Worth. I love Oklahoma, and I adore Tulsa, but I left because I could make $21,000 a year in Texas. In 1988, the starting salary for a first year teacher in Oklahoma was $15,000. It would have taken me more than 10 years of teaching in my home state to match my first-year teacher salary in Texas.

Nearly 30 years later, we are still having the same conversation about educator pay, and it has grown increasingly dire. We read headlines about the “teacher shortage crisis” and the need to attract and retain high-quality educators. However, upon reflection, I’m not sure that “crisis” is quite the right word for what’s happening in our schools and classrooms.

If you look up “crisis” in the dictionary, you’ll find several definitions. The first one is “a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, especially for better or for worse, is determined; a turning point.” The second one is “a condition of instability or danger … leading to a decisive change.” Both of these definitions connect crisis to action and to change. So if we haven’t taken action to solve the problem, then we haven’t yet reached a crisis.

We have to change the environment in which Oklahoma teachers live and work. They must be treated like the irreplaceable professionals that they are. Their education expertise, experience and dedication to our students must be respected and honored. We want our city — and our state — to be the best, most desirable, and most prestigious place to teach in the country. When we do so, we will make it the best place for students and families.

To make this aspiration a reality, we simply must address teacher salaries. In Tulsa, it takes 17 years for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree to earn what is considered a living wage for a parent with one child. It would take the same teacher 27 years to earn the median household income in Tulsa County! We have to understand that behind these numbers are amazing, hard-working men and women and their families. This is not what is best for our children.

At Tulsa Public Schools, one of the primary responsibilities of our Human Capital Office is to recruit, hire, and retain nearly 3,000 teachers each year. All too often, Human Capital takes on the added responsibility of connecting these teachers with local social service providers and non-profit organizations. Tulsa teachers who are parents make so little that they qualify for state benefits such as Medicaid for their children. It is not unusual for our teachers to frequent area food pantries to put food on the table, or to hold second and third jobs just to pay the bills. I know teachers who have had their cars repossessed, teachers who are struggling to pay their mortgages, teachers who have moved in with roommates to make ends meet and teachers who are living paycheck to paycheck and just barely getting by. This is not what is best for Oklahoma.

Yet, everywhere I go, I meet Tulsans who support public education and have the deepest respect for our teachers. I hear that Tulsans want real change to make our city a destination for teachers and their families. It feels like change is coming as more and more Oklahomans are standing up to support public education and advocate for our teachers and their students. We have to do whatever it takes to pay our teachers as professionals. There is simply no other option.
So have we reached the turning point where the trend of all future events is determined? Will we take this moment to bring about positive change for our children and our future? I am certainly hopeful and optimistic that our crisis point has actually come, and that our state will finally begin to make the long-overdue decisive change to honor our educators and pay them the salaries that they deserve.