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Hundred-year plan

Emergency-certified teachers are not the answer to Oklahoma’s education crisis

Oklahoma State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister

Three years ago, Dixie Meyer was a part-time nurse in her hometown of Alva, Okla., a small town about 12 miles from the Kansas border where the local residents call themselves Goldbugs in honor of the Alva High School football team. Their mascot is a tiny, goldrenrod-colored beetle, inspired by an Edgar Allen Poe story.

Meyer is a lifelong Goldbug. She and her husband were high school sweethearts—they met in seventh-grade English at the same school their children attend today. In 2014, when the high school couldn’t find a certified teacher to cover biology or chemistry, Meyer took the job as an emergency teacher, a person without the proper teaching certifications who has been granted provisional teaching status by the Oklahoma State Board of Education.

“I saw this post on Facebook with the principal saying, ‘Does anyone know a [registered nurse] who would be interested in teaching?’ I thought, ‘Well I’m a registered nurse. I’d be interested,’” Meyer said.

“I don’t know if you have ever lived in a small town, but a small town revolves around its school. We have a great system of responsibility and a great sense of pride. We want the best for our schools. That would be wonderful to help a little bit in my own small way.”

Today, Meyer is one of 1,800 or more emergency-certified teachers who have entered the classrooms in Oklahoma, but she is also a rare success story. It’s hard to imagine how small towns survive without people like her. Since working at the high school she’s been a computer resource teacher, a soccer coach, and a biology and chemistry teacher, all while she and her husband fostered one of her former students and his two younger sisters after they were taken into protective custody by DHS.

Oklahoma relies heavily on people like Meyer right now. Both rural communities with dwindling populations and urban centers like Tulsa are seeing mirror images of the same crisis. There simply aren’t enough teachers in the state. Folks like Meyer are working to fill the gap, but as the state looks to certify the largest number of emergency teachers in its history, the model isn’t sustainable.

State Education Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has been involved in Oklahoma education for decades. She was a teacher in Tulsa and worked as the owner of the Kumon Math & Reading Centers in South Tulsa and Utica Square for 15 years before being elected superintendent  in 2014. Hofmeister believes the emergency teacher situation is a symptom of a deeper issue.

“In Oklahoma education we have been operating on the same dollars as [in] 2008 but with 50,000 more students,” she said. “During that time, fixed costs have skyrocketed. Even when it appears on paper as being held flat since 2008, the amount of dollars that can be given to actually provide resources for children in classrooms has not increased. In fact it’s actually shrinking because the cost [of] healthcare [has] eroded those funds. This means that we grow and grow in our enrollment, and the amount that we can provide students for instruction diminishes year after year.”

These diminished resources affect every part of education: larger class sizes, fewer administrators to tackle discipline issues, outdated textbooks and technology—and even the shuttering of entire schools in some districts. One of its most insidious effects is on teacher salary. Oklahoma is now the worst state in the nation for average teacher pay. This has led to thousands of teachers a year migrating to other states to build better lives for themselves and their families.

“If teachers go to districts on the border in Texas they can actually make nearly $20,000 more as a starting teacher with zero experience,” Hofmeister said. “Some teachers are having to decide between staying in the small community school they love and moving to Kansas, where they can make $10,000 more a year. There isn’t much of a cost of living difference between these states. When you look at the regional average of those states that border Oklahoma, we are dead last in compensation. So we’re just talking about becoming regionally average with our teacher pay. That is the first step. I believe we should be nationally competitive, but that would be step two.”

The teacher exodus directly correlates to the rise in emergency-certified teachers. Five years ago Oklahoma issued only 32 emergency teacher certifications, and, according to Hofmeister, last year that number was up to 1,160.

“Escalation is very much the correct term. In fact, we’ve also just realized that 23 percent of the new teachers coming into Oklahoma education in classrooms and schools are emergency-certified. The count begins July 1. So in just a matter of three and a half months we saw numbers exceeding 1,800 emergency certification requests. That is August to October. This school year we’re already over 1,800. This means there are people stepping into a classroom without the training or experience yet to teach that class.”

These pressures stress a system already imperiled by the opioid crisis and across-the-board cuts to social services in the state.

“We have children experiencing a life of trauma, as our state battles untreated addiction in the home or untreated mental illness or instability due to foster care—we have many children whose mothers are incarcerated. These students’ needs grow increasingly diverse. It is a growing barrier for their educational success and attainment,” Hofmeister said.

Some emergency teachers, like Meyer, have years of experience in other fields like nursing, which develops crisis management skills and an ability to respond to people in trauma, but many do not. But the average person—without training—is not familiar with handling children whose home lives are strained and thus need more attention.

“We know our emergency-certified teachers need training and professional development support for classroom management,” Hofmeister said. “It’s not enough to know the content. You also have to know how to work with students who have experienced trauma. You have to know how to work with students who have special education needs or how to identify those children who need to be tested to see if they qualify for a learning disability. That is not something you are inherently able to do without training, and when our state cuts budgets, that training is stemmed. It doesn’t provide the support that emergency-certified teachers need to feel they can make a difference and to keep them in the classroom.”

“I might have a very slanted view because we have such a wonderful school system in Alva,” Meyer said. “We have all the assets we need, we have a wonderful administration … [and] have very low turnover. That makes such a difference.”

Meyer’s daughter is also a teacher; she works at U.S. Grant High School in Oklahoma City.

“I think she’s one of eight biology teachers in the district. This year, all but two of them are new to the school. They have a very transient population of students at her school, too. She gets and loses students all the time and that’s very frustrating. We’ve just been so lucky in Alva. We have wonderful administration … A lot of new or emergency teachers at other places aren’t getting that kind of support.”

Last month, the Oklahoma Legislature debated a measure to raise teacher pay, which ultimately failed, by five votes, to pass the State Senate.

“There was a $3,000 teacher pay raise voted on by the Senate and the House, and it lacked 5 votes,” Hofmeister said. “There were 108 yes votes, if you combine the numbers in the Senate and the House. What I hear is overwhelming support to pay teachers a regionally competitive salary … but when it comes down to why that didn’t pass, there just wasn’t agreement … The majority of Oklahoma legislators know that needs are going unmet, and though there is an overwhelming number of legislators willing to vote yes to increase revenue to cover critical services for Oklahomans, it just hasn’t happened yet.”

Legislators have signaled that they plan on revisiting the issue again next year, but with an estimated 60,000 Oklahoma students already in often overcrowded classrooms led by emergency teachers, time seems short.

“It’s very worrisome, particularly with math classes, when a middle school teacher has 40 to 45 kids every hour. How does that teacher provide the kind of one-on-one assistance outside the classroom to children that are struggling—or for the ones who need advanced placement, who deserve to have their needs met, too? I don’t think we appreciate how much these individuals stepping forward to help need training and need support from their principals and fellow teachers,” she said.

Superintendent Hofmeister doesn’t believe this crisis is intractable. But she does think it’s about priorities.

“We’re giving away billions in exemptions due to a whole variety of incentives. These need to be reviewed. I think we could remove incentives and sales tax exemptions that do not have a high return on investment. My understanding is we are allowing something like 6 to 8 billion in sales tax exemptions. That’s one place to start.

“Again, that is all part of a conversation legislators need to have and I believe are having, but there’s got to be consensus on having a bipartisan stabilizing budget. I’m absolutely hopeful because of those in the schools today who remain committed and dedicated to the kids in Oklahoma. They are here because they want to be in the classroom. They are here because they want to stay in Oklahoma, and we see a real indication of uncommon courage and leadership.”

An ancient but familiar teaching proverb, attributed to Confucius, goes, “If your plan is for one year, plant rice. If your plan is for ten years, plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years, educate children.”

If the state fails to meet its current challenges, Oklahoma risks not only its children’s future, but also losing community leaders like Dixie Meyer who want to stay here and serve.

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