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Teaching moment

The life of a Tulsa educator on the first day back after the strike

Joseph Rushmore

Elizabeth Steinocher’s day begins at 4:45 a.m. This gives the 31-year-old enough time to get ready, make breakfast, and leave her downtown Tulsa apartment in time to greet the 23 second-graders in her charge at Skelly Primary Elementary.

Today’s routine is no different, but the energy is. Like more than 2,500 other Tulsa Public School educators, it’s Steinocher’s first day back in the classroom since she and her colleagues walked out to fight for better pay and funding.

“It feels like the first day of school,” she says, folding berries into the rolling boil of her steel-cut oats.

Steinocher’s jitters come from excitement, but some anxiety runs underneath. “I’m a little nervous about how to articulate to a second-grader what happened. I want my kids to know we didn’t leave them high and dry.”

It’s a delicate thing to explain to a seven-year-old, but the 2017 Tulsa Teacher of the Year says many of her students already have some understanding.

“A lot of them realize that their old teachers aren’t here anymore, so they have some context for what we’re doing.”

Steinocher is the only second grade instructor at Skelly who returned this school year. As was predicted, many of those teachers left Oklahoma for states with more robust investments in education and teacher pay.

“That makes it a little easier to explain to my kids, and a little more sad—at their age, they already know they lack equity in funding.”

In the classroom, Steinocher finally gets the chance to eat her breakfast alongside the children, who are smacking heaping spoonfuls of cereal and slurping orange juice from squeezeboxes. They’re fresh off a general assembly led by Principal Ramona Gestland, who offered students the Reader’s Digest version of the strike, leaving any heavy lifting to individual teachers and their students.

“We wanted more funding for education—more money,” Steinocher explains to her class during their morning circle. “They’re not giving enough money to our schools, so teachers can’t do our jobs really well. We want to give you the best education we can, and we need more money from the state to do that.”

It’s a simple explanation, which she expands with a slideshow of photos from her time at the capitol. The kids take in images of the packed rotunda, clever picket signs, and the mass of people spilling out across the south lawn. They are fascinated by the story of the Tulsa educators, including district superintendent Deborah Gist, who marched 110 miles to Oklahoma City in protest.

“Like Martin Luther King,” one precocious student offers from the back of the circle.

“We should have a walkout,” another whispers with an impish grin.

After the Q&A, class begins in earnest with breathing exercises. Then it’s onto a whirlwind of work groups, educational dance parties, interactive presentations on human anatomy, and dramatic readings from “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”

Although Steinocher has been in touch with all of her students over the course of the strike, the kids’ excitement at their reunion makes executing the day’s schedule a constant challenge.

“I know it’s exciting to be back in school,” she says in a voice just quiet enough to require close listening. “But I need you to be calm and focused.”

Facilitating that calm and focus is a major part of Steinocher’s daily labor—no small task for someone in charge of 23 energetic little people.

On the surface, Steinocher’s classroom is not a picture of want. It’s packed with books, art supplies, and games. Some students work in groups, huddled over interactive learning stations. One girl reads intently from a “Scooby-Doo!” book. Another tries to identify an insect using a picture book from the classroom library.

“Basically everything you see on the shelves is mine,” Steinocher says. “I’ve always bought my own supplies. I don’t know what it would be like to not do that.”

At the end of the day, with supplies back in their places and children back home, a welcome quiet falls over Steinocher’s empty classroom. She’s exhausted, with more work still ahead, but today has reminded her why she started teaching in the first place.

“It’s really easy to forget the long-term investment you’re making at this young of an age,” she says.

With a decade of teaching under her belt, Steinocher’s first students are now approaching the threshold of adulthood: getting jobs, getting into colleges, and getting in trouble.

“It’s amazing to see kids grow up and who they become. Because you don’t know—they could be anyone, sitting in my classroom. I don’t know what their story will be, but I have nine months to invest in it. I think that’s what keeps bringing me back.”