Finding more teachers a focus for Oklahoma schools
Three prekindergarten boys furiously moved their colorful markers across the blank sheet of paper in front of them, each creating a series of squiggly lines, the perfect picture of a superhero in the minds of these 4-year-olds.
But the boys each looked bewildered when they realized all three were creating a “good guy,” to which one of the boys asked, “Who will be the bad guy?”
“What if you are all the good guys?” asked Harlee Reed, the classroom's student teacher, inserting a life-altering theory that the boys quickly adopted before continuing with their creations.
Reed then jumped up from her position on the floor and drifted to the other side of the classroom, searching for another group of students in need of guidance.
“I've just always been more comfortable around kids. Way more comfortable than being around adults,” said Reed, who is a student at the University of Central Oklahoma, completing her final semester as a student teacher at Indian Meridian Elementary School in Choctaw.
She will work with a mentor teacher for the next few months before taking over her own classroom in January, entering a profession that sometimes draws more attention for those leaving it in search of better pay or better working conditions.
Even the teachers who have stayed left their classroom for two weeks in April, staging a walkout and protest at the state Capitol in search of more funding for education. The walkout closed schools across the state, including where Reed was doing her practicum work, allowing her to participate in the walkout and tap into the growing advocacy role educators are now playing across the state.
“It made me excited, this is a huge time to be a teacher,” Reed said. “We are putting our profession on the front of people's minds. I'm amped up.”
The walkout led to some change — Reed's starting paycheck will be at least $5,000 more than if she started last year, thanks to a pay raise approved by lawmakers prior to the walkout.
But teachers left the Capitol without the level of increased funding they were seeking.
Reed said she is quickly experiencing the challenges of a profession that has dealt with years of flat and declining state education budgets, leading to larger class sizes, a shortage of classroom supplies and a reduction in student-support services.
Reed is one of around 5,400 university students across Oklahoma who are preparing to become teachers, a number that has been on the decline in recent years.
Last year's count of education majors at Oklahoma universities was 21 percent lower than just four years earlier, according to survey results from 21 of 23 teacher preparation programs compiled by the Oklahoma Association of Colleges for Teacher Preparation.
Oklahoma universities graduated 1,275 teacher certification holders in 2018, about a 19 percent decline from 2014, according to the same survey.
A similar trend can be found in many other states, but Oklahoma's shrinking number of traditionally trained teachers comes at the same time the state's use of emergency certified teachers is on the rise, which reached 1,975 last school year, setting a new state record.
When districts are unable to fill a teacher position with a certified candidate, an individual can be granted a two-year emergency certificate if they can pass a test in the subject area they wish to teach and pass a criminal-background check.
While emergency certified teachers made up less than 5 percent of the state's total teaching force last year, their use has significantly increased.
In 2012, just 32 emergency certified teachers were hired across Oklahoma, a time when most district leaders said teacher openings resulted in dozens of qualified applicants.
Officials at education preparation programs say the decline in students hoping to become teachers is due to several factors, including negative perceptions about the field's pay and work conditions.
Officials believe, however, the decline is also caused by an increase in standards for teacher education programs, including higher requirements for grade-point average and performance on tests, such as the ACT and the Oklahoma General Education Test.
"It's more difficult to finish a student preparation program today while it is very easy to be emergency certified," said Elizabeth Smith, chair of the Department of Education at the University of Tulsa.
Part of the new standards from the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, which Oklahoma follows, is for universities to develop a plan to increase recruitment, especially in subjects experiencing a shortage.
"The new standards are so rigorous that they really reflect the difficulty of teaching," Smith said. "It is hard to be a teacher."
Returning to class
Theresa Cullen, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Education, conducted a survey last year that found the average teacher that had left for another state was now making an additional $19,000.
A $6,100 average pay raise for Oklahoma teachers was approved by the state Legislature this year, and the state Department of Education said it gives Oklahoma the second-highest average pay in the region, behind Texas.
But looking at state averages can mask the disparity from district to district.
School districts in north Texas, specifically in suburban Dallas-Fort Worth, offer a median starting salary of more than $50,000, according to a 2017 report from the Fort Worth-based United Educators Association.
That can be stiff competition for a district like Oklahoma City Public Schools, which even after this year's Legislature-approved pay raises offers first-year teachers with a bachelor's degree a salary of $39,001.
But this year's pay increase has state education leaders hopeful it will persuade some teachers to remain in Oklahoma and others to re-enter the profession.
Nearly 5,500 people hold a state teaching certificate but are not currently working in an Oklahoma public school. In a prewalkout survey conducted by the state Department of Education, 31 percent of those individuals said a pay increase would get them to return to the classroom.
“If we could get those 31 percent back in the classroom, we are talking about thousands,” said State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister.
The same survey showed that pay was more important for younger teachers, but the older a respondent was the more likely they were to target classroom conditions as the biggest deterrent to returning.
Beyond a shortage of textbooks, technology and curriculum supplies, teachers say they have had to deal with a student body that is increasingly challenged by poverty, trauma and instability at home.
Oklahoma has one of the highest rates of young children with adverse experiences, such as domestic violence, sexual assault and poverty, according to the Potts Family Foundation and the Adverse Childhood Experiences report, which scores the level of trauma in a person's life.
Teachers say those adverse experiences increase the need for social and emotional support, yet many school districts have had to cut support programs and reduce counseling services.
In Oklahoma City schools, most elementary buildings have been without a full-time counselor for years. Last school year, the district had just one counselor for every 1,200 students.
This year, the Oklahoma City district plans to increase the number of counselors, which it hopes will lead to fewer suspensions and improved classroom conditions.
The rise in social and emotional challenges facing students has some schools turning to trauma-informed instruction and other ways to address challenges that can make learning a near impossibility.
"We are trying to create environments where students feel safe and healthy," said Kristin Atchley, executive director of counseling for the state Department of Education, who led a series of seminars this summer helping teachers work with children who are experiencing trauma.
The diverse slate of issues teachers deal with are evident through the courses Reed took during her time at the University of Central Oklahoma, which included classes in educational psychology, parent relations, classroom management and teaching students with disabilities.
"It's not just getting up there and teaching the ABC's and teaching the colors and sending them home," Reed said. "You have to learn about your kids, individualize your instruction to benefit them and just build those relationships.
"There's just so much that goes into it that people don't think about."