TULSA — Teacher pay and school accountability were among the biggest topics discussed during a community forum Wednesday evening tackling issues facing Oklahoma public-school teachers.
A panel of educators, joined by other teachers and representatives from education and public-policy groups in the audience, talked about the challenges they see in schools and classrooms on a daily basis.
The forum at a downtown Tulsa restaurant was sponsored by Oklahoma Watch, a nonprofit journalism organization. Several dozen attended, including leaders such as Tulsa Public Schools Superintendent Keith Ballard.
Teachers spoke in sometimes emotional and insistent tones about the struggles they face in coping with some of the lowest salaries in the nation and dealing with the increasing demands of the classroom. The message from guest panelists and many questioners often boiled down to a plea to state policymakers and lawmakers for more recognition of their value, in the form of better pay, a voice in decisions and support in tackling tough school issues that are not of their making.
The panelists in the forum were two Tulsa teachers and a principal: Estella Bitson, principal at Hawthorne Elementary School; Meredith Brown, a sixth grade teacher at Disney Elementary School; and Dallas Koehn, a history and social studies teacher at Union Public Schools’ Ninth Grade Center.
Brown, who has been teaching for two and a half years, said low pay has been a hot-button topic for her and other young teachers. Oklahoma has the third lowest average salary in the nation, and lowest salary in the seven-state region.
“The hardest part is I have no savings,” Brown said. “I don’t have a backup for anything. My paycheck — I cover my bills, but there isn’t anything extra … If I need new tires, I’m in trouble.”
Many seek new jobs
Bitson said Oklahoma needs to find a way to pay teachers better, especially because many are leaving the field for better-paying jobs.
Many who don’t quit have to moonlight at second jobs in order to cover rent and bills.
Bitson highlighted a teacher on her staff whom Bitson ran into at a restaurant, Olive Garden, where the teacher was waiting tables as a second job.
“It makes me sick to my stomach. We must value and respect our teachers,” Bitson said. “My teacher shouldn’t have to be at Olive Garden when he should be home with his family.”
Those same teachers often dig into their own pockets for classroom supplies or to get clothes and other personal items for their students. They also take on expanded roles inside and outside the classroom in order to help students deal with personal issues that can detract from their education.
Bitson cited as an example a teacher who used her own money to buy gym shoes for a student.
Hawthorne Elementary has a high rate of low-income students.
“Our students have so many obstacles from their home environment,” she said. “There’s a lot of crime factors that our students are faced with. Not only are we teachers, we’re social workers, we’re counselors.”