On March 31, I was invited to serve as the opening speaker for Oklahoma’s historic rally for education at the capitol. This is that speech:
Hello my fellow Oklahoma teachers. I come to you with deep humility as your ambassador during this time of great turmoil. I remember standing on these same steps as a boy watching my father, already a veteran teacher at that point, fight for better pay. And here we are, a new generation, and still we must do the unspeakable. We must leave our students, so that maybe our voice will be heard and their future secured.
I grew up on a farm in Waukomis, Oklahoma, the son of farmers and teachers. From the age of ten, I spent my summers driving a tractor, working the land. Imagine what would happen if our government told my family that instead of planting wheat each year, we must also plant soybeans, corn, and cotton. Imagine if they gave us no additional equipment and also told us that we can only plant the seeds just below the surface, barely dusting them in. And in spite of all of our hard work, if there should be a drought or a hail storm or some other crop failure, imagine if the government stopped backing our crops with any insurance. What if they called my family a failure?
This would be unheard of. Education is equally life-sustaining to agriculture, and it is not allowed to thrive. Our legislators are failing to help us in our need, and yet they have an abundance of resources available to them. It is embarrassing to tell our colleagues from around the nation that we have $300 million of possible oil tax revenue, and we are still the 49th state in education funding. We all know how grading works…49th is just a coward’s way of not making us 50th. We’ve all watched legislators pretend to feel sorry for us and try to ease their own guilt through educational grants and foundations. But why should we have to take our time to fill out an application, jump through hoops, just to obtain the meager funds and materials that should be available for the asking? They are making a choice, and many of our elected officials are choosing on the wrong side of history.
The few courageous people still entering our honored profession have few of their needs met, and over one third of them leave the classroom within three years. We do not receive a living wage should we choose to raise a family. Many of us are unable to teach with the same passion that brought us into this profession because we are forced to dust over creativity and deep thinking. We are expected to teach more, diverse students with a fraction of the resources, and our crops are failing; the laborers are leaving the field. I have two young boys, and I think even they would understand the absurd economics we are facing. I am saddened that we are building their future on this plan.
Teachers, we cannot lead others until we lead ourselves. We are a body of professionals, and we must champion high standards through our appearance and our language in every conversation that we have. Lead yourself professionally, always. As we move forward today, apply your skills with urgency and importance in your voice. Remember, we are the practitioners of education. Nobody understands the challenges and successes of teaching more than a teacher. We are the ones who must share positive stories and creative solutions to our legislators. Teach them about the passion and influence that you have every day in your classroom. Lead them to understand that teachers are the future.
2014 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year