While every school district is different, most of us have at least heard about the many schools in our public education system that are just not doing well.
Materials are out of date, there aren't enough resources for every student, and teachers, who are already overworked — no, they don't really get summers off — aren't getting paid enough. In fact, as the National Education Association points out, teachers can actually earn less pay each year as the requirements for their job become more and more daunting. That's why so many of them have second jobs.
That's not all: Teachers often have to pay out of pocket for required ongoing training and dip into their own bank accounts (or turn to GoFundMe or Donors Choose) to source crucial classroom supplies. On top of all that, they are often expected to be not just instructors but counselors, de facto parents, and confidantes for many of their students.
A protester at the state capitol in Oklahoma. Photo by J Pat Carter/AFP/Getty Images.
All that and no living wage? It'd be enough to make most people walk out of their job.
That's why the teachers strike in Oklahoma is so important. But the teachers aren't just striking for themselves. Although Gov. Mary Fallin signed a measure that would give teachers an annual pay raise of around $6,100 (they had asked for $10,000, and $5,000 for support staff), educators abandoned their classrooms this week to fight for those who couldn't fight for themselves: the students.
According to CNN, Oklahoma has seen school funding drop by 28% over the past decade, leading to unthinkable class sizes (one special education classroom, a teacher said, had reached 40 students), textbooks that are embarrassingly out of date, and harsh limits on even the smallest items — with some schools being limited to making only 30 paper copies per week. And that's at the heart of what educators are fighting for: More funding for their schools — aka a brighter future for students.
What does Gov. Fallin think of all this? She compared the instructors to "bratty teens."
Speaking to CBS on April 3, Fallin basically compared the educators' protest to something you might see on an old episode of that show about spoiled teens, "My Super Sweet 16." You know, where a kid has a meltdown because their parents gave them their Lexus too early.
"Teachers want more," Fallin said, "but it's like kind of having a teenage kid that wants a better car."
Yes, except for the fact that a "better car" is something one wants, while a strong educational foundation is something that children absolutely need.
A student at the state capitol during the teachers' walkout in Oklahoma. Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images.
And it's even less of a pertinent talking point when you realize that before Fallin approved this raise, Oklahoma teachers hadn't had one for 10 years. Or when you consider that Oklahoma ranks at 49 in the nation when it comes to teacher salaries, even though median wages in other professions in the state aren't so far behind.
One teacher did the math on her wages and found that her salary broke down to just about $12 an hour. As the BBC video below shows, one teacher has only 29 books for more than 80 students. There are no art classes. No nurses. In some districts, children only go to school four days a week.
The reality for teachers in Oklahoma is grim.
"Our students don't have BOOKS, guys," educator Beth Wallis wrote in a now-viral Facebook post. "Our classrooms are sitting 30 deep and my district has it MADE compared to any of the major public schools in the state (40-50 students per class). We had over 1,800 emergency certifications this last year in the state. You think your kids are being taught by the most qualified, experienced teachers? They're gone. The few of us who've stayed behind do it ONLY for the kids."
That's why we need to stand with both the teachers and students in Oklahoma.
First of all, these teachers aren't being bratty when they demand more support for their students and for themselves. And Fallin's dig at teens doesn't reflect reality either. After all, America's teens are currently at the forefront of a national conversation on gun control.
The bottom line is this: Teachers deserve better than they're getting. And so do the students.
They deserve up to date books, engaging learning materials, and instructors who are fairly paid, if still overworked (it's unlikely that will ever change). When the next generation is better educated than the last, we all win.
Until we move closer to that solution, though, we shouldn't malign teachers as bratty teens for leaving their classrooms empty. We should champion for the changes they're working so hard to create.