By Nate Morris
As night turns into day, students begin streaming through the doors of Burroughs Elementary and into Cameron Warner’s classroom. They grab their breakfast, take their seat, and begin writing their response to the “Do Now” assignment on the board. “They always write about a fun topic,” Cameron says. “It gets them motivated and encouraged to write”.
Mr. Warner, as he is known to his students, is currently in his third year as a teacher at Burroughs. He moved to Tulsa in 2015 after graduating from Tennessee State University. He works as the school’s English Language Development teacher, Gifted and Talented teacher and Behavioral Interventionist, but is currently filling in for a classroom that is not his own. A colleague is out on leave and there is not a long-term substitute available to fill the vacancy. Even still, he is fueled by a contagious passion for his kids and his school that is impossible to miss.
Normally, Cameron would begin his day well before dawn and sometimes continue working even after the sun disappeared below the horizon. That’s changed now. Cameron is participating in “Work the Contract” (a teacher advocacy effort led by Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association (TCTA) with the full support of Tulsa Public Schools) to demonstrate to lawmakers in Oklahoma the critical role that teachers play and shatter the notion that their work can be completed in the boundaries of a regular 9-5 hour day.
Before the “Work the Contract” initiative began on March 12th, Cameron would spend time before and after school (and on weekends) making lesson plans, grading, calling parents, making copies, planning activities, organizing group work, and meeting with his coaches, principal and data team. Now the time to complete these duties is confined to his 55 minute planning period (contractual time afforded to allow teachers to attend to business outside of their classroom) each day. His regular 80/hr work week has been reduced to forty. “I am having a hard time not bringing any work home,” said Cameron. “It feels like a slap in the face that we have to prove to our legislators how much work this takes.”
In the past decade, funding for Oklahoma’s public school system has been cut by nearly 30% according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Districts across the state are working to serve more students on an operating budget of just 70 cents to every dollar that was available in 2008. The state currently ranks 51st in the nation in teacher pay as educators flock to neighboring states for immediate salary increases of over $15,000. TPS alone is potentially facing more than 600 teaching vacancies at the start of the 2018-19 school year, meaning 20% of the current teaching force could leave by summer’s end. Additionally, in a recent district survey of more than 2,000 certified staff members, 53% reported holding an additional job outside of TPS.
Districts like Tulsa have worked to cope with the cuts for years, and the breaking point has now undoubtedly been reached. Late in the evening on Thursday, March 15th, the Tulsa Board of Education unanimously approved a measure to join the efforts of the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) to shut down schools if legislators fail to provide a $10,000 pay raise for teachers and a $5,000 pay raise for support staff by the April 1st deadline. Should the state fail to act, beginning Monday, April 2nd, hundreds of thousands of students across the state will wake up to find their schools closed. For Tulsa Public Schools, this move is indefinite “until Oklahoma state leaders create a permanent, sustainable plan to pay educators a professional, more competitive salary,” stated district officials.
This week, both the state House of Representatives and Senate passed an education revenue package. This bill, supported by OEA and hailed as “an historic, bi-partisan achievement”, increased the gross production tax on new oil wells from 2% to 5%, implemented a regressive tax on gas at the pump and cigarettes, initiated a five dollar per room, per night tax on hotels and motels and allowed an expansion of permitted forms of gambling. Combined, these efforts only cover an increase in salary for first year teachers of $5,000 (increasing to $6,100 after several years in the classroom) and for support staff of $1,250. The funding is only guaranteed for a single year, rather than the three originally requested and falls far short of the salary needed to ensure a livable wage.
In spite of a congratulatory aura within the state capitol, educators and school leaders across the state voiced a deep disappointment in the measure and reaffirmed their commitment to strike on April 2nd, should the full demands remain unmet. In the face of a united, grassroots wave of action, some legislators, including State Representative Jeff Coody, have chosen to push back against the demands of teachers. In a recorded Q&A with Oklahoma students, Coody referred to teachers as extortionists, stating that the demands for funding “aren’t noble”. He called on teachers to settle for less.
“I don’t believe that teachers should have to settle,” teacher Cameron Warner said. “Our legislators should want to give us as much as they can… This [pay raise] shouldn’t even be on the table, it should just be guaranteed.”
In spite of the growing fervor, both throughout the state and nationwide, the outcome of this movement still remains uncertain. At the March 15th Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Gist reminded Tulsans that “There’s no playbook for this”. The community is organizing to support students and families in the event of a shutdown. Several groups are planning to host free programs for kids during the day and the United Way has announced that it will partner with over 90 churches and community organizations to ensure that students have access to a free breakfast and lunch they would otherwise receive from their school. Still, since some districts have approved shutdowns for varying amounts of time, many wonder how long the support will be sustained.
For Cameron, the notion of failure is deeply concerning. “I’ve been thinking about my fears more than my hopes. That’s scary to me, because I like to think of myself as a positive person.” He believes that if the legislature refuses to increase teacher pay yet again, the results could be devastating. He fears that if school is extended well into the summer, students won’t show up and will fail to receive the education they deserve. He worries that teachers and families will leave as the message that education is deeply devalued rings louder and clearer than ever before.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” he says, visibly nervous at the prospect.
Like most teachers, this moment and this work is intensely personal to Cameron.
“Without education, I wouldn’t be in the position I am now. I wouldn’t be a Teacher of the Year at my school at the age of just 25. I wouldn’t be a college graduate. I wouldn’t be getting ready to finish my Masters’ degree. I wouldn’t be pursuing my doctorate. I would be trapped in a cycle of poverty.”
Cameron recalls growing up in an underrepresented community in St. Louis, Missouri. He says he sees a lot of his own lived experience in his students. He explains that because of poor access to education, many of his friends from home are still trapped in that cycle of poverty. It’s a recognition which drives him to be a catalyst to change these historical outcomes for his students at Burroughs. “I see the possibilities in them and I want to stop that cycle before it gets started… I don’t get up to go to work, I get up every day to help.”
The financial difficulties brought forth by grossly inadequate pay are all too real for Cameron. “The money has always affected me,” he says, “in the sense that I still pick and choose which bills to be late for.” However, these difficulties have not shaken his determination to continue to stay and fight for his students. “When I go to school, the money doesn’t matter. It’s about helping my students become who they want to be. Helping others has always been my driving force in life”.
Cameron loves his school. He loves the atmosphere and his school leaders. He loves the sense of family that exists at Burroughs, and the reality that “Everyone looks out for one another and takes care of each other”. Burroughs is his home, and this feeling is not unique.
The possibility of shuttering schools in a few days’ time is painful for many educators across the city and state. While receiving a livable wage is essential, they view the outcome of this movement through the implications it will have on their students.
Teachers are not preparing to walk out for their own well being. They are walking out for their kids.
“Without competitive teacher pay,” said Cameron emphatically, “teachers like myself, who inspire students, won’t be in the position to educate the leaders of tomorrow.” The continued lack of access to an equitable education for all Oklahoma students perpetuates an “ongoing cycle that can be disrupted by [raising] teacher pay” and increasing sustained funding for public schools.
The future of Oklahoma sits in its classrooms today. The responsibility of shaping much of what that future will look like now rests squarely in the hands of the state’s legislators; legislators who are currently compensated with a higher salary than most teachers.
It’s been over a decade since teachers have received a pay raise from the state. For many, should this current effort prove unsuccessful, it is difficult to see a way forward that allows them to remain in this work here. For teachers in the state raising and supporting families, the situation often seems financially unsustainable.
Regardless of the outcome, Cameron is committed to remaining at Burroughs Elementary next year. In his words, from the moment he stepped into his classroom he knew “this was my calling. This was for me. This was bigger than me”.
“I hope,” Cameron continued, reaching for the optimism that generally comes so naturally to him, “I hope that, before April 2nd, our teachers get what they are asking for. I hope [our legislators] listen. I hope that they take note of what is happening in West Virginia. I hope that they recognize the service our teachers provide,” he paused briefly.
“I hope our students get what they deserve: a quality education”.
This piece first ran here at The Black Wall Street Times.
Nate Morris is a contributor to the Black Wall Street Times. Nate was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area and moved to Tulsa in 2012 after graduating from Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia. He received his Master’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in 2015. Nate is a Teach for America alumnus and has worked in schools throughout the Tulsa area. He is an advocate for educational equity as well as racial and social justice throughout Tulsa and the nation as a whole.