First Person

What I learned from running for office as Oklahoma’s Teacher of the Year (and losing)

Shawn Sheehan is a math teacher at Norman High School in Norman, Oklahoma. He was named Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year and was one of four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award this year. He blogs here

sheehan

“We gave it a good run, friends.”

That was my concession tweet after I lost my bid for Oklahoma State Senate last week. I earned only 38 percent of the vote in my district, or about 12,000 votes. My Republican opponent received over 21,000.

The math teacher in me kept running the difference in my head. I’ve come to terms with the fact that, no matter how many doors I knocked on, I wouldn’t have overcome that 9,000-vote deficit thanks to straight-ticket voting. Even though there wasn’t a Democrat in my race, an Independent candidate in this very red state faces long odds.

Still, the sting was powerful. And it wasn’t the only deeply personal loss I experienced this week.

On Election Day, my state also voted down a state question aimed at providing a $5,000 base salary increase for all educators by increasing our sales tax by 1 percent. I was one of the initial three people to sign the petition that put that question on the ballot. When its constitutionality was challenged in court, my name was among those on the legal documents. We won that challenge only to lose in the voting booth.

Now, as a sixth-year math teacher with a master’s degree, my base salary will remain at $35,419. My total compensation, including benefits, amounts to $38,100. My net income per month is just under $2,100.

The state of public education in Oklahoma has frustrated me since I entered the profession in 2011. That’s why I haven’t let up in my effort to make things better. It began in 2013 when I created the Teach Like Me campaign, which aimed to improve teacher recruitment and retention and to boost morale among educators. (It’s now a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and you can check it out here.)

But that wasn’t enough. After being selected as Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year and becoming a finalist for National Teacher of the Year, I realized that I had a duty to advocate for educators in Oklahoma and beyond. So when I was approached about a state constitutional amendment that would provide much-needed funding for education, I signed on, quite literally. And after being frustrated at the lip service I’d receive from legislators who weren’t doing their part to fix education budget issues, I decided to run for office.

I was accompanied by more than 40 Oklahoma educators who ran for office in their respective districts; 16 of them made it past their primaries with me. One teacher did win his race, and he will join one other educator next legislative session. I suppose two teachers in office is better than none.

But at the end of the day, it felt like teachers received two clear messages from this election. One: you have no place at the State Capitol. Two: we will keep saying we want to fund education, but we won’t follow through.

My first child was born less than two weeks ago, and I’m admittedly a little fuzzy-brained from the unusual sleep schedule and adrenaline rush of having a new, beautiful baby girl. What remains clear is that I love my job — and I’m not giving up.

At school on Friday, a former student passed me in the hallway and said, “Hey, Mr. Sheehan! I voted for you! I’m sorry you didn’t win but you’re gonna go for it again in four years right?”

My face was probably less than enthusiastic. I imagine I looked something like that indifferent emoji face, coupled with a tinge of the angry one and a sliver of the sleeping one. I thanked her for her sweet comment and responded, “Ooohhh, I dunno.”

Her response perfectly captured the lesson I learned from all of this. She said, “Well, I hope you do. Don’t give up on us. We need you!”

Cue the internal emotional outburst of tears and joy and everything I love about this job. Neither of us broke our stride while we talked, which was just as significant to me. She was hurrying to whatever she had to get to and I was headed in the opposite direction to a meeting. But that’s how it goes for me and my students. That’s what I taught them. When things don’t go your way, don’t let up. Keep moving forward. Literally.

That’s what happened in the main hallway at Norman High School. This math teacher/president of a nonprofit/former candidate for State Senate/new father was reminded by a former student of the standard I had set for them.

Now, it’s back to the drawing board. The loss is still a win for me because I get to continue doing the thing that I love, and the thing I’m very good at, which is teaching math to students who really struggle with it.

But there’s a fire that’s been lit on a torch I promised I’d carry for all the educators out there. It hasn’t been extinguished. It has intensified. Now, I will continue to fight for public education in a different way. Now, more than ever, we educators need to let our lights shine brightly so our students may see in the darkness.

I need a little break to recover, refocus, and strategize. Now, my question is, who’s next? Will you carry this torch with me?

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.