OKLAHOMA CITY — Jessica Morales gets to Prairie Queen Elementary before the bell rings. In class, she is a lifeline for recent immigrant students, translating lessons they cannot understand. Last year, when a teacher had to leave school unexpectedly, Morales filled in, decorating the classroom, teaching the class, holding parent-teacher conferences.
Her job as a teacher assistant is more fulfilling than the one she held at a meatpacking plant, but it pays far less: $12 an hour.
The students “want you to come, and they miss you, and they care about you,” Morales said. “That fills your heart and your soul, and [you’re] able to come no matter how much you make.”
They are often the essence of a school: the staff members who care for children with disabilities, who cook the food and clean the floors and tutor young readers. But as teachers in this state stood on the front lines of a two-week walkout that left classrooms empty, school support workers remained on the sidelines — and, sometimes, still toiled in schools because, unlike teachers, there would be no pay if they did not show up.
School support workers earn so little that many qualify for public benefits: food stamps to feed their families, Pell Grants to attend college and Medicaid for their children’s care. They struggle to survive on $20,000 a year — or less — even as they assume duties usually assigned to better-paid colleagues.
“I am the nurse. I am the teacher when the teacher is gone,” said Carmon Williams, the secretary at Edwards Elementary in Oklahoma City who dispenses medication to students because the nurse comes in only once a week. She supports herself and four children on about $19,000 a year. “I’m the mom, dad, counselor — you name it. We wear maybe more hats now because of budget issues.”
These workers — secretaries, teacher aides, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, maintenance workers and groundskeepers — represented more than 40 percent of public school employees nationwide in 2015, according to federal data.
Oklahoma’s teacher assistants are among the worst paid in the nation, earning an average of $20,090 a year in 2017; only their peers in Mississippi and Puerto Rico earned less, according to the Labor Department. (There were no comparable figures for other job categories.)
“They are so underpaid,” said Rebecca Kaye, acting superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools. “Those individuals are making less than what most of us would consider to be a living wage, and they are coming to work because they love kids.”
Oklahoma teachers had warned they would walk out if lawmakers did not meet their demands for a $10,000 raise for teachers, $5,000 for support staff and an additional $200 million in classroom funding to make up for steep cuts to school budgets. Legislators met them partway, raising minimum salaries for teachers by an average of $6,100 and providing an additional $50 million in classroom funding. School support staff got a $1,250 annual raise, just a quarter of what teachers had demanded.
“I know that we are cared about, but we’re not first and foremost in any sense,” said Jennifer Harding, a prekindergarten teaching assistant in El Reno, Okla. She is taking college courses — with the help of a Pell Grant — so she can become a teacher. “When teachers get 50 to 60 percent and we only get 25 percent, that says it right here. . . . A lot of the representatives don’t understand what we do. I think they think we’re just warm bodies here.”
Even though the walkout has ended, teachers promised to show up in force in November, when the state elects a new governor.
The events in Oklahoma unfolded against a backdrop of teacher revolts that spread across three other GOP-led states, where education spending has been slashed. West Virginia teachers shut down schools for a tense nine days to win a $5,000 raise. Kentucky educators left their classrooms last month over cuts to their pensions. And despite Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) promising to raise salaries by 20 percent within two years, teachers voted to strike last week, demanding a revenue stream be identified to cover salary hikes and increased school funding.
In Los Angeles, members of a union representing 30,000 school support workers have voted to authorize a strike amid an impasse with the district over staffing and wages.
Bathrooms at many schools are locked because there are not enough custodians to clean them, said Blanca Gallegos, spokeswoman for Service Employees International Union Local 99.
“This creates a lot of hardship and a lot of sacrifice for our members, who are important to education, essential to education,” Gallegos said. “But they’re really regarded as a second tier of the workforce.”
Craig McVay, the schools superintendent in El Reno, Okla., said the ranks of classroom aides have grown significantly over his three decades in education because the responsibility of educating students with disabilities — even those with profound medical needs — has shifted to mainstream public schools. That means aides take on work more akin to nursing than to teaching: changing diapers, monitoring oxygen levels, delivering nutrition through feeding tubes and administering medication.
Joseph Green, a special-education assistant at Ridgeview Elementary in Oklahoma City, never thought he would be changing diapers when he got into education. But after 25 years, he has developed a knack for managing and soothing the most challenging students. Now he is in charge of caring for an 11-year-old student with cerebral palsy, which includes changing the boy’s diapers every day.
Green and his colleagues said struggling parents and students are more likely to open up to them about needing help, knowing that the secretary behind the desk or the teacher assistant might be in the same financial boat. Morales, the bilingual teacher assistant, said she identifies closely with students who recently arrived from other countries, recalling her own experience as an 18-year-old immigrant from Guatemala, moving in with her father in Owings Mills, Md., and starting high school knowing barely any English.
“When a student is crying, I have to go sit with them sometimes all day,” Morales said. She seeks to reassure them, explaining in Spanish that she knows exactly how it feels: “I understand you, but you wait. . . . You’re going to have a lot of friends!”
While the work brings deep satisfaction, it offers little financial stability.
Morales, who is raising three children largely on her own, buys groceries using food stamps, and her children are covered by Medicaid. After a long workweek, she drives for Uber late at night near the campus of the University of Oklahoma, shuttling college students to and from bars and clubs.
She is in training to become a teacher of English as a second language through an Oklahoma City program that helps bilingual aides earn teaching degrees. When she gets her certification, her salary will nearly double, and she will fulfill a dream she has had since childhood: to become a teacher.
Barbara McBroom helps run a mentoring program in El Reno, pairing children who are having difficulty in school with local professionals who join them once a week to work on school assignments, read or play board games. McVay, the schools superintendent, said the program is critical for students who seem to be flailing.
Seated in an empty classroom at Hillcrest Elementary, McBroom shared her anguish over working a job that means so much to her but pays so little. The brutal calculations work out like this: She makes $9.80 an hour, but after taxes and paying for health care for her daughter, Hailey, her paycheck comes to $474 a month. Hailey has diabetes and requires a dozen medications and a pricey insulin pump to manage the disease, so she is insured through both her parents to lower costs.
McBroom’s salary is so low that a bank employee once called, incredulous, after McBroom had filled out forms to refinance her home.
“The loan processor called me three different times during that process and said, ‘Are these pay stubs weekly or biweekly?’ I said, ‘No, that’s a monthly stub,’ ” she said, tearing up. The loan processor then followed up: “Why are you doing that job?”
“It embarrassed me. It hurt me. But this work is very important to me,” McBroom said.
Her husband’s job as an oil rig manager pays enough for the family to live comfortably, but his work is sensitive to fluctuations in the oil market. He was laid off when prices dipped, forcing the family to drain their savings. Her work — she also sells homes and a line of bath products called Fab & Floral — helps cover Hailey’s medical expenses and her softball team fees.
One weekday earlier this month, Hailey suited up to play softball, tucking her insulin pump inside her gym bag. It was after dusk, on the fourth day of the teacher walkout, and the stands were filled with people chattering about the job action. Hailey hit a line drive that whizzed past the pitcher’s head. She made it to first base. McBroom leaned into her husband: “We have to pay $160 for her to be on the high school team.”
Hailey stole second, then third. She narrowed her eyes and stared down the pitcher as she danced off the base, daring to steal home. McBroom watched her nervously and then ticked off the cost of her daughter’s care: $5,800 every four years for her insulin pump and about $200 a month for medications. Softball is about $1,200 a season, including travel.
“She doesn’t let her diabetes stop her,” McBroom said, beaming.
Hailey’s teammate cracked a ball to the outfield, and Hailey slid home.