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‘I’m sorry it’s come to this’: Why Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year is moving to Texas to work

Shawn Sheehan and his family. (Kara Stoltenberg; used with permission)

Shawn Sheehan is a teacher of special education at Norman High School in Norman, Okla., and he was the 2016 Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, as well as a finalist for National Teacher of the Year. Sheehan has been teaching for more than five years, an active member of a profession that he had not expected to join.

Sheehan comes from a military family, and when he was in college, he decided to follow his father into the Air Force. A month before he was commissioned, he was found to have a kidney-related illness that disqualified him. Though he recovered, he was still thought to be too much of a risk and was refused again. In his biography for the Teacher of the Year program, he wrote, “I was heartbroken that I couldn’t serve my country and uncertain of what to do with my life.”

But he found a new purpose. During the summer and in after-school programs, Sheehan had worked with students with disabilities and coached Special Olympics teams. He realized that he could serve his country in a different way — and he became a teacher.

Now he says he can’t think of doing anything else — except not in Oklahoma. Sheehan and his wife, Kaysi Sullivent Sheehan, have accepted teaching jobs in Texas, where salaries for educators are higher. In this post, a version of one he published on his blog and gave me permission to republish, he explains why he and his family are moving and how hard it was to make the decision. He has been weighing the decision publicly on his blog. You can read, for example, this post, “All I Want for Christmas is a Reason to Keep Teaching in Oklahoma. He didn’t find it.

According to a report by the National Education Association this month, the average public school teacher salary in 2016 was $58,353. Oklahoma was ranked 49 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, with an average salary of $45,276. The top average salary was in New York, at $79,152. And Oklahoma ranked 44th in expenditures for public K-12 students per student in average daily attendance.

My Washington Post colleague Emma Brown wrote a story about the financial difficulties facing public schools in Oklahoma, which are so severe that some districts have moved to four-day weeks, this after eliminating programs such as art and music. Read Shawn Sheehan’s story as well as Brown’s.

By Shawn Sheehan

Teaching in Oklahoma is a dysfunctional relationship. And with a myriad of emotions, I have made the decision to end this relationship.

My wife and I are excited to announce that we have accepted teaching positions in Texas. We are joining many other teachers who have either already left or plan to do so over the next year.

This decision wasn’t an easy one. Not by a long shot. Our circle of friends can attest to that. I considered other jobs, tried to find adjunct positions, and my wife and I have worked very hard to pay off our debt in bigger chunks.

But at the end of the day, the simple truth is that we can be paid a respectable wage for doing the same job — this job we love very much — by heading out of state.

Think teachers aren’t paid enough? It’s worse than you think.

I’m sorry it’s come to this, but I will leave with my head held high. I poured my heart and soul into my teaching at Norman High School. I represented our state at the highest level. I tried to help find funding sources via SQ 779. I ran for state Senate. I started a nonprofit focused on teacher recruitment and retention that has spread nationwide. I’ve done everything I know how to do to try and make things better.

We could stay, but it would cost our family — specifically our sweet baby girl. My wife and I are not willing to do that. We, like you, want what’s best for our children and she deserves to grow up in a state that values education. And so do your children.

Before I go, I want to address the most frequently overlooked challenge to improving education in Oklahoma: teachers. In my last blog post that caught much attention, I asked, “Should I stay or should I go?” There were two kinds of responses to my post. The majority were to the tune of “We’d hate to see you go, but totally understand and wish you the very best.” But there were unexpected critics; ones who actively impede improvements to education in Oklahoma.

There are teachers in this state who say things like, “I’m just in this for the students. If you’re not in it for the kids, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” This was one response from a teacher who vehemently disagreed with my statements.

Do other teachers out there really think we aren’t in this for the students? Who in their right mind teaches in Oklahoma for the money? Of course, I’m here for my students, their families, and this community, but I won’t apologize for demanding a livable wage.

I never said my situation was the reality for ALL educators. I was simply sharing my story with the world. It wasn’t necessary for the teachers out there whose spouses earn more money than us to invalidate my story. They also missed my point about the bigger problem being a lack of funding for education and other core state services.

We won’t move the needle forward in education until teachers in this state acknowledge the plight of the teacher next door. It’s great that not all of us struggle, but for those of who do, PLEASE don’t vilify us further. It’s not helping. Surely they can imagine what life would be like living single on an Oklahoma teacher salary or what the bank account might look like for two married Oklahoma educators with a 7-month-old daughter.

Oftentimes, I find these are the same teachers who vote against legislation and/or legislators who would help our cause. If my reality isn’t yours, is there a need discredit my and OUR colleagues’ stories? How many times will they excuse these budget cuts and “proudly” declare that they’d teach one hundred students in a classroom with no supplies and that they’d do it for free because it’s all about the kids?

I have one last piece of advice for the incredible, hard-working, passionate, committed, responsible Oklahoma educators out there. While we have our work cut out for us at the State Capitol, and there’s much work to be done in our communities, the quickest way we can see tangible results for our students is to have the tough conversations with our co-workers. We have to be better about supporting our teacher family and sharing everyone’s stories. We need a stronger united front and while this is not meant to be a plug for your local teacher union, I will say they’re a great starting point for information, member or not. And we have to stop pushing this idea of teaching as mission work.

I hope all my readers know I have loved every second of teaching in Oklahoma. There are great things happening in our schools every day and I have been honored to be a part of it. I hope I represented teachers well. I hope I shook things up a bit and sparked important conversations from the dinner table to the boardroom. And I hope my and my family’s departure, which is among many this year, makes a statement. We’re voting with our feet on this one.

My sincere thanks to my students, their families, Norman High’s superb faculty and staff, the Oklahoma State Department of Education, and for all the #oklaed supporters out there who will fight on. We’re hanging our hat south of the border but it was made in Oklahoma and we won’t forget that.

With state budget in crisis, many Oklahoma schools hold classes four days a week