In Oklahoma, which is short thousands of certified teachers and is ranked 34th nationally in teacher compensation, public school teachers are already asked to do more with less. What do you get when you add a pandemic?
“Stress, anxiety and uncertainty,” says Tracy Smith, a fourth-grade Spanish immersion teacher for Tulsa Public Schools.
When teachers left for spring break 2020, no one had any idea they wouldn’t be back, let alone starting the 2020-21 school year virtually, says Deborah Gist, TPS superintendent. “So our teachers did during that time what they do so often, which is to step up, work their tails off, do whatever it takes. They’re creative, they’re thoughtful, they’re collaborative, and they’re just doing whatever they can to support families during this time.”
Across the local districts, teachers have donned personal protective equipment and reorganized their classrooms to meet physical distancing protocols. They’ve pivoted from classroom teaching to distance learning and back again as COVID-19 cases and exposures have ebbed.
Like so many teachers, Smith put on a smile every day to teach her 9- and 10-year-old students language arts. While virtual, she meticulously decorated the background her students saw in her Zoom classes and pivoted from teaching with her signature handmade posters to teaching with Post-its held up to the computer screen.
But the effects of teaching during the pandemic have taken their toll, and Smith was recently forced to take emergency COVID-19 leave to address a “critical health situation” that developed as a result.
“This is my 12th year teaching, and I’ve never wanted out more than I do now,” Smith says. “After tirelessly advocating for a safe return for both students and teachers, I’m left feeling voiceless and expendable. Having maintained my Oklahoma law license, I look forward to transitioning back to the practice of law and continuing to advocate with a stronger and more powerful voice.”
TPS first- through third-grade teacher Melissa Boudiette says she spent much of the year feeling helpless.
“I have learned I can endure and overcome much more than I thought I could, and I also learned my breaking point,” she says. “Our public school system is broken, teachers are not valued or heard, and the public has no idea what we actually do, deal with or what we need.”
Though in many ways the pandemic has highlighted and perpetuated Oklahoma’s teaching crisis, it also has showcased teachers’ resilience and their drive to help students succeed, no matter the cost.
On the positive side, Smith says she has become more technologically savvy and flexible as a teacher.
“I truly feel as though I am able to continue to deliver high-quality content in the distance-learning format,” Smith says. “I know not all teachers feel this way, and I feel fortunate that parents have taken the time to inform my principal that my enthusiasm and passion for teaching still transfers through the computer screen.”
Reflecting on 2020’s difficulties, Gist says she tries to remind herself and her team “this (pandemic) is not a forever situation.”
She and other educators hope the same is true for Oklahoma’s under-investment in public education.
“Our teachers do more and more and more they shouldn’t have to,” Gist says. “We ought to compensate them professionally, we ought to give them the tools they need for students, we ought to make sure that our students have access to everything they need to thrive. Right now, our teachers just continue to do whatever it takes.”