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Why Are There 1,000 Unfilled Teaching Jobs in Oklahoma?

Emily Wendler / KOSU
Robyn Venable poses with one of her students in her teaching kitchen at Charles Page High School in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. Venable is retiring this year.

As the school year winds down, administrators are ramping up their search for next year’s teachers. But that search is tougher and more competitive than normal. The state is currently in need of 1,000 teachers, according to State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister. But there’s a shallow pool of applicants.

Emily Wendler reports on what’s causing the teacher shortage, what schools are doing to fill in the gaps, and how it’s affecting kids.

Robyn Venable has been a teacher in Oklahoma for 31 years. Currently she teaches life skills at Charles Page High School in Sand Springs.

“I always wanted to be a special education teacher. Ever since the third grade.”

She says she’s loved it, and it’s been a good run, but it’s time to retire. She had cancer, and that influenced her decision to leave, but she also says the teaching profession has changed over the years and the money is no longer worth the headaches.

“The testing is just ridiculous, the paper work is growing by leaps and bounds. The stuff that you’re expected to do just gets added on and added on and added on…”

The Superintendent of Sand Springs School District, Lloyd Snow, says Venable isn’t the only one leaving. He had a dizzying number of teachers resign last year. And this year is no different.

“Just this very day I’ve gotten yet one more letter that is pretty common place in my world right now—from a teacher and it basically says I’ll be resigning from my teaching position next month..”

The exodus of teachers is happening across Oklahoma, and it’s leaving schools with big holes in their rosters. The State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Joy Hofmeister, said that schools started the year with 1,000 unfilled positions across the state.

Both Oklahoma City Public Schools and Tulsa Public Schools started the year with about 80 vacancies, and never did fill them all.

School administrators have scrambled throughout the year to fill the gaps by utilizing emergency certifications. These allow principals to hire people with college degrees, but not necessarily any teaching experience, and get them in to the classrooms as fast as possible. The State Board of Education issued 500 of them this year. Five times more than normal.

But even doing that, Superintendent Hofmeister said the year still ended with 1,000 openings.

Hofmeister said the substitutes are essential to keeping the class sizes down, but they lack proper teacher training and that can be detrimental to kids. She also said many of them don’t stay very long, which makes it difficult to track student progress.

“Imagine if you have a classroom full of first graders, where they need to be learning the fundamentals of reading, and yet they don’t have someone there who knows where they started when the year began,” Hofmeister said.

She also said 800 classes were canceled this year because there was no one to teach them.

She thinks a couple things are causing the teacher shortage. First being Oklahoma’s low teacher pay. The State is currently ranked 48th in the nation for teacher salaries—with someone starting out at about $33,000 per year.  She said college graduates are fleeing to other states in the region where they can make $10,000 more.

Another major issue, she said, is legislation.

“I think teachers are feeling kind of whipsawed back and forth with changing policies and a kind of too much too fast approach to reform,” she said.

The Superintendent of Sand Springs, Lloyd Snow, links the problem all the way back to 2001, when then President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act. He says this law dumped too much testing on students and has irked many teachers for years.

But then, he said, the Oklahoma legislature passed ACE—or the Achieving Classroom Excellence law-- in 2005. Snow said this law spread on even more layers testing. And then, he said, a teacher evaluation system was added that leaves educators feeling unappreciated.

“Now we set 10-15 years later and where do we find ourselves? Very little progress. A lot of discouraged teachers. A teacher shortage of which I have never seen in my career,” said Snow.

Snow said his district is working like crazy to fill all the retirements and resignations for next year. But it’s been difficult because the pool of applicants keeps getting shallower and shallower.  

The communications director for Putnam City School district said the number of applicants at their recent job fair was down by about 50 percent.  And Oklahoma City Public Schools has been recruiting around the nation, in Puerto Rico and Spain because they are having trouble finding teachers here.

Superintendent Snow says this problem will only get worse if things don’t change. But he has hope.

“My rant is over let me tell you I see some good things. I do see some good things,” he said.

The Legislature just passed two bills that aim to reduce the teacher shortage. One allows school districts to offer a one-time bonus payment, the other makes it easier for out-of-state teachers to work here.  

The University of Oklahoma started a debt-free teaching program for students that plan to teach in the state for four years after graduation.

And State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister’s plan to raise teacher salaries by $5,000 over the next five years has support from legislators.

There are other bills pending in the Oklahoma legislature that could reduce testing and give more control back to teachers. Superintendent Snow says it’s those legislative changes that will make the biggest difference. And he said he’s going to stay positive that those changes will happen.

“And if they don’t, you come back because I will have a scorched earth rant about that. Because it’s absolutely intolerable for us to allow what we are doing to continue.”

Emily Wendler was KOSU's education reporter from 2015 to 2019.
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