Not only in the PH: In Oklahoma, teachers struggle to make ends meet
By Veronique DUPONT
Jennifer Thornton, an elementary school teacher in Oklahoma, has had to go to a church food pantry with her teenaged son to get something to eat because she lacked money for food.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow,” said Thornton, tears streaming down her face. “You lose a lot of dignity.”
She is among the thousands of schoolteachers taking part in a state-wide strike to demand a pay hike and greater education spending in Oklahoma, where teacher salaries — at an average of $45,276 — rank 49th in the country, according to the National Education Association union.
Some teachers work extra jobs to make up for the shortfall, but health issues prevent Thornton from doing so.
She had brain surgery two years ago and at 38, she suffers from obesity and fibro myalgia, which causes constant muscle pain and fatigue.
Thornton, who teaches in a low-income neighborhood in Tulsa, about a two-hour drive from Oklahoma City, makes $1,952 a month after taxes.
After paying for her rent, electricity, internet bill, health insurance and gas, she has little left for food.
– ‘How much is in my wallet?’ –
She finishes teaching around 3:00 pm and then attends after-school meetings or union gatherings before going home to her son to rustle up dinner.
“We see if there is something in the fridge or the pantry,” Thornton said. “How much is in my wallet? In his? Do we have to call Mom?
“We generally hit the dollar menu at McDonald’s,” she said. “When you’re really poor, it’s hard to get any quality nutrient food.”
“We have gone to the food pantry 10 to 15 times in the last three years,” she said.
Thornton said she doesn’t regret her career choice — at age five she said she knew she wanted to be a teacher.
“I love my job and my students and I’m good at it,” she said. “I’m a good teacher.”
But she regrets what it means for her son.
“He doesn’t get birthday gifts and Christmas gifts,” she said, and would be unable to play sports or do other activities without help from her family.
“He shouldn’t ever have to scrounge in the cabinet for food and come home to an eviction notice or no electricity when I work as hard as I do,” she said.
“I feel I did what I was supposed to do. I worked hard, went to university, got my degrees.
“I’ve worked really hard to become an excellent teacher,” Thornton said. “My family shouldn’t have to suffer from these choices.”
Thornton said that while the situation in Oklahoma “is bad, bottom of the barrel in terms of spending per pupil,” it’s also bad elsewhere.
“I know that across the country teachers are overworked, underpaid, disrespected,” she said.
– Higher-paying jobs elsewhere –
Buoyed by a nine-day strike in West Virginia which led to a five percent pay raise, teachers have also walked off the job in Oklahoma and Kentucky and are threatening to do the same in Arizona.
Scott Teel, 46, teaches history at a high school in an Oklahoma City suburb.
He also works as a real estate agent and as a sports coach.
Teel pointed to lawmakers as the source of the problem, saying there has been a “lack of vision about education from the state legislature.”
“The last 20 years of votes have been extremely anti-tax in the state,” he said, leading to steep cuts in spending on education.
“I’m not a guy that loves to pay taxes either, but everything costs something,” Teel said.
“They’ve cut 28 percent of our education budget and we’ve added 40,000 students. There’s not enough money to do the job correctly.”
Teel teaches history using 10-year-old books in a prefabricated trailer with peeling paint.
There is no budget for a photocopier or staplers and Teel said parents and teachers dip into their pockets to provide supplies.
Moore High School, where he teaches and whose colors he proudly wears, is still considered among the 10 best in the state, he said.
Teel makes about $3,500 a month, has a master’s degree in education and 25 years of teaching experience.
Weekends, evenings and during school holidays he works as a realtor, drumming up clients and showing houses.
“I consider quitting sometimes,” Teel said. “When you have a bad day I think, ‘Why am I doing this?’
“But I do it for the relationship with the students.”
Teel said he could earn about $15,000 more a year if he moved to Texas, but he promised his eldest son they would stay in Oklahoma until he finished high school.
“I made no such promise to my younger son,” he said.