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Beverly Ferree
Beverly Ferree

At the Breaking Point: Teachers Struggle with Salary Issues

Aug 10, 2017
It's been nearly a decade since state lawmakers have approved an increase in base teaching salaries. Here are three stories about how teachers in the Moore school district are being impacted by that legislative impasse.

Moore Teacher Works Two Jobs to Make Ends Meet

Like most teachers, when Melanie Willis decided on a career in education, she did it to help children. Fifteen years later, with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from OU, Willis must work a second job just to make ends meet. 

Willis teaches fourth grade at Winding Creek Elementary in Moore and is a single mom with three active daughters.

“I have three daughters, and I can’t raise them on a teacher’s salary. I work two jobs, and now I’m having to look for a third job.”

Willis, who works a second job at Fan Outfitters in Moore, says she loves teaching, but she wishes the state would value education and educators more.

“I have twenty more years to pay off my student loans, but they are not really a huge part of my budget,” explained Willis. “It’s the living expenses. And I don’t have credit card debt or a lot of loans. My teacher’s salary pays the majority of my bills. Nothing more. I have a credit card I pay off every month. Everything else goes to pay the car, our home and utilities. Teaching pays for most of that, but I have to have a second job to pay for the rest.”

After Willis’s dad passed away, she moved in with her mom so they could help each other out.

“When I majored in education,” says Willis, “I knew I wasn’t going to be a millionaire, but I didn’t think after 15 years in that I would have to get side job after side job just to make ends meet.”

When asked why she stays in teaching, Willis didn’t hesitate, “I love my job. I got into teaching because I love to teach kids. But it’s hard. And it’s getting progressively worse. It’s more frustrating now because it’s harder to deal with the regular stresses that they keep compounding on teachers with all of the demands from the state. And there are times I ask myself if this is worth it.”

And the testing demands of the state are also taking a lot of education time away from the classroom.

“I progress monitor to see if kids are progressing at least every other week. I have to find a time to pull the kids aside to see how they’re doing. Fifteen years ago, when I started, testing wasn’t the same. Now it’s progressively getting more emphasized.”

With budget cuts, teachers have increasingly more out-of-pocket expenses as well.

“I make barely anything,” said Willis, “and I would say almost one-quarter of my monthly budget goes to purchase things for my students, for my classroom, and it shouldn’t be that way. When I taught at Crooked Oak, for example, I spent money daily on food for my students.”

So, what would Willis like to see changed?

“I would like educators to be valued more,” said Willis. “It’s sad to see, but I would say at least half of the teachers at my school have a side job. And we see in the news how millions of dollars were put in the budget to build a dome for the state capitol or a new flower setting at the state park. Why? It’s pretty. But that money can be used for education.”

And Willis has advice for law makers making decisions, “Before you start making judgments or decisions on education, spend time in a classroom. Talk to teachers. If you honestly think my job is not difficult, spend a day with me in my classroom. It’s just one of those downward spirals where you have people who have never taught before trying to tell us what to do. So, they put demands on us, and then it doesn’t work, so their idea is to put more demands on us. And then they keep wondering why it’s not working.”

And what does she have to say to those people who think teachers work to get the summers off?

“Everyone thinks I just have summers off. I work until three and don’t do much after that. But during the school year, I work through my lunch grading or doing paperwork. I stay late to make sure I have things done. Then I either take my girls to practice or go to my side job. Then when I get home, I stay up at least until midnight grading or doing lesson plans because I can’t do that when the kids are in my classroom. The tons of paperwork that’s expected of me can’t be done while I’m doing my job. It has to be done at home or before or after school. In the summer, I’m working on my room, going to workshops, planning with my team, working my second job.”

As far as getting a raise, Willis said that just doesn’t happen.

“I think I’ve gotten an actual raise twice in 15 years. And by raise, I mean 50 dollars a month. And the way the budget cuts keep going, it’s hit or miss on whether we get our step increase. And I am fortunate that I work in Moore because they do try their hardest to take care of the teachers.”

But for those people who don’t understand the struggles, it can be hard to explain.

“Education is not something where you can clock out at five and go home and do your own thing. You have to be completely dedicated to it.”

Reality Check for Teacher Who Moves to Oklahoma 
James Hayes came to Oklahoma with high hopes to start a new life here. His daughter had aspirations of attending the University of Oklahoma, so James and his family decided to start a new journey. As a higher-level math teacher with 20 years of experience and a master’s degree, Hayes knew he had the background to successfully teach a math course. He fully expected to start his new career here. What he learned was that things are a lot more complicated for educators in Oklahoma than he ever anticipated.

The first problem was finding a math job to teach. So, he took a temporary position with a Norman school, being told that he would eventually be moved to a math position. He was given eight special education students, even though he had no background or certification in special education. And then he was told to get an emergency certification in language arts, even though he had no background in that field either.

And that was just the beginning of his frustration. The pay difference was substantial.

“I was actually told I would make exactly the same salary as I did in Kansas, $48,000,” explained Hayes. “The problem is that my take home pay is $900 less a month. In Kansas, when they say they pay for your insurance, they do. On top of your salary. Here, when they say they pay for your insurance, it’s coming out of your check whether you want it to or not. And that reduces your salary for that amount or more. And the $900 is for an individual.”

Hayes views this as a huge problem for teachers who are considering making a move to Oklahoma.

“Without question, when you tell me I’m making $48,000 a year, that’s what I should be paid,” said Hayes. “And it’s not. The insurance is automatically taken off the top. That’s a misnomer. My salary will never be what they said it would be.”

So, Hayes was forced to do something many teachers must do. Take a second job.

“I had to take a second job at Hobby Lobby,” said Hayes. “And I’m not the only one. Several teachers I know are forced to have a second job.”

And teachers are also leaving Oklahoma for better paying teaching positions.

“Other people I taught with are thinking about moving closer to the Oklahoma state line so that they can teach in Texas,” said Hayes. “They can still live in Oklahoma, but their salaries will be higher.”

And maybe even worse, Hayes says teachers are leaving the field of education altogether.

“Some teachers I taught with have left education,” said Hayes. “One is leaving to work for a beer distribution company in sales because it’s much better pay. The director of music where I taught has a doctorate in music education and is leaving to do something else. One science teacher is leaving public school to teach in a private school.”

Hayes thought he was making the right decision by moving to Oklahoma to teach, but after being forced to take a second job and not having anything secured for the fall, he’s having second thoughts.

“My frustration with Oklahoma has lasted a while now,” said Hayes.

Overworked + Underpaid = Leaving (Reluctantly)

Special education teacher Suzie Sells-Bean fully expected to teach at Moore High School until she retired. That didn’t happen, but not because Sells-Bean didn’t want it to. Because of circumstances facing so many teachers currently in Oklahoma, after twelve years of teaching at Moore, Sells-Bean was forced to look elsewhere, and she found a home at EPIC Charter Schools.

“Of course, I didn’t want to leave,” explained Sells-Bean. “I love teaching at Moore High School. What I don’t love is being overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated by the state legislators, the administration, and the general public.”

Sells-Bean also weighed in on an issue other teachers are frustrated with as well.

“I don’t get the salary I signed on for,” said Sells-Bean. “That salary, which by the way is the lowest in the nation, includes your benefits package. On paper that might look good, but they include the benefits in your salary, which comes off the top of your salary. Last year, for example, I got $13,000 less than what I was told my salary would be.”

When asked why she’s leaving the traditional brick and mortar school, Sells-Bean said there are more opportunities at a charter school.

“The main thing is that you make more money and have an opportunity for bonuses, and the bonuses are not just based on how students perform on a test,” said Sells-Bean. “In special education, there are bonuses that show growth and not just mastery. And I have an opportunity to create a partnership with people who are coming to EPIC.”

And one thing that the general public often doesn’t realize is that most teachers provide all of their own schools supplies for their students. At EPIC, Sells-Bean won’t have to do that.

“I have always had to provide supplies for my students,” explained Sells-Bean. “Unless I’ve had any donations, I pay for it out of pocket.”

Sells-Bean admits that the budget has always been tight in education, but she says things are getting progressively worse.

“I’ve quit doing the extra jobs, like teaching night school, because I realized I was never at home with my own kids,” said Sells-Bean. “I was working 60-70 hours a week. And, so, I quit night school, and now I make less than I did when I started. You don’t go into teaching thinking you’re going to make money, and if you did you’re in the wrong profession. I know that. And I can handle not getting paid well, but what I can’t handle is not getting paid well yet being asked to do more and more. Having to provide supplies for my classroom. At least give me the text books I need. Help me make sure my kids have pencils and paper.”

What would Sells-Bean say to the state legislators if she had the opportunity?

“I would ask them to stop thinking about themselves,” said Sells-Bean. “To look to the future. To listen to experts. To stop just doing what they want. And I don’t know that talking to them will do anything. So many of the people we have in the legislature now are so out of touch with how to fix the problem. They are not listening to experts about anything. I don’t know if they’re capable of understanding the severity or capable of fixing it.”

And the ironic thing, explains Sells-Bean, is that the same people who are demanding that teachers be qualified are not following the same standards.

“We are so invested in teachers being experts in their field,” said Sells-Bean, “in teachers being highly qualified, in making sure teachers do their job. But what makes a politician qualified to do their job? The fact that you had a pretty face or great advertising? That you got the word out? Or that you had a key phrase? How do we know that they are experts in what they’re doing? The thing is that the people we have in government are not necessarily qualified to be doing the job they’re doing, yet they’re getting paid way more than I am.”

And Sells-Bean reminds us that we all just need to do more critical thinking.  

“We can make a difference, but people need to educate themselves too. They can’t rely on a politician to tell them the truth. Seek out information. That’s one thing I always teach my students. I don’t want to see if they can memorize. I want to see if they can look up information. How to decide if it’s credible or not. How to problem solve. I want them to critically think.”

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