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Mold on the Walls, Teachers in the Streets: Interview with an Oklahoma Teacher

Left Voice interviews Bryan Dearing, Oklahoma teacher, about working conditions and the upcoming walkout.

Left Voice

March 31, 2018
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Image from The Lost Ogle

Left Voice will be in Oklahoma to report on and support the teachers, but needs financial support to go. Please consider donating here.

Inspired by West Virginia teachers, Oklahoma teachers will walk out of schools on Monday to protest low wages and low funding for education. On Thursday, a bill passed providing a small raise, but teachers are sticking to the plans for a walkout on Monday, arguing that the raise is insufficient and that they deserve a liveable wage. Left Voice interviewed Bryan Dearing, an Oklahoma native, a 13-year veteran teacher of Oklahoma schools, and a union representative fighting for the rights of teachers.

Where do you work and what are the conditions there?

I work for a District called Guthrie, with a population of around 12,000. 73 percent of the students are on free and reduced lunch and our population is a mix of many different ethnicities.

I’ve been working in my district for 13 years and when I started in 2008, we had 41 teachers in my building. Today we have 28. My class size up until last year was around 33 to 35 students per teacher. It’s hard to give individualized attention to students when you have so many.

The school building I work in was built in 1924. The windows in my classroom don’t close, so I’ve got an air draft coming in. We don’t have running water except in the kitchen so in the winter time, when the kids go to wash their hands, it’s freezing. Our lockers don’t close and our roof leaks.

I have a class that used to be a year long and now it’s a semester. I teach U.S. history from 1754 to 1877, and I have 93 topics that I’m supposed to cover, but I only have 89 days to cover them in. Of the 28 teachers in my building, I know of 10 of them are probably leaving the state next year. I can drive an hour and 45 minutes north to the city of Wichita, Kansas and make $9,000 more; I can go over to Bentonville, Arkansas and make $13,000 more. Why am I here? Because my state needs good teachers, but I don’t know how much longer I can afford the working conditions in my building, and people don’t understand that. We have black mold growing all over our buildings. That’s how bad it is.

I love teaching; I don’t want to leave the profession. But problem is, I can go to a gas station, and with no college degree I’ll make more than what I’m making as a school teacher. Our state just passed a the biggest tax increase in history since 1992, but it didn’t go far enough. I got a raise, but we’re $200 million in the hole.

The people in our state are distrustful of our governments, and rightfully so. But here’s the other problem: in the last gubernatorial election, out of the registered voters in the state of Oklahoma, only 29 percent voted; out of that 29 percent, the winner won with 13 percent. So really, the state is not being run and voted on by the people who live here.

What are your wages like?

A beginning teacher makes $29,000. I’ve been now teaching for 13 years and I’m only making $34,000. I coach sports and I do extra duty; school doesn’t start till 7:40 in the morning, but I’m here every morning at 6:15 because I know I have kids that they are getting dropped off because their parents are heading to work in the town next to us. I don’t get paid extra for that; it’s just my free time. And it’s 6:30 pm here and I’m still at work because I coach Cross Country and Track and Field all year long.

We have single mothers who are teachers and their kids were on a local type of Medicare called Soonercare. With this new raise they got, now they’re bumped up to a higher salary, which now takes them off government healthcare. As a result, they’re going to be making less than what they did before the raise. All we’re asking for is a livable wage.

But it’s a bigger problem beyond just teachers salaries. All of our infrastructure is a mess here. We have so many potholes! There’s a running joke in my county that the sheriff’s not going to pull me over if I’m swerving because they know I’m missing the potholes. If I’m driving straight, straight through, they know I must be drunk. We can’t even pay for the rebuilding our streets. There is a problem with taxes.

What are the demands of the teachers’ movement?

A $10,000 pay raise for all Oklahoma teachers and a $5,000 pay raise for all school support staff, such as custodians, secretaries and food service workers; increase public school funding by $200 million, find $213 million for state employee pay raises and $255.9 million in additional health care funding. We also want a 5% Cost of Living Adjustment for retired teachers. This increase can be funded through the pension system itself without making lawmakers to find new money. We also want pay raises for teachers and ESPs.

In West Virginia, one of the major demands was around healthcare. What is the situation with healthcare in Oklahoma?

To illustrate it for you, when I lived in Rhode Island and I had my first child, we didn’t pay anything because the state I worked for had great insurance. We had my son here in Oklahoma, and I’m still paying off the medical debt, and he’s nine. So yes, health insurance is a big thing. But we’re more focused on a higher salary and funding for education.

Since 2008, education funding has decreased 28.2 percent! We want the funding back just to the 2008 levels.

How did you get involved in the struggle?

My dad worked for General Motors for 27 years and he walked the picket line 15 times during that time. When I became a teacher, my dad really stressed that I should join a union. Oklahoma is a Right to Work state, which means that people can work here without having to join a union. That’s one of the biggest problems we have in my opinion. So, I stepped up and became a union representative in my building.

Recently, I gave a speech to my school board saying “This walk out is not just happening this year. It’s not just happening on April 2. This walkout has been happening since 2008. People have been walking out to other states. People have been walking out to other jobs.” In the middle of this year, our geography teacher left to do well-work for the oil company and he’s making more money there. That positions was filled with a new teacher and I have to help write her curriculum. I shouldn’t be doing this. I should be focused on my classroom, my students and how to help them learn. I have to help because our district doesn’t have the money for a curriculum coordinator.

What is the union structure like in Oklahoma, which is a right to work state?

For the teachers, we have Oklahoma Educators Association (OEA), we have the Professional Oklahoma Educators (POE), and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) represents one school district. The ironic thing about this is that we’re having our vote for our leaders of our union this week and I’m telling you, I don’t know if the leaders we have are going to be able to make it through this vote because we’re frustrated. One of the main reasons why we’re in this problem is because our union is not strong. None of them are.

The problem is Right to Work, so a lot of our teachers are not members of the OEA nor of the other unions: the AFT and POE. That hurts us in organizing. I think that’s part of the reason the situation has gotten so bad: our union has no power.

How did teachers around the state begin to organize?

The organizing really started out on two major facebook groups. We started to use the Facebook group Oklahoma Time Is Now, started by a teacher in Stillwater, as soon as West Virginia went on strike. They went from 100 members one night to 66,000 within a day. Then there’s another Facebook group called Oklahoma Teachers United that has also helped organize people.

We also have the OEA, which tried to tell us to walk out on April 23rd. They wanted to wait until then, so the legislators could have a month and a half to work on a proposal. It’s too long to wait; the momentum is now. So we decided that they could either move up the date or we would pull our dues. Within an hour and a half, OEA says, “We’re moving the strike up from April 23 to April 2.”

Many of the superintendents have pulled their support, but I don’t care what our superintendent says, I don’t care what our assistant superintendent says. I don’t care what OEA says. They don’t represent me. I represent me, and I represent my teachers. This really is a teacher-led movement.

Have you seen an evolution in the thinking of teachers in your building?

Yes. For example, the math teacher in my building has always said, “I would never strike.” We’re on opposite ends of the political spectrum. But, in the last month and a half, she said, “You know, what? Yes, the raise, we need this raise because we need qualified teachers in this state. How are we going to retain these people from our teacher prep programs? How are we going to keep teachers like me and you in this building?” But I live in one of the reddest states and they do not like taxes and we need to raise taxes for education. I’m a lightning rod in my district because I am a progressive. I am someone that is going to fight for liberal values. But this is the state that I grew up in, the state that I love and the state that I’m gonna fight for.

How was the West Virginia strike received by teachers in Oklahoma?

We were like: “Okay, if they can do it, we can do it.” They gave us power. They gave us a voice. They fought for West Virginia. Because of what they’ve done, now it’s Oklahoma. Arizona is also mobilizing. Jersey City teachers also went on strike. So West Virginia started a domino effect and it really did help and influence us.

A bill giving a raise to Oklahoma teachers was just passed. Why are teachers walking out anyway?

We all feel that the bill did not go far enough. We asked for a $10,000 raise and they’re going to give us $6,000. The other part we asked for was a $5,000 raise for our support staff, our paraprofessionals, our custodians, our bus drivers, our secretaries. They gave them less than $1,000. We asked for $200 million in education funding. They gave us $51 million. They promised additional funding through a new hotel tax, but that was later repealed leaving us with less money. They were more worries about hotel profits than with education.

State employees jumped into our strike as well. It’s connected because we have kids that come to school hungry. We have kids that come to the school with mental issues that need need services, and they can’t even do that. Our DHS (Department of Human Services) is deepy underfunded– they have a crazy number of caseloads. The other part we want is support to retired teachers; we want a cost of living adjustment.

That’s what we’re asked for and we didn’t get it. So this latest bill didn’t go far enough. The newspaper’s and the legislators are going say: “You guys are being greedy.” But it’s not greedy; we want a livable wage and this just didn’t go far enough. I took a poll in my building today just among my teachers and only 36 percent of my staff were happy with it.

We had a meeting with over 100 teachers today and every one of those teachers said it’s not good enough, and they’re willing to walk out and stay out. At the same time, I hear, “I’m glad this is what we got because it’s the best we can get right now.” I disagree. This didn’t go far enough. This didn’t help our support staff; it didn’t give them enough of a raise. And again, while I’d like to say it’s all about the raise, it’s not. It is about funding for education, too.

What is going to happen on Monday?

A big difference between us and West Virginia is that we are having a sickout/walkout, not an official strike. We’re going to rally in Oklahoma City; I plan to be there by 3 am! Before the bill passed, I thought this would go on for weeks. Now, I’m more worried because we have such right-leaning newspapers in the state. They print things saying that this is the largest pay raise for teachers in history in the state of Oklahoma, so these people are just being greedy. I mean, we have a state representative who called us extortionists.

Also, whatever days we stay out, we will have to make up. But I’m willing to come in and mop our floors over the summer and paint the walls if it means fighting for our rights. All of us are.

How have students and the community responded to the walkout?

I work with 14-year-olds. They’re just excited to be out of school. Some of them get it, some of them don’t. Our high school kids, they’ve already organized support actions.

As a teacher I’m worried about my kids because 73 percent of them get free lunch and I’m worried about them having food to eat. But the ministerial alliance and pastors in our community have stepped up, and they are going to help start feeding school kids. We’re going to have three schools that are going to be opened up to feed the kids.

We also have other people in town who are very supportive. Over spring break, I had thirteen 14-year-olds over at my house for a sleepover with my daughter, which was a whole nightmare in itself, but every parent that dropped their kid off at my house said: “We are with you. We support you. I can’t believe it has taken this long for this to happen.”

Yet we also have those people and groups that are saying: “Oh, my God, you’re going to raise our taxes?” And to be honest, I get it. When they want to put a cigarette tax, add three cents to our gas and six cents to our diesel gas, people get mad. That’s a regressive tax. It falls back on the poor and hardworking people of Oklahoma.

At the same time, our oil companies, like Chesapeake Energy and Devon Energy and all these energy companies pay very little in taxes. Our GPT (Gross Production Tax) is the lowest in the country, at 2 percent. Now they just raised it to 5 percent, but that’s still not good enough. Our oil companies are saying: “We’re going to pull our jobs from Oklahoma. And my response to that is: “Where are you going to go? The oil’s in our ground. In 2009, Devon Energy built a 50 story building in downtown Oklahoma City (the next biggest is only 26 stories). Then Chesapeake Energy has a square mile of buildings that looks like a college campus. They’re not leaving the state.

Is there anything else that you think that we should know?

To tell you the truth, I don’t know. I’m so worn out just trying to get grade my papers and then organize this. I spoke to everybody I can. I joined Twitter. I don’t like Twitter, but I joined it. I tweeted out to everyone I could possibly think of that’s from Oklahoma– from Garth Brooks to Reba McEntire to Blake Shelton to Russell Westbrook. And hear this, I can’t even get Russell Westbrook to even acknowledge us. We support him for being the most valuable player in the NBA but he won’t support us. So we just need more of a voice. We need a platform. People need to hear it.

We’re trying to figure out how to spread the news, how do we educate our public.

“A Teacher’s working condition is a Child’s learning situation. Never Forget that.”
-Bryan Dearing M.Ed.

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