The Secret 'Vows' Every Oklahoma Teacher Takes — And Why We're Breaking Them Today

An open letter to my fellow Oklahomans.

On April 2, frustrated by stagnant wages and cuts to the state's education budget, Oklahoma's teachers walked out in protest. The Oklahoma demonstration comes in the wake of a successful teacher strike in West Virginia, which led to a 5 percent raise for educators. Below is an op-ed written in advance of the walkout by Amber Flindt McMath, a teacher at the Owasso Seventh Grade Center. It was originally published on a fellow teacher's blog, and we republish it here on the day of the walkout with her permission.

Dear fellow Oklahomans,

I think it's time we come clean. You deserve to know. With heated conversations spreading and uncertainty looming, we teachers can put an end to this with the truth. Here goes.

Prior to your first day in the classroom as an Oklahoma teacher or school employee, you undergo a special ceremony. You dress in your finest teacher jumper, apple embroidery required. Cake and punch is served. 

But most importantly, veteran teachers administer the New Oklahoma Teacher Vows. They read as follows:

The Vow Of Poverty

Do you, new Oklahoma teacher, vow to live a life of poverty, not receiving a raise for over a decade? You will purchase your clothes secondhand or deeply clearanced and your food in generic brands and drive a beat-up clunker of a car. You will observe teachers in surrounding states making considerably more than you. You will decide at some point that you want money to do things like see movies or travel or pay for your son's baseball team fees or daughter's Girl Scout troop dues. So you will pick up a side hustle gig. Perhaps you will sell nutritional supplements or beauty products. You might dedicate your summers to a retail job or your evenings to private tutoring.  Whatever it is, it will fill every last minute that you're not working for your students or being with your family. However, that cost is worth it to compensate for the discrepancy in your pay and your desire to maintain a middle-class life.  

I do.

The Owasso High School Owasso Oklahoma marching band  in 2011. dashingstock / Shutterstock.com
The Owasso High School Owasso Oklahoma marching band  in 2011. dashingstock / Shutterstock.com

Do you, new Oklahoma teacher, vow to spend a large portion of your paycheck on your family's health insurance? If you insure your spouse and two children, you will pay from $821 (least expensive plan offered) to $2,003 (most expensive plan offered) for health insurance each month — just for your spouse and children. (Dental/vision not included.) If your family is on your spouse's health insurance and he/she unexpectedly passes away, you will make so little that your only option will be the state's subsidized health insurance SoonerCare, which you most easily qualify for. 

I do.

Do you, new Oklahoma teacher, vow to use your own money to provide for the optimal functioning of your classroom? You will provide every instructional or motivational item that covers your walls. You will purchase books to fill your shelves to supplement the already underfunded library. You will buy basic supplies like markers and glue sticks along with extras that will make the day run more smoothly like candy and cardstock. You will pay your own registration and travel expenses to attend professional developments, conferences, and workshops that will make you a better teacher. When possible, you will use your time to write highly competitive grants and beg local businesses for handouts. (Not to mention buy cookie dough from the band kid and candy bars from the choir kid because those programs are so deeply underfunded you do whatever you can to help your colleagues and their students.)

I do.

The Vow of Priority 

Do you, new Oklahoma teacher, vow to do more with less? When given a mandate from the state legislature or school board that does not come with funding, you will execute said directive without question. You will have less desks, less books, less paper but more students, more standards, and more assessments. You will come in early and stay late. You will sponsor the club, do the extra unpaid lunch duty, mentor the first year teacher, serve on the committee, and attend the summer workshops. You will do more with less because you know the students deserve the best education possible.  Your students will be your first priority at all cost. 

I do.

The Vow of Placating the Politicians

Do you, new Oklahoma teacher, vow to not ruffle any feathers with politicians? You will do your job and your job alone. You serve at the pleasure of the public. You will not throw glorified temper tantrums about your pay. You will not be so tacky as to leave for another state, thus abandoning the good people of Oklahoma. You will not bother legislators with plans and proposals about fixing education. They are busy. You will accept that the state legislature, as they say, is doing everything they can to fight for education in our state. You will definitely not make ignorant suggestions of how to manage the state's revenue or where to find new revenue sources.  That's above your pay grade.  You may politely call and write to your legislators encouraging them to support public education. You will most definitely not "walk out" on those sweet innocent children in the name of protesting, raising awareness, or advocating for better funding.

I do.

A scene from a March For Our Lives protest attended by teachers in Tulsa, Oklahoma earlier this year.  Svineyard / Shutterstock.com
A scene from a March For Our Lives protest attended by teachers in Tulsa, Oklahoma earlier this year.  Svineyard / Shutterstock.com

There you have it. 

"We knew what we were getting into," you said.

"You knew what you signed up for," you said.

You're right. We did. 

Fortunately, some of us have landed in affluent districts whose successful bond measures and generous community donations have shielded us from the extremes of this oath. Meanwhile, some of us are serving in districts so poorly funded that this oath barely scrapes the surface of how dire it is. 

But no matter the size of the district, the salary, or the tax base. No matter the grade level or taught or degrees earned. No matter the state representative or political affiliation. Oklahoma teachers are united today having written our own vows.  

And we're adding one powerful word: NOT.

We do not accept these terms. We do not vow to live and work like this.

We do not promise to uphold our end of the deal until the state upholds its.  

We do not walk out on our students: we walk for them, we walk beside them, we walk until they regain their rightful place as the first priority of Oklahomans. 

We do not stop until something is done, until those tasked with managing the revenue of this great state start managing the revenue of this great state.
We do not. 

Cover image via  Shutterstock /   Svineyard.

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