There are moments that stay with you forever. On May 3, 2016, I was parked on a riser in the East Room of the White House behind the president of the United States. My friend Jahana Hayes, the National Teacher of the Year, stood next to President Obama at the lectern as she addressed a cheering crowd. She was terrified but hid it behind a smile. I stood near my fellow National Teacher of the Year finalists, Daniel Jocz from California and Shawn Sheehan from Oklahoma. As a government teacher and civics nerd, it was a lifetime highlight.
Three years later, only two of us are still teaching. Only one of us is still at the same school. The paths our careers have taken since that day in the White House speak volumes about the state of teaching in the United States.
For Shawn, it was about money. As Teachers of the Year, we gathered a few times during our year of recognition. One night in D.C., Shawn, Daniel, and I were swapping stories over cocktails, as teachers do, when the conversation turned to pay. Daniel and I were complaining about the cost of living on the West Coast. Then Shawn shared his Oklahoma salary. We were gobsmacked. Oklahoma teachers are among the lowest paid in the county, ranking 48th. Shawn went on to lead a campaign for Ballot Question 779, a measure for a one-penny increase in the state sales tax to fund schools. It was unsuccessful. He then ran for the state Senate—also unsuccessfully. After laying his family’s finances out for the public in his local paper, Shawn told Ed Week that “teaching in Oklahoma is a dysfunctional relationship, and with a myriad of emotions, I have made the decision to end this relationship.” The next year, Shawn moved to North Texas; simply by leaving Oklahoma, he earned a raise of $1,600 per month. No teacher should face that kind of choice. Shawn is now on a fellowship through the Department of Energy, advocating for education policy to Congress.
For Daniel, it was about the lack of effective school leadership. Daniel might be the best social studies teacher in the U.S. He runs a YouTube Channel called Jocz Productions, where he makes videos for students across the country who are preparing for the AP U.S. History exam. But he tweeted in early February, “Each year I literally have to talk myself into staying in the classroom. I love teaching, but hate what they do to us.” In his 14 years at his school in downtown Los Angeles, he worked under seven different school administrators—a revolving door of leaders who barely had time to learn the culture of the school, let alone the students. In the spring, after months of deliberation, he left his school for the Center for Enriched Studies in Sherman Oaks. He tells me he’s found many of the same issues at his new school, and in January, he spent a week on the picket lines with thousands of other Los Angeles teachers.
For Jahana, it was about making sweeping change. Jahana had deep concerns with the current administration that many in the profession share. The policy fights that garner headlines at the national level have implications in our classrooms: Cuts to social programs harm vulnerable low-income families; a shift to more aggressive immigration enforcement can destabilize the households of students (documented and undocumented alike); the Department of Education rolling back civil rights protections makes our schools and students less safe. In explaining her decision to leave teaching and run for Congress, she told reporters, “This is where I think I can be the most impactful—to be a voice at the table who understands what people in this state, in this district, in these households are going through.” In November, she was elected as a part of the Congressional Class of 2018.
And for me? Like Daniel, I went on strike recently, for the second time in my 13-year career. Strikes are miserable experiences that destroy trust between teachers and school leaders. The impasse was triggered by a poorly designed funding formula from the Washington state Legislature. Along with my teaching, I travel the country speaking to educators and policymakers about educational equity and teacher effectiveness. I feel like I have the support of district leadership in my policy advocacy. But I’m constantly aware that I’m the lone member of our finalist class still teaching at the same school where I earned my award, and I don’t know how much longer I will remain.
What does it say that half of us felt compelled to take the fight to Washington while the other two went on strike this year? Nikole Hannah-Jones said it best. Society sends deeply conflicting messages to students: We tell them nothing in life matters more than education, while we treat the people who educate them as largely interchangeable, disposable parts. This has predictable consequences. If you follow education conversations, you know that there are teacher shortages in many parts of the country. Many low-income districts have rotating substitutes in positions all year because they can’t fill positions permanently. Special education positions, those serving our most vulnerable students, are among the most hard to fill.
More than curricular choices or the silly standardized tests we fight over constantly, the most important in-school factor affecting student achievement is teacher effectiveness. This is especially true for students in low-income schools. When we read reports about “high turnover at low-income schools,” this is a euphemism. It means that low-income kids, predominantly brown and black, constantly get new, inexperienced teachers. And there’s a growing frustration within the ranks of teachers over unsustainable workloads and untenable work conditions. Teachers in my circles have sought greener pastures: a technical writer, a project manager, and a corporate trainer. Effective teachers have options.
This all points to a crisis in the teaching profession. If the “Teachers of the Year” feel this way, imagine what it’s like for millions of teachers toiling in low-income urban and rural schools across the country. I have a platform and I use it to advocate for my students and teachers across the county. I will be lifelong friends with many of the people in my Teacher of the Year cohort. I’m especially proud of my three fellow finalists and all they’ve accomplished, and I will forever treasure that moment in the White House. But I think our subsequent experiences are a lesson. As a teacher, I hope you understand this lesson: Teaching is a profession, and great teachers need to feel respected and empowered. If they don’t, they will leave—and they should.