First Person

What I learned from running for office as Oklahoma’s Teacher of the Year (and losing)

Shawn Sheehan is a math teacher at Norman High School in Norman, Oklahoma. He was named Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year and was one of four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award this year. He blogs here

sheehan

“We gave it a good run, friends.”

That was my concession tweet after I lost my bid for Oklahoma State Senate last week. I earned only 38 percent of the vote in my district, or about 12,000 votes. My Republican opponent received over 21,000.

The math teacher in me kept running the difference in my head. I’ve come to terms with the fact that, no matter how many doors I knocked on, I wouldn’t have overcome that 9,000-vote deficit thanks to straight-ticket voting. Even though there wasn’t a Democrat in my race, an Independent candidate in this very red state faces long odds.

Still, the sting was powerful. And it wasn’t the only deeply personal loss I experienced this week.

On Election Day, my state also voted down a state question aimed at providing a $5,000 base salary increase for all educators by increasing our sales tax by 1 percent. I was one of the initial three people to sign the petition that put that question on the ballot. When its constitutionality was challenged in court, my name was among those on the legal documents. We won that challenge only to lose in the voting booth.

Now, as a sixth-year math teacher with a master’s degree, my base salary will remain at $35,419. My total compensation, including benefits, amounts to $38,100. My net income per month is just under $2,100.

The state of public education in Oklahoma has frustrated me since I entered the profession in 2011. That’s why I haven’t let up in my effort to make things better. It began in 2013 when I created the Teach Like Me campaign, which aimed to improve teacher recruitment and retention and to boost morale among educators. (It’s now a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and you can check it out here.)

But that wasn’t enough. After being selected as Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year and becoming a finalist for National Teacher of the Year, I realized that I had a duty to advocate for educators in Oklahoma and beyond. So when I was approached about a state constitutional amendment that would provide much-needed funding for education, I signed on, quite literally. And after being frustrated at the lip service I’d receive from legislators who weren’t doing their part to fix education budget issues, I decided to run for office.

I was accompanied by more than 40 Oklahoma educators who ran for office in their respective districts; 16 of them made it past their primaries with me. One teacher did win his race, and he will join one other educator next legislative session. I suppose two teachers in office is better than none.

But at the end of the day, it felt like teachers received two clear messages from this election. One: you have no place at the State Capitol. Two: we will keep saying we want to fund education, but we won’t follow through.

My first child was born less than two weeks ago, and I’m admittedly a little fuzzy-brained from the unusual sleep schedule and adrenaline rush of having a new, beautiful baby girl. What remains clear is that I love my job — and I’m not giving up.

At school on Friday, a former student passed me in the hallway and said, “Hey, Mr. Sheehan! I voted for you! I’m sorry you didn’t win but you’re gonna go for it again in four years right?”

My face was probably less than enthusiastic. I imagine I looked something like that indifferent emoji face, coupled with a tinge of the angry one and a sliver of the sleeping one. I thanked her for her sweet comment and responded, “Ooohhh, I dunno.”

Her response perfectly captured the lesson I learned from all of this. She said, “Well, I hope you do. Don’t give up on us. We need you!”

Cue the internal emotional outburst of tears and joy and everything I love about this job. Neither of us broke our stride while we talked, which was just as significant to me. She was hurrying to whatever she had to get to and I was headed in the opposite direction to a meeting. But that’s how it goes for me and my students. That’s what I taught them. When things don’t go your way, don’t let up. Keep moving forward. Literally.

That’s what happened in the main hallway at Norman High School. This math teacher/president of a nonprofit/former candidate for State Senate/new father was reminded by a former student of the standard I had set for them.

Now, it’s back to the drawing board. The loss is still a win for me because I get to continue doing the thing that I love, and the thing I’m very good at, which is teaching math to students who really struggle with it.

But there’s a fire that’s been lit on a torch I promised I’d carry for all the educators out there. It hasn’t been extinguished. It has intensified. Now, I will continue to fight for public education in a different way. Now, more than ever, we educators need to let our lights shine brightly so our students may see in the darkness.

I need a little break to recover, refocus, and strategize. Now, my question is, who’s next? Will you carry this torch with me?

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.