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 dropped out of school in Denver at 13. Here’s how I ended up back in the classroom helping kids learn.

Students at Rocky Mountain Prep in SE Denver.

Every day when I greet the young children walking into the pre-kindergarten classroom at Rocky Mountain Prep, where I’m a teaching assistant, I wonder what my middle school teachers would think if they could see me now.

My story starts out like so many others, but it has a happy ending. Why? Because a caring teacher at the school saw in me, a young mother with three kids, someone she wanted to help reach her potential.

So here I am.

Back then, no one would have guessed I would end up here. It felt like no one at the Denver middle school I attended took education seriously. The teachers who didn’t bother to learn my name didn’t take me seriously. The kids who walked in and out class whenever they wanted sure didn’t.

Even though I wanted to get an education and improve my English, after a while I started doing what my friends did.

First I’d leave a class once in a while before it was over. Then I started cutting classes. Next I’d ditch full days. Then, in seventh grade, I stopped going completely. Yes, that’s right. I dropped out of school at 13.

I guess you could say my dropping out was no big surprise. In a lot of ways, the process started when I was little. In elementary school, I was one of the thousands of Denver kids who didn’t speak much English. But I could never find the help I needed and wanted at my school.

I just felt lost, like no one there cared about me.

It was worse when I started middle school. My mom didn’t want me to go to one closest to home because it had gang problems.

I walked 45 minutes to and from school every day. I always walked. There was no school bus and public transit would have taken even longer.

Rain or snow or hot sun, there I was, walking to school by myself. I had to wake up at 5:45 a.m. to get to school on time. My mom was already at work at that hour.

When I dropped out, my mom was upset. She always worked very hard at her job in a nursing home. She had three kids and worked from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. My dad wasn’t around.

She wasn’t going to put up with me hanging out and getting in trouble, so she sent me down to Mexico to live with my grandparents and maybe finish school there, in rural Chihuahua.

The school I went to in Mexico was much better for me. Reading, writing, math and Spanish classes were hard. But the teachers really cared. They checked in with me one-on-one every day. It was the first time I began to realize that there were adults outside my family who really cared about me. That made a big difference.

I had met a boy I liked in Mexico, and when I came back to Denver I was 16 and pregnant. My daughter Alisson was born in Denver. Eventually her father and I got married and we now have three children.

But at 16, I knew I needed to get a high school diploma if I wanted to get anywhere in the world. I attended an online high school for a while, and then a private religious school where I could take online courses. I was very proud when I graduated.

I never considered the possibility that I might go to college someday.

When Alisson turned four, I needed to find a school for her. We lived right across the street from an elementary school. But everyone told me it was not a great school. I knew how to look up information about test scores and every school I looked at near our home did not have the best scores, or at least anything close to my expectations.

I went to my mom crying. We felt stuck. I really wanted my daughter to receive a better education than I had. I wanted a high quality school that would provide the attention and support she would need. A school that would care for her education as much as I did.

Then in June, someone knocked on my door. It was a teacher from Rocky Mountain Prep charter school. They said they were opening that fall in Kepner Middle School, just a few blocks from our house. I invited her in and asked her questions for an hour. I liked what I heard.

I sent Alisson to the school and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s nothing like any of the schools I attended. The teachers love the kids. Allison has learned so much.

At the end of her first year, I had a conference with her teacher, Laura. She said Alisson was an advanced student. I asked what I could do with her over the summer to make sure she stayed on top of her schoolwork.

That’s when Laura told me I should come work there because I was a natural teacher. I thought she was joking. I think my answer to her was, “Yeah, seriously.”

But she was serious. I didn’t think I had what it took. No college. No education, no experience. But she bugged me and bugged me until I said I’d apply. I did, and was hired as a teaching assistant.

I just finished my first year in the classroom. It went great. I love teaching. I love kids. I love that I get to be a part of what Rocky Mountain Prep is doing for my community in providing a strong foundation in education that I never received.

As a pre-K teaching assistant, I serve as a second educator in the classroom for our young scholars’ first experience at school. I share responsibility for helping to build their social skills and love of reading, writing, math, and science.

As a parent, I know firsthand how important those early years are for learning. I love that I also have a hand in helping so many little ones fall in love with coming to school and growing their brains.

My daughter is in first grade now. She is reading chapter books. And she’s always saying, “When I’m in college …” She has no doubt that’s what she’ll do when she finishes high school. As a mom, this makes me feel very proud.

Listening to those words coming from my own child has motivated me. I’m not always the most self-confident person, but thanks to Allison and our school, I know that’s my next step — going to college and making her as proud as she’s made me.

First Person

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

PHOTO: NPEF

This is the fourth entry in a series we’re calling How We Got Here, where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see the whole series here.

My child attends a Nashville charter school. But that might not make me the “charter supporter” you think I am.

Let me explain.

My husband and I chose our neighborhood zoned school for our child for kindergarten through fourth grade. We had a very positive experience. And when we faced the transition to middle school, our default was still the neighborhood school. In fact, I attended those same schools for middle and high school.

But we also wanted to explore all of the options offered by Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Eventually, we narrowed it down to three choices: our zoned school, one magnet and one charter.

We spent months studying everything we could learn about them, visiting each one more than once, asking countless questions, talking to other parents, and openly discussing different options as a family. We even let our child “shadow” another student.

I also did a lot of soul searching, balancing what we learned with my deeply held belief that traditional public education forms the backbone of our democracy.

When we chose the charter school, it was not because we wanted our neighborhood public school to fail. It was not because we feel charters are a magic bullet that will save public education. We did not make the choice based on what we felt would be right according to a political party, school board members, district superintendents, nonprofit organizations, charter marketers or education policy wonks.

These are the reasons why we chose our school: A discipline policy firmly grounded in restorative justice practices; a curriculum tightly integrated with social and emotional learning; a community identity informed by the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of its families; a culture of kindness that includes every child in the learning process, no matter what their test scores, what language they speak at home, or if they have an IEP; and not least of all, necessary bus transportation.

It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me. The discussion about charter schools, especially, has become so polarized that it sometimes seems completely divorced from the realities faced by many Nashville families.

Education advocates and even some of our elected school board members often characterize families that choose charters in an extreme way. We’re either depicted as corporate cronies out to privatize and destroy public schools with unabated charter growth and vouchers, or we’re painted as uneducated, uninformed parents who have no choice, don’t care, or don’t know any better.

This is simply not reality. As a parent who opted for a charter school, I am by definition a “charter supporter” in that I support the school we chose. That doesn’t mean I support all charter schools. Nor does it mean I support vouchers. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I agree with the current presidential administration’s stance on public education.

Nashville families who choose charter schools are public school supporters with myriad concerns, pressures, preferences and challenges faced by any family. Demonizing families for choosing the schools they feel best fit their children’s needs, or talking about those families in a patronizing way, does not support kids or improve schools.

I am aware that shady business practices and financial loopholes have made it possible for unscrupulous people at some charter organizations to profit off failing schools paid for on the public dime. Exposing this kind of abuse is vital to the public interest. We should expect nothing less than complete transparency from all our schools.

That does not mean that every charter school is corrupt. Nor does every charter school “cream” high-performing students (as many academic magnet schools do).

It’s important that, unlike other states, Tennessee doesn’t allow for-profit entities to operate public charter schools or allow nonprofit charter organizations to contract with for-profit entities to operate or manage charter schools. And we need Metro Nashville and the state of Tennessee to limit charters to highly qualified, rigorously vetted charter organizations that meet communities’ needs, and agree to complete transparency and regulatory oversight.

We also have to recognize that traditional neighborhood schools separated by school district zones are themselves rooted in economic inequality and racial segregation. Some charter schools are aiming to level the playing field, helping kids succeed (and stay) in school by trying new approaches. That’s one of the reasons we chose our school.

I’m not saying this all works perfectly. My school, like any school, has room for improvement. Nor am I saying that other traditional public schools don’t incorporate some of the same practices that drew us to the charter.

If we believe that our public schools have a role to play in dismantling inequality and preparing all children to be thoughtful, engaged citizens, let’s look at what is and is not working in individual school communities for different populations.

I know that my family is not alone, and other families have grappled with these same issues as they made a careful choice about a public school for their child. I have no doubt that if charter school opponents would keep this in mind, rather than making sweeping generalizations about all charter schools and “charter supporters,” it would make our community dialogue more meaningful and productive.

Aidan Hoyal is a Nashville parent. This piece is adapted from one that first appeared on the Dad Gone Wild blog.