Edison Teacher Talks Money

Like many Tulsans, AP English Teacher Larry Cagle is frustrated by low pay and high teacher turnover.

When a teacher gets to the point of throwing a desk in class, as the Edison Preparatory School teacher did last week, I can’t help wondering what was behind the explosion. That unfortunate incident, followed by a packed-house meeting of parents, teachers and administrators, had me thinking that maybe this wasn’t just a one-off, but indicative of deeper issues. I couldn’t talk to the chair-throwing teacher, but I talked to Larry Cagle, an Edison AP English teacher, to get his take on the event and on being a TPS teacher.

Monetary Frustrations

The first thing Cagle wanted to make crystal clear to me was that Edison students are quality students. While Cagle is frustrated, he is not frustrated by the students. Cagle’s main focus is low pay.

Oklahoma teachers have gone without a raise for a decade, and have lower pay than, not only the surrounding states, but also most states in the nation. “What happens to people in that kind of employment situation? They get disgruntled; they get frustrated and disillusioned, whether it’s in the public or private sector,” Cagle said. “It’s unimaginable. How do you sustain morale? You can’t.”

High Turnover

Cagle says that in the last five years, the teacher turnover at Edison was 62 percent, and during the same period at Booker T. Washington High School, the turnover was 51 percent. He also pointed out the high turnover rate of Teach for America (TFA) teachers, who are only committed to a two-year stint. “By becoming so heavily dependent on TFA, we lose a significant number of teachers every two years.”

While he admits that some new teachers are “phenomenal,” more often than not, their lack of experience, coupled with, in the case of TFA teachers, no long-term commitment to the profession or to the community, makes for a chaotic school environment.

“In lieu of having highly qualified, highly motivated teachers,” he said, “we have exactly the opposite. When you have new teachers who are not of the same caliber, we’ve replaced quality teachers with lesser-skilled teachers. What happens to the schools the kids are attending? [The students] want the Edison experience and the Booker T. experience, so they start acting out. The new teachers don’t have the experience to redirect, motivate or inspire the students.”

Even though TPS has teacher shortages, the administration is incentivizing retirement of older, veteran teachers, according to a retired teacher that I spoke with. Cagle said he received an email to that effect just yesterday. When I asked Cagle why older teachers were being incentivized to retire when there’s a shortage of teachers, he said he didn’t know.

Monetary Imbalance

While Cagle places some blame on the administration, both at Edison and at the Education Service Center, for being unable to hire, train and retain quality teachers, he also sympathizes with them because he knows how difficult it is to attract experienced, high-quality teachers when pay is so low.

Cagle feels that too much money is going to administrators in Oklahoma, which has 172 districts. And, TPS administrators are “some of the highest paid administrators in the country. ESC (Education Service Center) administration pay is extremely high compared with other states.”

Cagle recognizes that philanthropic foundations pay for some TPS administrative positions and for consultants, (http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/education/tulsa-school-board-approves-three-consulting-contracts-worth-up-to/article_4c894d6b-a573-55c7-b049-6e3538bbb5ea.html) but he said, “We would like the ESC to stop lobbying philanthropists,” and start lobbying legislators. Philanthropists can help support art, music and other programs that make schools better rather than paying for more administrative positions.

“We have been putting a polish and a shine on our schools in hopes that our students don’t experience the struggle of an underfunded school system,” Cagle said. “But we no longer have that ability. Year after year, teachers stop coming back to Edison. This would explain why some people have chosen to protest.”

Oklahoma Teachers United

A group of Edison and Booker T. teachers have formed an advocacy group called Oklahoma Teachers United in order to call attention to underfunded public schools through protests. Last week, the group held a “sick-out” where teachers at both schools called in sick, an action which many administrators, parents and fellow teachers find controversial. Cagle did not participate, but he asserted that the protest “got a lot of people talking,” which was the point.

Cagle believes that teachers and parents need to make it clear to Oklahoma Legislators that unless adequate school funding is a top priority, “we will vote them out.”

If you’re an Edison parent or teacher, we’d love to know how you feel about things. Please comment.

Editor’s Note: See Betty Casey’s follow-up article, “It’s Not Just Edison”

Categories: Editor’s Blog