Oklahoma teacher Steven Wedel has written an honest and blunt open letter recounting his struggles as a teacher in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma teacher chronicles how he takes care for students who cannot find love and food at their homes. He says he has been forced to buy food and clothing for kids of parents who do not care what their children will eat or where they will sleep.
In equal measure, Mr. Wendel rebukes local lawmakers for failing Oklahoma children through massive cutting of funds for much needed educational programs and passing many unfunded mandates that are overwhelming local teachers.
Here is Wedel’s full letter:
I am a teacher. I teach English at the high school of an independent district within Oklahoma City. I love my job. I love your kids. I call them my kids. I keep blankets in my room for when they’re cold. I feed them peanut butter crackers, beef jerky, or Pop Tarts when Michelle Obama’s school breakfast or lunch isn’t enough to fill their bellies. I comfort them when they cry and I praise them when they do well and always I try to make them believe that they are somebody with unlimited potential no matter what they go home to when they leave me.
What do they go home to? Sometimes when they get sick at school they can’t go home because you and the person you’re currently shacking up with are too stoned to figure out it’s your phone ringing. Sometimes they go home to parents who don’t notice them, and those are often the lucky kids. Sometimes they go home to sleep on the neighbor’s back porch because your boyfriend kicked them out of the house and his dog is too mean to let them sleep on their own back porch. They go home to physical and verbal abuse. They go home looking for love and acceptance from the people who created them … and too often they don’t find it.
Many days your children bring the resentment they feel toward you to school with them and they act out against peers, property, or their teachers. When I call you I’m told, “When he’s at school he’s your problem.” Or you beat them, not for what they did, but because it embarrassed or inconvenienced you when I called.
Often, they stay at school with me for an hour and a half after the bell rings because they don’t want to go home to you. Reluctantly, they get on the two buses meant to take home students who stay for athletic practice, and they go away for a dark night in places I can’t imagine.
Over 90 percent of the kids in my high school are on the free or reduced lunch programs. The walk hand-in-hand with Poverty and its brother Violence. They find comfort in the arms of your lover, Addiction. They make babies before they are old enough to vote. Or drive. And they continue the cycle you put them in.
Sometimes I get through to a student and convince her that education is the way out of this spiral of poverty and despair. Then you slap them down for wanting to be better than you.
And you, the lawmakers of this state, you encourage it. I hold two college degrees and have been on my job for 10 years. I was our school’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. I teach kids to read the ballots that keep you in your elite position. I teach them to look behind your lies and rhetoric. I teach them to think for themselves. The compensation of me and my colleagues ranks 49th in the nation, and is the lowest in our region. I currently earn about $18,000 per year less than I did in 2002, my last year as an office worker for an energy company that merged with another and eliminated my job. I feel like my life has purpose now, but, as I turn 50 this year and wonder how I’ll put my own high school-age kids through college, I have to consider giving up helping scores of kids per year so I can afford to give my own children what they need to find satisfaction in their lives.
And what do you do? You whittle away at education funding. You waste the taxpayers’ money so that our great state faces unbelievable shortfalls and massive budget cuts. You take home a salary that ranks 10th highest in the nation among state legislators and you are inept, uncaring, and an abomination to our democratic form of government.
Those kids who stay after school with me? After Spring Break 2016 they can’t do that. You see, our district can no longer afford to pay to run those late buses. Your kids wade through garbage in the halls because we had to release the custodial crew that cleaned at night. Oh sure, we could make the kids clean up after themselves, except our administrators live in fear of lawsuits, and making a kid pick up the lunch tray he threw on the floor has been considered forced child labor. There’s also the very real possibility that a belligerent kid will just take a swing at one of us — again — because he or she wasn’t taught respect for authority at home. Did I mention how we had to let go of our security officers because we could no longer afford them? We now share one single solitary Oklahoma County Sheriff’s deputy with our ninth grade center and our middle school and alternative school. That’s one deputy for about 1,300 students.
We can no longer afford rolls of colored paper or paint or tape to make signs to support and advertise our Student Council activities. This fall our football team won’t charge through a decorated banner as they take the field because we can’t afford to make the banner. There won’t be any new textbooks in the foreseeable future. Broken desks won’t be replaced. We’re about to ration copy paper and we’ve already had the desktop printers taken out of our rooms.
We live in fear that our colleagues will leave us, not just because they are our friends, but because the district wouldn’t replace them even if we could lure new teachers to our inner-city schools during the teacher shortage you have caused. We fear our classes doubling in size.
We fear becoming as ineffective as you are. Not because we can’t or won’t do our job, like you, but because you keep passing mandates to make us better while taking away all the resources we need just to maintain the status quo. We fear that our second jobs will prevent us from grading the papers or creating the lesson plans we already have to do from home. We fear our families will leave us because we don’t have time for them.
I am the chairman of my department. My teachers could easily take other jobs in the private sector where they would make more money, but so far they have chosen to remain teachers because they love working with kids. How long will they continue to put the needs of students over the needs of family? It’s something we’re all dealing with. How far will you push us? What will you do without us when we leave the classroom or leave the state? It’s happening. You know it’s happening, and yet you do nothing.
You, the representatives, senators, and governor of Oklahoma are creating a population of ignorant peasants fit only to work in the oil field and factories you bring to this state by promising those businesses won’t have to pay their fair share of taxes. You leave our kids in a cycle of poverty and abuse while your pet donor oil companies destroy the bedrock beneath us, shaking our homes to pieces while you deny your part in all of it.
Parents, I beg you to love your children the way we love your children. Vote for people who will help teachers educate and nurture the kids we share. We can’t do it alone anymore.
This Oklahoma teacher offers a glimpse of the challenges teachers around the country face. Comment to let’s know what you think.