Teachers rally at the state capitol during the 2018 teacher walkout.

Jacob McCleland / KGOU

‘It had to be more than just teachers and their families voting’: Oklahoma educator responds to election outcome

Leading up to the midterms, throngs of teachers and education advocates rallied around democratic candidates for governor and superintendent. But after the ticket went to Gov. Kevin Stitt and Education Secretary Ryan Walters, some of those teachers are thinking about leaving the state altogether. 

Jami Jackson-Cole is a fifth-grade teacher at Duncan Public Schools and manages the Oklahoma Edvocates Facebook page, which is a community of thousands of teachers and parents around the state. StateImpact’s Beth Wallis spoke to her about how Oklahoma teachers are looking at the road ahead.

Beth Wallis: Jami, you’re a prominent public education advocate and you were a figure in the teacher walkout. Can you tell me, how are teachers thinking about this moment?

Jami Jackson-Cole: The majority that I’ve talked to are just feeling really hopeless right now. A lot of teachers right now have their exit strategies ready to go. The only thing that keeps teachers teaching in today’s political climate with everything that’s happening is their love for the kids. But even now, a lot of them are saying that that’s not enough to hold them.

Wallis: So you manage the Oklahoma Edvocates Facebook page, and I believe you had posted that you had gotten a bunch of messages from teachers the day after the election. Can you tell me about a couple of those messages that you remember that really stood out to you?

Jackson-Cole: Most of them are, ‘What do we do now? Will there be another walkout?’ A lot of the ones I got are, ‘How do we get rid of straight party voting?’ That was like, probably the most out of all of them I got, because we pretty much realized that this is what happened in this instance, it was straight party voting that took us out. So I think that that’s been one of the main things that I think teachers are really kind of focusing on right now, is, what can we do to change that?

Wallis: I mean, Oklahoma teachers have recently had a history of organizing. Do you think that that might be on the horizon?

Jackson-Cole: I do. I have talked to some people about what we could do to do a ballot initiative. So there are some positive things that I can really — if I can help teachers understand, that there are a lot of us behind the scenes working to make sure that everything continues and that it’s going to be okay.

Wallis: Well, let’s talk vouchers. They’re going to be big this session. Governor Stitt and Secretary Walters campaigned on them. We saw a bill that would have given families scholarships to pay for private schools. Tell me, how will those vouchers affect families in Duncan, where you work?

Jackson-Cole: Three words: rural school killer. They will absolutely decimate. I mean, the mass exodus I’m already seeing? I put up a very informal, unscientific poll in the Edvocates group. It was 18% said they are going to leave because of the election. And I think if we lose 20% or more of our workforce, it is going to decimate public schools.

Wallis: Well, a big part of this recent campaign was about parents’ rights and what you as a teacher are talking about in the classroom. Can you talk to me a little bit about how these conversations affect your teaching?

Jackson-Cole: The thing is, trying to pit educators against parents, it’s so divisive. We are a team. I am a team with every single one of my parents. And I can tell you, I teach fifth grade math and you would not believe how many parents I get saying, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ And it’s okay! It’s okay, we’ll figure it out when they get to school tomorrow. So, you know, thinking that a parent knows how to teach a specialized field, parents who have kids who are in AP Physics, or you know, different things like that. We are the professionals. We are the experts. I went to school to learn how to educate your child, you know?

Wallis: Well, and there’s been a lot of national rhetoric, especially during this election season, about indoctrination —

Jackson-Cole: [laughs] I have to laugh because my goodness, if I could indoctrinate them, they would all be bringing me Dr. Pepper and chocolate bars every single day. If I was indoctrinating, everyone would know how to do fractions and I wouldn’t have to worry about teaching long division to everybody. So yeah, there’s no indoctrinating. There’s also no kitty litter or litter boxes, so let me clear that up right now. We are not teaching CRT, I don’t even know what that is. I don’t have the slightest clue. The fact is, we have so many standards that we have to get through before we go in and take these state tests that I can’t even stray off of what I’m trying to accomplish just to get to all the standards I have to get finished. So there’s absolutely no time for that.

Wallis: Does this kind of nationalized conversation about indoctrination, does it do anything to break down your relationships with students’ parents?

Jackson-Cole: Not at all. They all think it’s nonsense. You know, when they hear something like that, they just think it’s absolutely ridiculous because they know that’s not what’s happening. Like, I’m happy if a kid brings a pencil to school! There’s not any nefarious — or anything like that. I don’t know any teachers that are like that.

Wallis: So talk to me about what it’s like to be on the ground right now while all of this is kind of going on in national politics, as well as nationalized state politics. Does it feel like the ship is sinking?

Jackson-Cole: Not yet. Teachers, for the most part, are eternal optimists. You know, we’re the cheerleaders. And I think everybody right now is just kind of holding bated breath and you know, seeing what’s going to happen. 

Wallis: Do you think this will finally be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

Jackson-Cole: I think I was just really naive that people were going to listen to us. But it had to be more than just teachers and their families voting. I don’t think anybody’s going to get it. I don’t think they’re going to get it until their federal, their free and reduced lunches are affected. Until it starts affecting parents and grandparents who are raising these kids, and they start seeing it hitting their pocketbook. I don’t think they’re going to fully grasp just what it is that’s been done until it affects them themselves.