in my experience

I’m a Teacher in a Red State. The Teachers’ Strike Turned My Ballot Blue.

Teachers and demonstrators hold signs during a rally inside the Oklahoma State Capitol building on April 3, 2018. Photo: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

I was born and raised in southern Oklahoma, and I’ve been a Republican basically from birth. I guess I’ve always been a bit of a rogue Republican. John McCain was my hero, and when I turned 18 I voted for him rather than George W. Bush in the 2000 primary.

At that time, I believed so much in everything that the Republican Party stood for. I read the work of many of the Founding Fathers and that shaped my ideas about freedom. I was really into the idea that government should be limited, that there should be less investment in social services and more allowing the free market to take its course, and that people should have the freedom and responsibility to do what they want.

In college I minored in political science and volunteered for a lot of Republican candidates. I campaigned very hard for several local candidates running for the state house and the state senate. When voters asked about the Republican platform I would defend it with a lot of passion — I even thought about entering politics myself someday.

However, I wound up becoming a teacher, like my mom. I was always in awe of her, how she could convey ideas and inspire people. Also, I have dyslexia, and later in life discovered that I have ADD. These obstacles to learning were overcome by educators in my life who encouraged me and told me I can be and do anything. They gave me one-on-one help and never gave up on me. I have now nearly completed my master’s in special education. I owe it all to the people who invested in me and I’m happy to pay it forward.

My political ideas started evolving — slowly — once I became a teacher myself. I’ve spent my entire teaching career in Oklahoma, working with students who have mild and moderate disabilities. Some of my students have gone on to graduate from college and have wonderful careers, while others are working minimum-wage jobs in gas stations or McDonald’s. That’s absolutely fine — there’s nothing wrong with that — but I know how hard that can be. For a short period before I became a teacher, I was a single mom making $9.50 an hour. Even with child support, I couldn’t afford good housing, and it was hard to make ends meet. I started worrying about my students who would likely make $9.50 an hour for the rest of their lives, or even less. There’s no opportunity in that.

I began to really hear the rhetoric of some people around me, who said of my students, If only they would just work harder, if they would just try harder, if they would just pull themselves up by their bootstraps and actually do something. And I thought, you know what, these kids are doing the best they can. I started thinking about trickle-down economics. Some of my students will probably need social services for the rest of their lives, and business is not going to take care of that for them. There are so few employers that would take into account that this person isn’t lazy, they just really don’t know how to behave in certain situations. What would my students’ future look like in a red state?

Then with the Oklahoma teachers’ strike last April, my politics just shifted completely. I walked out because the future of Oklahoma is in trouble. I teach science, and we do not have the budget to do experiments in the classroom. Kids from other states come in and they’re so far ahead; they say, “Man, we were doing this in middle school.” But it’s not just science, it’s all across the board. Some classes have 40 or more students because a teacher quit and with our low wages, they couldn’t find a replacement. It’s not uncommon to meet a ninth- or tenth-grade student who has never seen a new textbook during all their years in school. Students in high school won’t bat an eye when they’re told there is literally no book available for the course. Others have had a newly hired teacher every single year from first grade through ninth grade, never getting the benefit of a seasoned educator. None of this bodes well for our workforce, or the kinds of leaders we’re going to have in education.

I looked at the entire picture and thought we’ve got to do better, because I love this state. I love my home. I love my family and want to stay here, but I don’t know if I want to raise my kids here. I just wanted to save my state, and I think all the teachers felt that way.

As public school teachers, we spend around 60 hours a week teaching and grading papers, but we felt like we had to go up to the capitol and lobby for public education too. We started visiting with lawmakers and bartering over budget plans. I was struck by how they talked to us. They dismissed us. They talked down to us. It was true of all of them, but especially the Republican leaders. The next week we were still there talking about budget items, like a tiny income-tax increase — which isn’t really raising taxes, it’s restoring taxes, because our lawmakers had cut them so low. They seemed shocked and stunned that we knew our stuff and could use all the political lingo. They didn’t know how to respond; it was amazing to see how little they expected of us. It was sad.

We pressed that a small percentage of our special education students need help after school hours, even in high school. Why weren’t we investing in social services? The Republican lawmakers just kept repeating, Well, we need to keep taxes low for businesses so that they can keep thriving and eventually it’ll trickle down to everybody. They firmly believed this, and with my Republican upbringing, I understood where they were coming from. But I also knew nothing was “trickling down” into my classroom. I do not have supplies. I do not have books. I do not have a living wage. These lawmakers hadn’t been in the trenches with students who are really in need.

Previously, whenever I heard people say Republicans are out for the rich and don’t care about the poor, I’d think, “No, I’m not rich. I care about the poor and I know so many Republicans who do too.” But I learned a lot of politics is about how you appropriate money, and how you set up various social services. After we talked to our representatives, the teachers would huddle over dinner, break out our computers, and pore over the budget. We were students, breaking down the information in ways we could understand. We learned that money was flowing to private prisons and oil companies; they get money, and social services just don’t. It changed the way that I saw the entire Republican Party. You value what you put your money in.

Now I’m not sure exactly where I fall politically, but my ballot is getting purple — in fact, there’s a lot of blue. When I voted against Governor Mary Fallin four years ago, it was the first time that I did not vote Republican. I thought “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I did that.” This year I’m voting for Drew Edmondson, the Democratic candidate for governor. I’m volunteering for Joan Gabelmann, a Democrat running for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, who was formerly the principal of my school. There are only one or two Republicans that I’m planning to vote for this November, and the rest are all Democrats. I hope Republican lawmakers learn that they can’t just invest in business, they have to invest in people, too.

I’m a Red State Teacher. The Strike Turned My Ballot Blue.