Tulsa World

Teacher of the Year pens let­ter to state as he de­parts for Texas

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- By An­drea Eger

Ok­la­homa’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, who was a fi­nal­ist for the na­tional ti­tle, just penned a breakup let­ter to the state.

“Teach­ing in Ok­la­homa is a dys­func­tional re­la­tion­ship,” Nor­man High School’s Shawn Shee­han wrote in a vi­ral blog post Thurs­day evening, “And with a myr­iad of emo­tions, I have made the de­ci­sion to end this re­la­tion­ship.”

As Shee­han fin­ished pack­ing up his al­ge­bra class­room Fri­day morn­ing, he spoke to the Tulsa World about his and his wife’s heart-wrench­ing de­ci­sion to aban­don the city and state they never wanted to leave — and just how easy it was for them to

Shawn Shee­han on leav­ing to teach in Texas

get teach­ing jobs at their top­choice dis­trict in the Dal­las-Fort Worth metro­plex.

“We’re call­ing it — we’re fresh out of ideas,” Shee­han said.

He’s re­fer­ring to the ex­tra­or­di­nary per­sonal ef­forts he has taken in re­cent years to el­e­vate the pro­fes­sion he loves, to en­cour­age other teach­ers through a non­profit he es­tab­lished, and even to take on the pol­i­tics that have kept teacher pay in Ok­la­homa at rock-bot­tom.

In his blog, posted as he and his wife headed out for one last grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony, he wrote: “I’m sorry it’s come to this, but I will leave with my head held high. I poured my heart and soul into my teach­ing at Nor­man High School. I rep­re­sented our state at the high­est level. I tried to help find fund­ing sources via (State Ques­tion) 779. I ran for state Se­nate. I started a non­profit fo­cused on teacher re­cruit­ment and re­ten­tion that has spread na­tion­wide. I’ve done ev­ery­thing I know how to do to try and make things bet­ter.”

Shee­han wrote a Tulsa World col­umn ear­lier this year ti­tled “Should I stay or should I go.” He ex­plained to the Tulsa World that he and his wife never con­sid­ered mov­ing un­til they be­came par­ents of a lit­tle girl named Scar­lett seven months ago.

His wife is from Owasso and doesn’t even like the two-hour drive be­tween her home­town and the fam­ily she left be­hind there and Nor­man.

“For the long­est time, she was like ‘No way,’ and I was al­ways wa­ver­ing. But this ses­sion it be­came clear that leg­is­la­tors are un­in­ter­ested in find­ing so­lu­tions, and she was the lead­ing voice in the move,” Shee­han said. “Her be­com­ing a mother is what pushed us. We could al­ways han­dle the strug­gle when it was just us, but when Scar­lett came along, that’s when it be­came clear. We need to also think about our daugh­ter’s ed­u­ca­tion.”

Shee­han said he ex­hausted ev­ery con­ceiv­able al­ter­na­tive, even ap­ply­ing for a higher-pay­ing teach­ing job at the lo­cal Ca­reer Tech cen­ter.

His own prin­ci­pal en­cour­aged him to con­sider us­ing his mas­ter’s de­gree to en­ter into a higher-pay­ing school ad­min­is­tra­tion job. But the money wasn’t worth giv­ing up the vi­brant, joy­ful teach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence he trea­sures.

“I am frus­trated that the only pro­mo­tion I could hope for is leav­ing the class­room,” Shee­han said.

He and his wife, an English teacher, only ap­plied to their first choice — the pub­lic school dis­trict in Lewisville, Texas, and both got jobs.

Ac­cord­ing to the pub­lished pay sched­ule there, new hires started out in 2016-17 at $51,475.

That means with four and six years’ ex­pe­ri­ence, re­spec­tively, Shee­han and his wife stand to earn at least $53,000 and $54,000 a piece be­gin­ning in Au­gust.

“That’s $20,000 above where I am now, and I’m just start­ing at a num­ber I will never, ever see as a pub­lic school ed­u­ca­tor in Ok­la­homa. It’s hard to ig­nore,” Shee­han said.

The in­ter­view process was eye-open­ing, both for the Shee­hans, and their new prin­ci­pals in Lewisville.

“It was wild when my wife and I both in­ter­viewed via Skype or Face­Time with our new prin­ci­pals,” Shee­han re­called. “One ques­tion dur­ing my in­ter­view was, ‘Talk to me about par­ent com­mu­ni­ca­tions.’ I said that’s an area for im­prove­ment for me be­cause I have 150 kids with 150 sets of par­ents or guardians and it has been a real chal­lenge. His face — be­cause I could see him on Skype — was like, ‘What? You have how many kids?’ Later in the in­ter­view, it came up how many stu­dents I would have there: 22 or 23 stu­dents in three classes be­cause they’re on a block sched­ule with 90-minute class pe­ri­ods.”

Shee­han said he’s not just fed up with law­mak­ers, but also fel­low teach­ers who have helped elect them. He says some have even ac­cused him of putting self­ish needs above his love for stu­dents.

But he thinks, ul­ti­mately, it’s the par­ents of pub­lic school chil­dren across the state who hold all of the power. And he ques­tions whether they and the peo­ple they’ve elected fully un­der­stand the toll nearly a decade of state-fund­ing re­duc­tions have ex­acted on the qual­ity of pub­lic school ed­u­ca­tion.

“The num­ber of new and in­ex­pe­ri­enced teach­ers is in­creas­ing so greatly, I feel like schools are strug­gling to get out of ‘Teach­ing 101’ be­cause they’re los­ing vet­eran and ex­pe­ri­enced teach­ers to higher-pay­ing states,” Shee­han said. “Sure, al­ge­bra will al­ways be taught at Nor­man High, but the way it has been taught has changed so much. You can’t fix that with any set of stan­dards or the pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment of­fered to your peo­ple. This is a hu­man cap­i­tal prob­lem.”

He said he and his wife are a mere two teach­ers among the dozen who are leav­ing Nor­man High School this sum­mer. Oth­ers are headed as far as Ore­gon and Wash­ing­ton state, where they have no fam­ily ties.

“The mes­sage is we’re vot­ing with our feet,” Shee­han said. “We never had one foot out the door, and we hope that there’s a time that we can come back. We hope they fig­ure it out and, some day, they’re pay­ing their teach­ers a liv­ing wage. Boy, would we love to come back to this city and this state, closer to Grandma and Grandpa.”

Then he added, “But now, we’re call­ing it.”

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