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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