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Oklahoma lawmakers studying worsening teacher shortage

By Andrea Eger

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    TULSA, Oklahoma (Tulsa World) — Three former teachers now serving as Oklahoma lawmakers are studying the state’s worsening teacher shortage to see what policy measures might be of help.

“The teacher pipeline is one of the critical issues we can address in the 2022 legislative session,” said Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, who previously taught government at Booker T. Washington High School.

In an interim study he hosted last week, Waldron cited a September Tulsa World analysis which found summertime teacher retirements were up nearly 38 percent year-over-year.

According to data from the Teachers’ Retirement System, retirements the previous two summers were relatively level at 1,622 during the months of May through August in 2019 and 1,600 during the same peak retirement period in 2020.

During the same summer months this year, 2,205 Oklahoma teachers retired.

“We have seen record numbers of retirements. We are facing a chronic shortage of applicants for teaching positions, and we are certifying more and more teachers on an emergency basis,” Waldron said. “This is unsustainable.”

His study zeroed in on the reasons behind the recent exodus of teachers, and ways Oklahoma could prevent more teachers from leaving the state or the profession through compensation and training and other supports for classroom professionals.

Sabra Tucker, executive director of the Oklahoma Retired Educators Association, told those gathered at Waldron’s study that stress amid increasing criticisms and demands from society is the primary driver of teacher retirements right now.

“What I heard from people is that ‘my health is not worth staying in the classroom. As much as I love teaching and students, I do not love all the stress of being in the classroom with unrealistic expectations and more and more demands than I have ever had before in my entire career’,” Tucker said.

Waldron said legislative action at this juncture is a must.

“It will get worse the longer we as legislators don’t act to solve it. I am humbled and encouraged by the House Common Education Committee, under the leadership of Chair Rhonda Baker, for taking this issue seriously … There is a problem. We must work together to fix it.”

Sherrie Conley, R-Newcastle, a former elementary school teacher and school district administrator, held a study last week on how “meaningful” training and professional development for teachers could help improve teacher retention rates, while Baker, R-Yukon, and chair of the House Common Education Committee, hosted an interim study about “innovative approaches” to improving Oklahoma’s teacher shortage.

Baker, who previously taught English at the middle and high school levels, said it is clear that “Oklahoma, like most of the nation, faces an acute teacher shortage.”

She is probing whether there could be new efficiencies, as well as cost savings for applicants created within the state’s teacher certification process and what other states could be doing differently to attract and retain teachers.

Cody Allen, policy analyst and committee liaison for Southern Legislative Conference, told those gathered for Baker’s study that it is imperative for Oklahoma to find new solutions because more than 21 percent of the state’s teachers are 55 or older, meaning they could be eligible to retire soon.

He offered some information about how other states have easier standards for teacher certification, such as on-the-job teaching experience or a college degree in a subject area replacing the need to pass content exams.

Recruiting more new teachers, he said, could also mean addressing the cost of Oklahoma’s teacher certification exams, particularly for new graduates with high student loan debt.

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