Oklahoma is experiencing a historic teacher shortage.
Oklahoma schools had 543 teacher vacancies on Aug. 1 of this year and had eliminated over 1,300 position this year, according to the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. While the OSSBA numbers reflect the statewide outlook, has the shortage affected southern Oklahoma in the same way?
“We’re as thin as we can be,” said Wilson Public Schools superintendent Eric Smith. “It’s just a tough environment right now.”
Smith said that at Wilson they had to cut down the number of staff due to budget concerns. While the number of vacancies didn’t necessarily increase, he said the slimming of the staff has reduced the number of teachers to near the minimum number needed.
Wilson isn’t the only district that has reduced the number of teachers.
“This year, we’ve reduced the number of sections for some grades because of budget concerns,” said Sulphur Public Schools superintendent Gary Jones. “We consolidated more out of budget concerns than number of people.”
Jones said as a result of the staff reduction, the classroom
student-teacher ratio has increased. While he said the district itself hasn’t experienced any vacancy issues, there is a statewide issue regarding the number of teachers available for schools that are searching.

“Where we use to get around 20 applicants for a position, we may get one or two,” Jones said. “The number of applicants has significantly decreased from in the past.

“People just aren’t there.”

Jones said he believes there are several factors that play into the shortage of teachers. With public outlook on teachers in Oklahoma being bleak and the potential for higher pay available in every direction, it isn’t hard for teachers to see the benefits of teaching across state lines.

“If you can go across the river and make way more money than you probably will,” Jones said. He said a couple he knows that both teach left Oklahoma to teach in Texas, with staggering results.

“‘We’re making a half salary more a piece,’” he said the couple reported. “So basically they said they were bringing home three salaries.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Davis Public Schools superintendent Todd Garrison said.  “It is a true crisis.”

Garrison said that currently Davis is solid in its staff, but it had to reduce the number teachers on staff this year as well. He said several area superintendents asked him if he knew teachers who could fill their open positions, as the number of teachers in Oklahoma has been reduced significantly. In the past, Garrison said a teaching position with a coaching specification would attract 30 to 40 applicants. Now, that same position would be lucky to bring in 10 applicants, with potentially half not even fully certified.

“The number of applicants has dropped significantly,” Garrison said. “But we’re lucky enough that we’re good right now and have a solid staff and a great group, but it’d be tough to be looking to fill positions right now.”

Jones said in his experience, “hometown” people who grew up in a town want to come home and tend to be a good portion of teachers that are hired. Those positions, however, aren’t typically the ones that schools have trouble filling.

“Most who grew up here and live here want to come home,” he said. “But it’s not the hometown positions that are tough to fill it’s the other positions. It’s those positions you have to be competitive in.”

Jones said he hopes that a pay increase would help attract teachers and encourage them to stay, but he said the current problem in Oklahoma goes deeper than dollar signs.

“It’s a culture thing,” he said saying that many factors go into a teachers choice of school, such as public scrutiny, respect and the atmosphere of the school.

While Oklahoma has plans to address teacher salaries, either through State Question 779’s penny tax or other revenue sources, the future of teacher retention and recruitment in Oklahoma is still in the air. Jones said he hopes the outlook in Oklahoma improves and that school’s embrace a culture that future teachers want to be a part of.

“Everybody wants to be appreciated,” Jones said. “That’s why we make a point with our staff to show them our appreciation.