School climate outweighs pay in teacher retention

Ray Carter | October 11, 2023

In recent years, state lawmakers have dramatically increased spending on K-12 education, including repeated teacher pay raises, yet the state still struggles with a reported teacher shortage.

During a recent legislative study, lawmakers were told one reason for the persistence of the teacher shortage is that school climate and societal trends can outweigh financial considerations for many teachers.

“We’re grateful for your support. I’m very grateful to hear that you’re not finished with the good work you’re doing. I especially appreciated my raise that I got this year,” said Carol Ann Sallee, a teacher at Collinsville Public Schools who has more than 30 years of experience. “But I’m not going to leave because of money, and I didn’t come because of money, and I know that so many feel the same way.”

In particular, she said student mental-health challenges and a lack of effective discipline have impacted teachers’ willingness to stay on the job.

“We can’t discipline them,” Sallee said. “They’re not scared and they’re not afraid.”

At Collinsville, she said that when a child becomes violent or extremely disruptive, the school policy is to remove all other students from the classroom, rather than the disruptive child. That negatively impacts learning for all students, and little is done to deter the disruptive child from engaging in similar outbursts in the future.

“There’s not much of a consequence or accountability for the parents or the children,” Sallee said. “I think they act out more because they feel like, ‘Hey, I’ve got control. I can clear this classroom out and you can’t touch me. You can’t spank me. And if you say something mean to me, my dad’s going to get you.’”

Sallee suggested that more funding be directed to pay for mental-health professionals in schools, and indicated that funding for teaching assistants to help teachers manage their workload will increase the number of teachers who choose to stay in the profession.

In the 2023 legislative session, which concluded in May, lawmakers voted to provide teacher pay raises of $3,000 for teachers with zero to four years of experience, $4,000 for teachers with five to nine years of experience, $5,000 for teachers with 10 to 15 years of experience, and $6,000 for teachers with 15 or more years of experience.

Those raises came on top of a combined average pay increase of $7,200 for teachers provided in the 2018 and 2019 legislative sessions.

Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, noted the funding increases provided to Oklahoma’s K-12 school system in recent years are unprecedented.

“It took the state 110 years to get to a budget of $2.3 billion appropriated for common ed,” Pugh said. “And I want all of my colleagues to hear this: It took us seven years to get to $3.97 (billion).”

Yet, Pugh noted when he was first elected “all I heard when I showed up was that the Legislature hates teachers.”

Shannon Holston, chief of policy and programs for the National Council on Teacher Quality, told lawmakers that providing larger salaries or bonuses to teachers who work in hard-to-staff schools or in subject areas where teacher supply is most limited has been found to not only increase teacher retention but also to increase the high-quality teacher supply for those schools or subjects.

She said some researchers have found a bonus percentage needs to be around 14% to impact behavior, and a threshold of 7.5% of bonus pay, or around $5,000/year, is recommended as a minimum.

But Holston also noted that school climate and principal leadership are important to the retention of all teachers. And that is something that state lawmakers have very little ability to impact.

“School climate is definitely a challenging one … from a policymaker viewpoint,” Holston said. “Because it’s a lot of times constructed by the culture of the building.”

Sallee said many teachers are also concerned about growing societal pressure to “affirm” whatever identity a child declares.

“The thought of having to put a box of kitty litter in the bathroom so that a child that wants to say that they’re an animal can go to the bathroom, those types of things are scary and are happening all over the country,” Sallee said. “And we talk about it and we laugh about it, but it’s a real thing in a lot of places.”

While she noted that problem does not appear widespread in Oklahoma at this point, Sallee said many of her fellow teachers have said they will leave the teaching profession if forced to affirm beliefs they believe are morally wrong and have nothing to do with true education.

“They don’t want any part of it,” Sallee said. “They’re going to leave and go to a private school or a Christian school or teach from a computer.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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