Three days teaching in a third-grade classroom left Deborah Gist with the emotional mixture of concern, passion and “maybe even some anger.”
“This is nobody’s fault,” Gist said of the state’s teacher shortage. “It’s up to us.”
The Tulsa Public Schools superintendent’s work at Marshall Elementary was a stopgap as she and more than three dozen TPS administrators pitched in to fill teaching vacancies. A mixture of pending paperwork and vacant positions forced the district to make sure certified staff were in the classroom for the first day of school. This was the second year in a row district administrators staffed classrooms.
It was something Gist wanted to do.
“I knew that it would be a big learning experience for me. I underestimated that,” Gist said.
Fellow administrators had been teaching as needed and Gist wanted to show teachers that she cared.
“I think it’s important to demonstrate to them where my priorities are,” she said of stepping into the role herself.
Gist received a fresh reminder of the demands on teachers — a profession she left about two decades ago. Now in charge of the second-largest school district in Oklahoma, she says her hours teaching inspired new ideas on how best to help the district’s new teachers succeed. But she also expressed some renewed frustration at the financial constraints faced by the district and the more than 2,800 teachers it employs.
“When I came back on Monday, I said ‘I used to be really good at this,’ ” Gist said.
The difficulty a third-grader can have with a task — like naming a food with the same first letter of their first name — reinforced how the simplest of activities can force a teacher to scramble. In that instance, she had to find another way for students to introduce themselves to one another.
Having been away from the classroom for nearly 20 years made the experience almost like doing it for the first time all over again, Gist said.
“It was new enough for me to have a lot of empathy for new teachers,” she said.
The district’s 446 new teachers were on her mind as she planned the day and got her classroom ready.
“I thought about all the supports that we offer to new teachers, and I felt encouraged,” said Gist. “At the same time, I thought about some things that we need to do ... like how overwhelming it can be, as a brand-new teacher, to plan your first couple of weeks.”
The district is planning to support new teachers with the help of 13 “master teacher” full-time mentors giving guidance on how to teach certain subjects such as reading.
“My experience just demonstrated why that’s going to be so important, and I’m really glad that we’re doing it,” Gist said.
Gist was reluctant to talk last week about her pending teaching assignment and didn’t relish the media attention it received. TPS declined to let the World photograph her in the classroom, and the district took no pictures.
She was aware that some would call it a publicity stunt.
“It doesn’t bother me,” she said. “If it got attention that helped to emphasize that we have a teacher shortage in our state, while that wasn’t my primary goal, that’s not a bad thing.”
The superintendent had wanted to teach for a while, and the district’s teaching situation, as well as her increased familiarity with its operations, allowed her to be among those administrators in the classroom.
The opportunity for Gist to teach likely wouldn’t have presented itself if not for the state’s teaching shortage. Hours before Gist sat down with the World on Thursday, the Oklahoma State Board of Education voted to approve 574 emergency teaching certificates for 2017-18, sending the year-to-date total to 1,429.
TPS has 197 emergency-certified teachers for this coming school year.
Low pay, morale and continued funding cuts to education have sent many Oklahoma teachers outside the state, seeking a better wage.
The obvious solution, Gist said, is a statewide teacher pay raise. However, multiple bills that sought to accomplish that never reached the governor’s desk this past legislative session.
“You have to think, while we continue to advocate for higher investments at the state level, what are the other options? What might we be able to do differently? Is there a third way that we haven’t figured out ... a local way,” Gist said.
Gist’s thoughts lingered Thursday on the prowess required to teach.
She now understands, she said, why people don’t immediately recognize the demands of the job because “when it’s done well, it looks really easy.”
Her passion for what she does, and to advocate for teachers — the best job in the world, she says — has been enhanced by her recent classroom experience, she said. But so has her concern for the state’s education climate.
“I’m feeling more passionate, concerned, maybe even some anger, about what we’re doing right now to our teachers for sure, but ultimately, it’s about what we’re doing to our kids and therefore what we’re doing to our community by not addressing the situation.”