Teacher leadership program empowers Oklahoma educators 

Shawn Sheehan is a graduate of the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s OKMath/OkSci Leadership program. | Photo provided / file
  • Shawn Sheehan is a graduate of the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s OKMath/OkSci Leadership program. | Photo provided / file

In August, when Jones Elementary School students are busy on a constellations activity or working through a science lab assignment, teacher Lisa Pitts plans to snap a photo.

The veteran educator will upload the snapshot to Twitter with a simple 140-character message explaining the activity. Before posting it to social media, Pitts will tag her school’s state legislators and add a #repinclass hashtag.

Pitts anticipates the simple action will encourage direct communication with lawmakers, launching an opportunity to field questions and give decision makers a glimpse into an eastern Oklahoma County classroom.

As a member of the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s OKMath/OKSci Leadership Program’s third class, her keystone project received nods and applause from a crowd of 50 educators when presented last week in Oklahoma City. As part of the program, each member chose a keystone project aimed at solving a problem faced by Oklahoma educators, like the disconnect among teachers and policymakers.

“We are creating a network of people who can change education in this state,” said Levi Patrick, who serves as a facilitator for the leadership program. He also is the state’s director of secondary mathematics. “They are creating the change they want to see.”

Success story

This spring, as Oklahoma Teacher of the Year, Shawn Sheehan underwent intense interviews in Washington, D.C., as a finalist for the 2016 National Teacher of the Year award. The Norman High School educator eagerly shared his keystone project, Teach Like Me.

Just three years ago, Sheehan was one of 31 teachers in the inaugural OKMath/OKSci class. As a special education and math teacher, Sheehan applied for the program and hoped to grow his math curriculum skills.

“I came to find it wasn’t what I was expecting,” Sheehan said. “We weren’t just going to talk about math and science; we were talking about solutions for our state.”

In 2014, Oklahoma superintendents reported teachers retiring early. Additionally, teachers handed in resignation letters as they left for higher-paying jobs in fields outside of education. The primary problem wasn’t recruiting new teachers; it was retention mixed with low morale, Sheehan explained.

“I had overheard a colleague discourage a child from becoming a teacher,” he recalled. “She told the kid, ‘Don’t do this job. The pay is low and you are smart enough to do something else.’ It was super insulting to all the veteran teachers.”

Sheehan easily found others who were passionate about their careers and the role they play in helping students. He began recording their messages and uploading them to a Facebook page called Teach Like Me.

“If you teach third grade, own it and be proud,” Sheehan said. “What non-educators are saying about this profession is what they see on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. If all they see is 10 reasons why teachers burn out in three years or reasons why teachers should go to Texas, are we surprised we are in the situation we are in?”

Teach Like Me grew from a Facebook page and activity within Norman Public Schools to a full-blown movement. Now, videos showcase the nation’s top teachers taking about their time in the classroom.

“This program, OKMath/OKSci Leadership, is what set me on a trajectory for finalist for top teacher of the year,” Sheehan said. “This is the way we change education. This year, I’ve met the best educators in the country. Oklahoma’s teachers are on par with them. Actually, I bet some of those teachers would have a tough time making it in this state with the challenges and barriers we face.”

In August, many Oklahoma teachers will return to their schools to find increased class sizes, few dollars allocated to classrooms, no new textbooks and staffing cuts, such as fine arts teachers, classroom aids and administrators. Regardless, they are focused on their lesson plans to ensure student learning needs are met.

Continued dialogue

Earlier this month, 37 members of the most recent OKMath/OKSci leadership class graduated. The members gathered for eight days over the last school year, and the connections made bred collaboration and networking throughout the year.

Patrick expects members to continue to reach out to one another.

“[Keystone projects] are a key part of the program,” he said. “What we also see coming from this is a network of teachers working on education solutions in our state. They extend the conversation to others when they return to their districts.”

Megan Cannon, a sixth- and seventh-grade Sapulpa Public Schools STEM teacher, sought out the program to develop her leadership skills. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

Cannon, who recently completed her fifth year of classroom teaching, sees herself picking up a leadership role in the science curriculum department come August.

“This program, if it was sustainable and offered year after year, would change the face of education in Oklahoma and the country,” Cannon said. “Shawn Sheehan is a product of this leadership program. That is proof right there of what this program can do. … I can help lead other teachers and discover other leaders in my district. There is a confidence I gained through this program, and I feel like a rock star.”

Print Headline: Teaching solutions, A leadership program transforms educators to see beyond their classrooms.

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