Note: this post is a transcribed conversation I had recently with my friend and Oklahoma City public school teacher Cathy Hempel. I thank you Cathy. Read below or you can listen to the podcast on iTunes, IHeartRadio, Spotify, or Spreaker.
Debbie DiPietro: Welcome to Courageously Go, where we will venture into places we’ve been afraid to go. Women of the world, we are going to start a movement, a movement towards courage.
Hello everybody. I am Debbie DiPietro, your host of Courageously Go. For many years, I had challenges with anxiety, and social anxiety, and just feeling low self confidence in myself. Now, at this time in my life, I feel kind of inspired to push myself a little bit. I have this podcast, and realized that it’s really about courage. I truly believe that when we live from our hearts, by choosing courage, the life of our dreams, and a better world for all are truly possible. No matter our age or circumstances, we never need to feel stuck or alone. So each week, we’ll have an interesting guest, and we’re just going to have a conversation, and talk about living our most confident and joyful life by choosing courage.
I’m really excited, everyone out there who’s tuning in this week. I’m introducing Cathy Hempel, who just happens to be one of my oldest and dearest friends in all the world. Cathy is a mother of four, grandmother of the most beautiful little girl in the entire universe. She later in life decided to go back to school. I know this because I’m her friend, and she worked so hard to get her teaching degree and become a school teacher. She had always dreamed of being a mom and a teacher, but it took until her last child began school, and then she went back to school to become a teacher. When that child graduated from high school, she got her teaching degree, and now she’s a special education teacher in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
As many of you out there know, there’s actually a lot going on right now in public education. I was a schoolteacher myself, and we’ll be talking more about that, but there’s a lot going on. It’s very interesting in a state like Oklahoma, all the activism that is taking place on behalf of teachers.
I thought that before we bring my friend Cathy on here to chat with us here, I found this nice article by Time Magazine. It’s brief, and it won’t take me long to share it with you, but I think it will help us get a little bit of a foundation of what’s going on on this issue in Oklahoma. The title of it is The Oklahoma Teachers’ Strike Has Ended: Here’s What They Got and What They Didn’t. It’s dated April 13th, 2018. The author of the article is Katie Reilly. It goes as follows:
The Oklahoma teacher walkout ended Thursday on its ninth day. Teachers applauded the passage of millions of dollars in new education funding, but they’re also returning to their classrooms without the full raises or classroom funding they demanded.
Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, described the walkout as a victory at a press conference on Thursday, and said teachers had accomplished all they could from the walkout.
“Despite tens of thousands of people filling the Capitol, and spilling out over the grounds for nine days, we have seen no significant legislative movement since last Friday,” Priest said in a statement Thursday. “We recognize that our formal efforts to lobby elected leaders have achieved all that we will be able to accomplish this legislative session.”
After years of stagnant wages, teachers had called for a pay increase of $10,000 over three years, and a raise of $5,000 for support professionals. Before the strike, state lawmakers passed a pay raise of $6,100 on the average for teachers, and $1,250 for school professionals, funded by the first major tax hike in the state in nearly 30 years. Teachers who took to social media to share photos of outdated textbooks and broken classroom furniture had also called for a $200 million increase in education funding, but the state passed an increase of just $50 million.
The Oklahoma walkout became part of a wave of teacher activism in red states that began with a nine day statewide strike in West Virginia in February, and has led to walkouts and protests in Kentucky and Arizona as well.
“As classes resume, we must turn our attention towards the election season,” Priest said in a statement. “We have the opportunity to make our voices heard at the ballot box. The state didn’t find itself in this school funding crisis overnight. We got here by electing the wrong people to office.”
Bolstered by the support they received from parents and community members during the past two weeks, teachers say they have mixed emotions about seeing the walkout come to an end, and they’re not done fighting for education funding in other ways.
“Just because the Capitol’s not filled with 30,000 teachers does not mean this fight is over,” said Cindy Gaete, who she cried when she saw thousands of protestors at the state Capitol in Oklahoma City on Tuesday after she marched more than 100 miles from Tulsa in protest.
Gaete, a second grade teacher at Marshall Elementary School in Tulsa, said she still worries that students in her state are falling behind their peers around the country after a decade of steep cuts to Oklahoma’s education budget.
“What we’re asking for is revenue streams that will be sustainable from this point forward, so that this walkout doesn’t have to happen again in the coming years,” she said. “I see the energy that teachers have, and the desire to refocus that energy so the focus will actually be on elections, and getting true, pro-education advocates into our government body.”
When she’s back in class with her students next week, she plans to talk to them about what she saw at the state Capitol. “This is the best social studies class I could ever have.”
Debbie DiPietro: Cathy Hempel, welcome to Courageously Go.
Cathy Hempel: Thank you so much for having me on here, Debbie.
Debbie DiPietro: Well, thank you, and thank you for stepping in in a pinch. We had another guest previously aligned who had to reschedule, and I really appreciate your … I contact you late last night, and here you are, so thank you for joining at such last minute.
Debbie DiPietro: So, as I’m reading this article from this Time Magazine, does that pretty much state … because you’re there. You’re there in Oklahoma City. You’re one of the teachers. Tell us about it from where you’re at.
Cathy Hempel: Well, I was, of course, at the walkout every day of it, the two weeks. I was able to get into the building, the Capitol. There were very long lines, but I was able to get into the Capitol a couple of times, and be able to talk to some of the legislators, and hear the things that were happening inside there. So the article, it’s spot on. It’s just very frustrating, waiting to see what exactly will happen with the teacher raises, and the funding for education, because we don’t know yet. It’s still kind of up in the air.
Debbie DiPietro: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You guys have a slogan right now: Remember in September. What does that mean to you, Remember in September?
Cathy Hempel: Well, it’s November. I’m sorry, I-
Debbie DiPietro: Okay, November. Remember in November.
Cathy Hempel: No, no, no. Yeah. I was talking at the same time when I did that. Yeah, we have a lot of teachers that are running for legislative office in November. June is a very important time up here too, for voting. We just need to have people in there who have an educational … that value education as a priority. Right now, we don’t have that, and there are a lot of these representatives, people in legislative body that are running unopposed, so we really have to get on top of talking to them about just how important it is to be able to fund education, not for just teacher raises, things like that. To deal with what the students … to see what they’re dealing with in the classroom, just the students alone, is horrific right now.
Debbie DiPietro: Maybe you could paint a picture for our listeners out there, because you’re in the classroom. You’re definitely there in the trenches. Maybe you could share some stories or experiences of what you’re dealing with there in your classroom, and for your students. What are some things that you guys … Yeah.
Cathy Hempel: Yeah. Well, right now, because there’s a teacher shortage too, the district that I work in … I work in a very large district in Oklahoma, and there are numerous teachers needed in our district alone. Right now, we have 35+ students per class. If you take a class of fifth graders, that’s a lot of bodies in a standard size classroom. They’re 12 years old. Even in a second grade classroom. They’re very active.
Cathy Hempel: We have great teachers in the district that I work in. Great. But any human being is going to have some issues with management when they have such large classrooms, or being able to work on lessons with some one-on-one assistance, putting those students into small groups while also managing the larger body of the classroom that isn’t in the small group at that time. There’s a shortage of special ed … Excuse me. I’m special ed. That’s another story. There’s a shortage of, what are they? Substitute teachers, which are awesome, but when there are no subs, the teachers have to take on extra students for that missing teacher, or teams of two to three teachers will [inaudible 00:11:25] classes, and then have an additional 10 students in that classroom, 10 to 12 students, making their classroom sizes ridiculously high.
Cathy Hempel: I don’t know, talking about materials, things like that, are old textbooks in the classroom. Textbooks are not just old and tattered, but old information. Some of the textbooks don’t even talk about the past previous president in our history classes. There are no current events in these books. There’s a lack of supplies in the classroom. Teachers have to purchase those, which we do. I teach special ed, so I buy all of my classroom supplies, because I don’t get the benefit of possibly sending home notes with parents, “Can you help us out with this?” The district that I work in, Title I district, I work in a very high poverty area. My school’s in a very high poverty area, so pretty much, I think about a third of our parents can afford the classroom supplies that are needed, so we do provide all of those for our students.
Debbie DiPietro: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Just to clarify, when you say you’re buying supplies for your students, is that out of your own pocket?
Cathy Hempel: Yes. Yeah. We pay for it with our own money, our own personal money. Money that I’m also buying supplies for my own children, things like that. But we have to do that. Students can’t be successful without the resources that they need in the classroom.
Debbie DiPietro: Right. Right. In your school, you’re a special education teacher. Do you have your own classroom? Do kids come to you, or are you kind of assigned with a general and inclusive classroom with a general ed teacher? How is that working at your school?
Cathy Hempel: My position is non-inclusive right now. I have done some inclusion time with students. Right now, I have my own lab classroom. I teach grades first through fourth. They come to my classroom for math and reading. That’s what they’re in there for. It’s not just reading. We might work on … Because there is a lack of some finance in social studies in some of the classrooms, for time anyway, I might do a science lesson, but we read all about it. That way I’m incorporating some hands-on things for the students, to help with a more rigorous lesson.
Debbie DiPietro: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Okay. Okay. Are you feeling supported by administration, your parents? You feeling like you have the support you need, at least right there in your building, if you’re able to talk about it?
Cathy Hempel: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I have the support of the administration. I do. We have a wonderful administration, and we do have some wonderful, wonderful parents who do provide some support, whether it is buying supplies. We have a PTA. The past couple of years we’ve had a great, great PTA, and they’ve also provided things like we had a family literacy night, where our particular team, special ed, we read stories. Had a campfire theme. That was a lot of fun for the students.
Cathy Hempel: But yes, we do see a lot of support, a lot of support, especially during the walkout, from our administration and our parents. It was wonderful.
Debbie DiPietro: Okay, well good enough. While we have you here, and we have a large audience out there, while I’m thinking of this, let’s do this. Okay. Let’s start off with local people there who can vote. How do they register? Where could they go? Is there a website? Let’s make use of this platform. This is a wonderful medium, radio. How can they get registered so they can help you teachers out in the fall?
Cathy Hempel: They can call to find out where they would be voting, where their precinct would be. You can register to vote. All they have to do is look it up online. I’m sorry, I do not have the address right here with me, but that’s what I had my daughter do.
Cathy Hempel: You can vote … I’m already registered to vote, of course, but they had a booth out at the walkout, so that was very nice. We had a numerous amount of people that I had no idea, they weren’t even registered to vote. This kind of changed their minds, I guess. But I am registered, and I do vote. Really, if you can hit the Internet, because right now, I’m sorry, I don’t have a specific number or anything, but find out where your precinct is, and register to vote.
Cathy Hempel: Right now, let’s see, they’ll be voting in June, June 26th, and then we’ll be voting in November for governor. Research the governors. There are a lot of great candidates out there, but there are a few candidates who are in top running right now that do not have education as a priority.
Debbie DiPietro: All right. Well, everyone, you’ve heard that, so get involved, and get out and vote. Obviously, this is an issue in Oklahoma, but really, it’s a nationwide issue, isn’t it?
Cathy Hempel: It is. Our teachers, our teacher candidates from college are moving to other states. We have teachers that have been here for 20, 25 years, 15 years, that are moving to other states. There’s going to be a huge shortage here. We really need to find some people in the local government body who have education as a priority, or it’s just going to be a continuous cycle. They haven’t seen a raise in almost 12 years, teachers, or education funding.
Debbie DiPietro: Well, I still have you for a few minutes. Let’s talk about how you’re doing. Now, is this your summer, Cathy? Are you guys out for a while? Are you on summer break right now?
Cathy Hempel: Yes. I’m actually in a year-round school district. We have long breaks in fall and spring, but we are out for six weeks in the summer, maybe seven weeks. Excuse me. I go back July 25th, I believe, and the students go back August 1st.
Cathy Hempel: Summer, I do a lot of planning for my following year, so I’ve constantly got that on my mind.
Debbie DiPietro: You’re always working. Are you letting yourself get a little bit of a break? You got a little R and R planned for yourself for these few precious weeks?
Cathy Hempel: Yeah. Yeah.
Debbie DiPietro: Yes? I hope.
Cathy Hempel: I like to do some crafts, so I’ve been doing a lot of crafts, and [inaudible 00:18:54], taking care of my little granddaughter, so I am taking a little bit of a breather.
Debbie DiPietro: Oh, I’m glad to hear that, my friend. I’m glad to hear that. As you know, I was a teacher here in Jacksonville, Florida. For seven years I was in the classroom at the elementary level. Taught fifth grade for three years, and second grade for four, so I know, even without … It’s a challenging job anyway, when things are going well, right? It is. So how are you holding up? How are your spirits? How are you physically and emotionally? How are you doing on the job, and how are you doing?
Cathy Hempel: I’m okay. Because of these budget cuts, things that we’ve had going on in my classroom, my humidity’s very high, as are several of the classrooms, but we just need some help with that. When we get some funding, we can fix those things. Other than that, my spirits are great. I love what I do. I love working with the students. They brighten my day when they walk in.
Cathy Hempel: I really just love what I do. I’ve known I’ve wanted to do this since I was in the fourth grade. When I used to go outside on recess, instead of playing with the kids on recess, I would help the teacher who was in the multi-disability room with all her students. So I’ve known for many years that this is what I wanted to do, and I’m here, and I’m loving it.
Debbie DiPietro: Yay. You’re committed, and I’m glad to hear that.
Cathy Hempel: I am.
Debbie DiPietro: I’m glad. There’s probably a lot of teachers out there that maybe be listening to this show, Cathy, especially it’s June, so they could be listening and not working right now that like myself, I didn’t last. I got burned out because of a lot of different reasons that I won’t go into right now. What would you, because you’re staying in it, you’re passionate about what you do … Lucky kids. Lucky kids there in Oklahoma City, that they have you.
Debbie DiPietro: What would you advise to your fellow colleagues out there in the country, wherever they might be, and they’re feeling burned out, and they’re actually, like many, thinking about not just maybe leaving the state of Oklahoma, but leaving the profession altogether, like yours truly here? I did that back in 2013. I left education, even after I spent … As you know, I sacrificed a lot to go back. Kind of like you, I went back to school later in life to become a teacher, but I didn’t stick with it. I didn’t last. How would you recommend teachers who are really burned out, and seriously considering leaving the profession?
Cathy Hempel: Well, what I do on a personal level, I have these students that will come in, and you do have days where you feel like, “Oh, is this really for me? They’re just not understanding,” or, “Maybe this isn’t what I’m supposed to do,” but then, never fails, then I have a student that follows soon after who just gets it, who makes you feel like this is what you’re supposed to be doing. They may even tell you that. I’ve had students tell me, that have moved on to junior high, “I’m going to remember you forever. You’re the one who’s done this for me, and you’re my favorite teacher.” It’s that.
Cathy Hempel: Look past the day that you’re doing today, right now. Look past that. Try to picture where they’ll be in five years, ten years, twenty years, or where you are now. I’m 55. If you can do that, and know just how important you are to them and their future, that’s what helps.
Debbie DiPietro: Wow, well I think that’s a great note to end on, Cathy. Thank you for all you’re doing, and all the teachers out there who are listening or not listening. I know how hard a job it is, and we really appreciate all the hard work you’re doing for our kids. We hope things improve, and we hope the people in our state capitals, and in Washington DC are listening and taking action.
Debbie DiPietro: Cathy, thank you so much for joining us here at Courageously Go. I just wish you a good few weeks of your summer here, and just take care, and be well, and keep up all the good work you’re doing, okay?
Cathy Hempel: Thank you so much, Debbie, for having me on here. Thank you.
Debbie DiPietro: Thank you. The pleasure’s all mine.
Debbie DiPietro: All right, well, everyone out there, thanks for joining us this week. So ladies, until next time, remember this: it’s our time to shine. Let’s make it so, and courageously go!