At 35 years old, Oklahoma’s newly appointed Secretary of Education is not only the youngest ever to hold that position in Oklahoma, but Ryan Walters is also the only Secretary of Education in Oklahoma to continue to teach.
“I absolutely love teaching, being around young people: the hope, the excitement, the energy that comes from it," Walters said.
Walters told News On 6's Tess Maune his goal as a top advisor to the governor is to make a difference for students across the state, the same ambition he’s had for years as a high school teacher.
"There's no reason why Oklahoma can't be the state that leads the country in education. There's no reason it can't be us. It should be us," Walters said.
Walters started his teaching career at his alma mater, McAlester High School, in 2011 as a special education teacher and eventually started teaching advanced placement history courses.
“To me the world really came open through history. I understood it. It resonated with me,” he said.
His interest in becoming an educator was sparked at just age 14. He credits teachers, like Tim Collier, who still teaches at MHS, for influencing his career path.
"He was always pushing the boundaries, always looking for a way to do things differently, a way to do things better," Collier remembered. "I see him having matured into the person he started being as a junior in my class."
Collier said Walters has a teaching style that is both traditional and innovative. He engages and connects in class, making him a hit with students.
“His discussions are great, I love his discussions," said McAlester High School junior Rachel Rentie.
Just a few years after joining the MHS teaching staff, Walters was named McAlester's Teacher of the Year and earned a spot as a state Teacher of the Year Finalist.
"That kind of got me a little bit more interested in the broader conversations going on around the state in education. So, I worked with Superintendent Hofmeister on her teacher advisory council and I had written some op-eds about education in the state of Oklahoma," said Walters.
That’s when Walters became outspoken about education reform. He pushed to get more students access to AP classes and looked for ways to get teachers more money, while keeping them in the classroom.
“Teachers do a really great job, then everybody wants you to become a principal. Thank goodness we have great principals, but if I've got a great teacher that's absolutely making a difference in the classroom every day, I don't want to take that teacher out of the classroom,” Walters said. “So, I love the approach to try and find ways to keep teachers in the classroom and empower them to be leaders in the schools.”
In 2019, Walters accepted a job with the state chamber to run Oklahoma Achieves, a nonprofit organization focused on education innovation.
“They were championing legislation to help a teacher career ladder so teachers could make more money and stay in the classroom,” said Walters.
He only accepted the job under one condition.
“I did ask that if I took it that I would be able to teach in some capacity and luckily they agreed. So, I've been able to still teach students ever since at some capacity,” Walters said.
One year later, Governor Kevin Stitt appointed Walters as the state's youngest ever Secretary of Education.
"There's opportunity here to help students all across the state, to help all 700,000 students and that's really the reason why I decided to do this," said Walters.
Walters said to make a difference in Oklahoma’s education system, policymakers must ask questions about funding, course access, choice inside the school system as well as how the state can ensure quality professional development and training.
“I think that we have to look at everything that we're doing, and we have to be willing to take bold action to improve our education system dramatically. I think we've got to do more to empower our best teachers. We've got to do more to make sure that our school leaders have the ability, the capacity, the barriers broken down to be innovative at their schools, to do what they can for their teachers, for their students,” Walters said.
While he’s focusing on education reform, he’s also staying on top of his work in the classroom.
"Teaching is not a job, teaching is a calling and Ryan is called to be a teacher," said McAlester Public Schools Superintendent Randy Hughes.
Walters now teaches two AP U.S. History courses: one at Millwood High in Oklahoma City and another in McAlester.
“I personally feel honored as a student to be educated by someone that has a position as such. It makes me feel, like, noticed in a way,” Rentie said.
Actively working in the classroom gives Walters a unique perspective as a top education advisor to the governor. He has the ability to use the lessons he learns from his students and as a public school teacher to help improve Oklahoma's education system.
"That's where my heart is," said Walters. "That's why I'm doing this. I want to make sure I'm doing what's best for kids."
In the hall of his alma mater, students pass by a sign every day that reads: “Making a Difference. Leaving a Legacy.”
Hughes said Walters is a shining example of that motto.
“That's what we tell our kids, the world is at your disposal,” Hughes said. “It's what you make of yourself and what you can do and he's just showing everybody here that this is possible.”