Heartbroken, Oklahoma Teacher Finds 'So Much More' Somewhere Else
SPRINGDALE, Arkansas - For a state that ranks 49th in the nation in per-pupil spending, more than 1,000 classroom teacher vacancies and hundreds of emergency certificates issued just to get an adult in the classroom and canceled courses is just part of the price we pay.
It’s because of that price, that one teacher said he finally gave up on his home state and found his dream job, just across the Oklahoma border, in Arkansas.
Jason McMullen said it broke his heart to leave Oklahoma, but said staying was breaking his bank account and his family's future.
Growing up in Indianola, in Pittsburg County, McMullen wanted to be a meteorologist - our Jim Giles was an inspiration.
But since there was only one Jim Giles, he decided his job prospects were pretty slim, so he took the advice of a high school math teacher and became a teacher.
“Out of our class, about six to eight of us became teachers,” he said.
Coming out of college in Durant, his first job was in Carnegie. After a year, he moved to Stigler - all the while, picking up extra money driving a school bus, coaching a team, sponsoring a club and working part-time at Walmart.
“And I would only end up, after paying bills, with about $100 to $150 to live off of for a month,” McMullen said.
Some friends who'd made the move convinced him that Texas was the “Promised Land” for teachers. He reluctantly left his family and headed for Dallas-Fort Worth, and teaching jobs in Grapevine, Terrell and Garland.
Even with the job openings, he hated to turn his back on his home state.
McMullen said, “But I was still able to have a place to live, pay all my bills and have enough money to live off of.”
Still, with a failed marriage behind him in Texas, and the election of Brad Henry as Governor, McMullen figured the time was right - personally and professionally - to come back home.
He spent three good years in Norman and five more in Sulphur before Janet Barresi was elected as state superintendent; that’s when he’d had enough.
“It just became this negative environment that you'd just look at the newspaper, look at the news, you're like, ‘what bad news are we gonna hear now,’” he said.
Newly re-married to a teacher who grew up in northwest Arkansas, he and Jessica decided to head that way; and one more time, McMullen made the tough decision to give up on the place he loves.
“What am I gonna do? The situation in Oklahoma doesn't seem like it's ever gonna get better; and for me, it comes down to my family. I've got to provide for my family, what I've got to do,” he said.
Turns out, just twenty miles from the Oklahoma line, in the boomtown of Springdale, McMullen said he has found the place he's always been looking for, but could never quite find in the Sooner State.
“You start looking at the growth, you start looking at the teacher's salaries, you start looking at the benefits, you start looking at the way the community supports them and you start going, ‘Wow, this is the kind of environment you dream of as a teacher,’” he said.
The imposing Har-Ber High School, where he teaches math to students who are struggling with English, speaks of that community's support for education he's experiencing now.
The accolades that come with being Arkansas' highest-paying school district proudly hang in Har-Ber's soaring atrium.
Three-years-in, McMullen is making $16,000 more than his last job in Sulphur; but said it goes beyond a paycheck, to the way he's treated as a professional.
He said, “If there's a challenge that comes up, I know that somebody has my back, that somebody is going to help me do the best that I can; because we're all in it for the same reason, and that is student success.”
Today, he can work at the basketball tournament because he loves basketball, not because he needs the extra stipend money in his paycheck.
With 17 years in the classroom under his belt now, McMullen looks back across the state line, to teachers gathering outside the capital every year, hearing promises every year and returning home in frustration every year.
He said he has great respect for them, for sticking it out; something he finally couldn't do.
“I want how I feel in Springdale to be how teachers feel all across Oklahoma - Tulsa, Oklahoma City, all across the state,” he said.
But with Oklahoma scraping the national bottom in teacher pay and education outcomes, McMullen suspects his hopes won't come to pass anytime soon; which makes it easier to live with his choices.
“I did not see the change coming, I did not see things getting better anytime soon, and just finally had to make the decision to leave, and it's tough, it really is,” he said.
What did Oklahoma lose when it lost Jason McMullen and the thousands of others who've given up, moved on? It's always hard to measure 'what might have been,' but he thinks he has an answer.
“It lost somebody that wanted to make a difference in the lives of the kids of Oklahoma,” he said.
If you'd like to ask your state legislators why they're content with being the nation's bottom feeder in public education, you can contact them here.