Editors note: This is part of an occasional series chronicling one teacher’s experience as Oklahoma educators fight for better funding.
Evenings are special to Anthony Cherry. Once the wife and kids go to sleep, Cherry — an AP history teacher at Booker T. Washington High School — gets to enjoy a little quiet time.
But on Wednesday night, Cherry’s peace was shattered. An outspoken advocate for his fellow public school teachers, Cherry saw updates on some teacher Facebook pages about the surprise Senate vote on Wednesday.
“I was up until 1 a.m. probably,” Cherry said during a recent interview outside the high school where he teaches. “I was really just following along like everyone else, trying to figure out what was going to happen.”
The plan — which Cherry called “half-ass” — ultimately failed when legislators couldn’t pass tax increases necessary to fund the raise. Generally speaking, democrats didn’t think the $5,000 raise was enough, and there are enough adamantly anti-tax increase republicans that the surprise effort was a losing proposition.
“They thought they could do it and placate us, and they did it under the cover of darkness,” Cherry said. “I didn’t like it. We’ve asked for $5,000 for so long and (legislators) never worried about it until they start calling us extortionists and say we’re holding people hostage. I don’t like that kind of rhetoric.”
He said he also didn’t support the Step Up Oklahoma plan, which called for a $5,000 teacher raise. But, Cherry said, had lawmakers come together to pass it, it might have pacified or even satisfied some teachers.
Other plans have been put forward since Wednesday night’s surprise, but all have failed to gain traction among education groups.
Cherry, 40, is passionate about his job. When he told his mother, a businesswoman, that he had chosen education as a career path, she pleaded with him to change his mind. She told him he would struggle. He told her he loved to teach and he would make it work.
He was idealistic then — still is — but he assumed the low pay public school teachers made wouldn’t last forever.
But it has.
“To be honest,” he said, “It will take at least $15,000 to shut me up.”
‘Big picture thinking’
Oklahoma teachers have set a walkout date of April 1. If legislators don’t fund a raise by then, come April 2 (a Monday,) a full-on exodus will happen.
In the meantime, teachers have started a “work the contract” protest, a smaller-scale but still far-reaching demonstration where no work is done outside of the mandated regular school hours.
For Cherry, it hasn’t been easy. He’s involved in several after-school programs, he helps students prepare for AP exams, he coordinates community hours for students trying to earn graduation stoles and he sponsors a group called “Men of Power,” a group of 60-or-so students “committed to academic excellence, community engagement and acting as positive role models to younger students.”
All of those things happen after the final bell, so they had to go.
“It wasn’t easy at all,” Cherry said, noting that he had to cancel a college tour of the University of Central Oklahoma for 20 kids. “That was really hard to do. You’re talking about 20 young men who were going to learn about scholarship opportunities. But the only way to get them there was if they had a certified teacher going with them, so I had to cancel it.
“It’s about big picture thinking. It was hard to do that in the short term, but we’re trying to fight for future generations.”
Cherry said the response from his students has emboldened him. Many of the kids are worried about their grades — some need extra work to get their grades up before the end of the year, while others want help so they can do well in an AP exam or their SATs.
He said he has an “ethical obligation” not to discuss his political views in the classroom, but the students talk about it amongst themselves.
“They’re scared,” Cherry said. “But they’re supportive. They know what teachers are going through, they see the lack of funding at their schools. They know what we’re trying to do. One kid told me ‘Mr. Cherry, closed mouths don’t get fed.’”