Oklahoma Superintendent of Schools Joy Hofmeister, left, hands the 2017 “Teacher of the Year” award to Durant High School science teacher John Hazell. Courtesy Oklahoma State Department of Education.

As Oklahoma’s most recent teacher of the year embarks on his year out of the classroom, he looks forward to resuming his teaching career sometime in 2018.

But there are other options available to him.

Despite garnering the honor nearly a year ago, Durant High School science teacher Jon Hazell technically began his tenure as Oklahoma’s leading teacher ambassador on July 1.

Since then he has been traveling across the state, mostly focusing on motivating teachers as they prepared for the school year.

Still, at 57 years old, Hazell said he aims to return to his classroom when his year is up.

“I really don’t want to go anywhere but back to my classroom,” he told The Frontier. “I’m really involved locally, I try to do things for the kids and in the community. I see myself going back there.”

But there’s a caveat.

“You never say never, you never want to close any doors,” Hazell said. “A couple people have approached me about running for office. I’ve been around enough and I know enough to make a difference.”

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Maybe we need to start highlighting the great things we’re doing despite the low pay, and that will make people listen.” – John Hazell[/perfectpullquote]

For some prior winners, the teacher of the year honor has served as a launching pad to a different career. Ten of the last 18 winners eventually left their classroom, some immediately after winning the award.

The 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 award winners left for more lucrative positions in curriculum or teacher development. Prior to his death earlier this year, the 2010 award winner Brian Grimm — then an English teacher at Tulsa’s Will Rogers High School — left to join an education publisher called Pearson North America.

The 2014 winner Peter Markes, an orchestra teacher at Edmond North High School, announced earlier this year he had retired to create a music education program and focus on his band.

Shawn Sheehan, a Norman algebra teacher, won the award in 2016 but left the state for a higher-paying teaching job in Texas. He penned a blog post before leaving the state in which he lamented the low pay for teachers in Oklahoma, as well as the struggles and failures of those trying to make a change.

“I poured my heart and soul into my teaching at Norman High School,” he wrote. “I represented our state at the highest level. I tried to help find funding sources via SQ 779. I ran for state senate. I started a non-profit focused on teacher recruitment and retention that has spread nationwide. I’ve done everything I know how to do to try and make things better.”

‘Maybe we’re going about it the wrong way’
For some, the appeal of a more lucrative career outside the classroom can be too much to turn down.

Teacher morale statewide is perhaps at an all-time low — low pay, coupled with the failure of a state question that would have funded a teacher raise and the failure once again by the Legislature to increase funding have plunged educators into a morass.

So Hazell said his focus this school year will be on not just educating teachers, but primarily motivating them.

At 57 years old and with more than 30 years of teaching experience, he could be forgiven if time had sapped some of his energy.

It hasn’t. And that’s the mindset he wants to use to energize teachers who’ve been beaten down by the system.

Earlier this month, Hazell spent 10 days straight traveling from school to school — at least two schools each day — talking to teachers about how they could stay positive given the current climate in the state.

“It’s really hard for me to be negative, so I try to encourage teachers not to focus on the bad stuff because then they won’t enjoy their job,” Hazell said. “I’m not ignoring what our state has done or letting lawmakers off the hook, it’s just that I don’t live in that negativity.”

As teacher of the year, Hazell’s schedule won’t really take off until after the next teacher of the year is named in late September. Previously, teacher of the year winners began to serve almost immediately after winning. Starting with Hazell, teachers now remain in their classroom for a year and begin as teacher of the year the following fall.

So he’s been busy, but not “busy-busy” he said.

“It’s been a whirlwind,” he said. “But it’s probably nothing compared to what’s coming.”

To book Hazell, a request form must be filled out with the State Department of Education, which then submits the request to Hazell, who either approves or denies it.

“So you really never know what’s coming to an extent,” he said. “Every morning I wake up and look at my emails to kind of see what’s coming up. But you really don’t know what’s coming.

“Really most of what I do is just encouraging people,” he said. “I think it helps these young teachers to see a 57-year-old man who has done it for a long time stand up and talk about loving the job, and loving the kids. I think they see that in me.”

But while he tells teachers not to focus on the frustrations caused by their low pay, Hazell said he has to be real with them, and himself, that the situation is dire and is not getting better.

So, he said, maybe the problem needs to be approached in a different way.

“I get accused of being out of touch, you know, or not really knowing what’s going on, but really it’s because I just don’t focus on the negatives, I don’t get beat down by it,” he said. “But I know teachers are upset.”

He recounted a story of several years back when he took over the student council at Durant High School. Morale at the school was low, he said, and it was affecting the community.

“The kids there were so good, but people just had to see it for themselves,” he said. “So we took them out and started doing events and things in the community, doing charitable work. The community picked up on it and suddenly they’re throwing money at us to help with projects and things.”

What does this have to do with teacher pay? He’s glad you asked.

“Maybe we’re going about this the wrong way,” he said. “When we’re just negative about it all the time, maybe people who already agree that teachers need to be paid more just tune it out. They’re like ‘I’m over this.’ Maybe we need to start highlighting the great things we’re doing despite the low pay, and that will make people listen.”