Standing at a podium in the high school cafeteria where she said she spent “more than a couple hours of detention,” U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren told a politically motivated crowd of Oklahoma teachers today that “we are fighting to change a system of shoestring budgets and insulting teacher salaries.”
“We’re going to fight, and we’re going to win,” Warren said to a chorus of jubilant hoots and hollers during an American Federation of Teachers rally at Northwest Classen High School. “I’m here today because I believe in teachers. I really do. Teachers hold a very special place in my heart. I grew up in a family that didn’t have much, and school was my happy place.”
Warren (D-Massachusetts) took to the podium about 3:30 p.m. and discussed her life story, which began in Norman, led her to high school in Oklahoma City and a life of law practice and public service in other states around the country.
After a series of comments from other speakers, Warren discussed the importance of her second grade teacher and classroom at Wilson Elementary School in Norman.
“It was Ms. Lee that made that a very special place. I did my best for Ms. Lee. I just wanted to be there for her,” Warren said. “She said if I worked very hard, I could become a teacher. And the hook was sunk. She had me: a teacher. Her words changed my life. Now, no one in my family had ever graduated college. (…) But when Ms. Lee said, ‘Yes, Ms. Betsy, you can become a teacher,’ I never saw my life the same way.”
Warren: ‘Teachers are getting ground up and spit out’
Warren was born in 1949 and graduated from Northwest Classen High School where she starred on the debate team. Now an attorney, Warren was elected to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts in 2012.
“I think it is fabulous she is here to support all these educators and [American Federation of Teachers],” said former statewide Democratic candidate and current vice mayor of The Village Cathy Cummings. “I think she realizes how dire education is in Oklahoma.”
On April 2, teachers from across Oklahoma left their classrooms and rallied at the State Capitol for what Senate District 40 candidate Carri Hicks told the crowd was more than just pay increases and other funding hikes.
“What we really asked for was respect,” said Hicks, a Democrat. “Respect for the profession of teaching. Respect for our students we so desperately need. Respect that in this day and age we go to school every day willing to take a bullet for your child. And that is why I am running for State Senate because not just every teacher deserves respect. Every mother, every child, every family deserves to be treated fairly and not get left behind.”
Warren spoke of her own experience as a teacher, which she said was her first job out of college.
“My daddy ended up as a maintenance man,” Warren said. “But me, I had the chance to become a public school teacher, a professor and a U.S. senator because America invested in people like me and my teacher, Ms. Lee. I am grateful to that America. Grateful all the way down to my toes. I believe in that America. But we’ve got to be honest with each other — that America is slipping away. Right here, right now in the richest country on earth, teachers are getting ground up and spit out.”
From the crowd, multiple people responded vocally.
“Yes we are,” two women shouted.
Education: ‘The single most important issue on the Oklahoma ballot’
Cummings stood at the front of Saturday’s crowd in the school cafeteria and was surrounded by current and retired educators wearing T-shirts for the Oklahoma City chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. Many held signs stating: “We care. We fight. We show up. We vote.”
Before Warren spoke, Cummings analyzed the packed room.
“You can see by the crowd why this is so important,” she said. “From the teacher walkout, education is the single most important issue on the Oklahoma ballot in November.”
Indeed, educators have already helped oust eight legislators who voted against funding the average $6,100 teacher pay plan approved by the Legislature in late March ahead of the planned teacher walkout. Several others who opposed the funding package chose not to run for re-election in 2018.
“After 10 long years, Oklahoma teachers finally got a long-overdue raise,” Warren said Saturday. “Not enough. Not enough, I know. But take a deep breath to notice that it is change, it is real change, and you made it happen. You fought back, you won, and here’s the best part: You are just getting started. So after you staged the largest teacher strike Oklahoma has seen in over a decade, you didn’t just stop. You didn’t just go home. You didn’t just go get a pedicure. You didn’t just do those things. You got right back in the fight.”
Those who addressed the crowd before Warren emphasized how the “fight” continues at the ballot box.
“Our classrooms are still grossly underfunded,” said AFT-Oklahoma President Mary Best, who reminded the crowd of her organization’s slogan following the April teacher walkout. “We must all get out and vote Nov. 6. We must remember in November.”
“As Mary said, as those incumbents who refused to vote for education, they’re gone. Those incumbents who would tell teachers one thing and stand on the floor and [vote] another. Bye,” Dollens said. “Your courage, will and persistence defeated the anti-tax Coburn group. That’s saying something.
“Keep walking, keep talking, keep knocking, baby.”
Warren offered similar encouragement.
“I come to you with a heart-full of hope. And here’s what gets me out of bed smiling every single morning: People are no longer silent. Across this country, teachers and libraries and school nurses and principals and custodians are speaking out, rising up and fighting back,” Warren said. “November is coming, and Oklahoma’s teachers, America’s teachers, are ready to fight for the future of our children.”