By Amanda Litvinov / photo by Serge Melki
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Telannia Norfar is a problem solver, in more ways than one.
She is quite literally a problem solver, as a math teacher at Northwest Classen High School in Oklahoma City, but also in the figurative sense: It is in her nature to identify problems and set about finding a solution.
As a young professional, Norfar first worked in print media. But she didn’t see herself staying in the publishing field long-term. A long-time friend encouraged her to consider teaching. That’s when she first learned the state was facing a teacher shortage and that there was a real need for more minority educators. Norfar set out to become a teacher, and was in the classroom by 2005.
“What a shock, entering the teaching profession,” Norfar recalls. “The lack of resources, technology, and structure was so different from what I had access to in the corporate world. The computer in my classroom was older than me.”
She was thankful to have textbooks and a whiteboard and classes that usually stay under 30—social studies and English classes sometimes exceed 40 students.
But she still faced an array of problems, and she took them on one by one. She wrote technology grants, emailed colleagues asking them to share and trade classroom essentials, and even used her own money to buy new desks as those in her classroom simply fell apart.
“For so long many local citizens and the press have been able to ignore the crisis of underfunding in our schools, because educators do so much work to make up for what the district isn’t providing,” Norfar said. “But things are changing, awareness is growing.”
Educators and parents have led the effort to help other citizens see how state lawmakers have neglected school funding to finance outrageous tax giveaways for oil and gas companies that have left the state with a $900 million budget hole.
Fight for Funding and the Oklahoma Education Association have put the pressure on state legislators to begin reversing the damage they’ve done, allowing the deepest cuts to education in the nation since 2008.
The groups have shined a spotlight on the severity of the teacher shortage—Oklahoma teacher pay is so low, that many teachers have uprooted their families and gone to work in surrounding states so they can make ends meet.
Telannia Norfar knows teachers who qualify for food stamps and Section 8 housing.
But she is hopeful that the increased attention on conditions in Oklahoma schools–reflected in local news coverage and a new poll that shows voters believe that insufficient education funding is the biggest problem facing the state—will force lawmakers to take action.
A December poll of likely Oklahoma voters shows 92 percent rank the performance of the Oklahoma legislature’s approach to education funding as only fair or poor. In addition, 85 percent believe teacher pay is too low and a majority says raising taxes to increase teacher pay is a necessary step.
Seventy percent of voters said they would support a recently filed initiative petition to increase gross production tax from 2 percent to 7 percent on all oil and gas wells to fund an average $5,000 teacher pay raise.
The poll was conducted by Harstad Strategic Research. The survey results are based on 502 random telephone interviews with likely voters for the 2018 midterm elections.
“Voters understand this legislature has failed miserably in its duty to provide the necessary investments in education to make Oklahoma the state it should be,” said Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest. “What is clear to me is voters understand who is responsible for the education funding crisis and subsequent teacher shortage, and they want better for Oklahoma’s school children.”
Norfar, who was recently awarded the Presidential Award for Science and Mathematics Teaching,
sometimes travels to other states to share with educators some of her innovative math strategies. Visits to relatively well-funded schools always serve as a vivid eye-opener to just how bad conditions have gotten at her own school.
“This is a problem with clear solutions,” Norfar says. “We can’t let our elected officials pretend that they don’t see them.”