Broken school chairs have become the symbol of the Oklahoma teacher walkout

“Last year I had four classes where I didn’t have a chair,” an art student in Oklahoma recently told reporters during a walkout of teachers at the state’s capitol in Oklahoma City. “So I sat on the floor — for a whole year. In some classes, I still do.”

The student’s comment was in reference to the overcrowding and underfunding that’s plaguing the state’s schools, a problem that forces teachers to spend their own money on supplies or make do with what they have. The chairs, to be sure, are far from the only issue. But in the midst of a teacher uprising aimed at reversing the state’s education crisis, the chairs have become the symbol of a broken system that’s too long been ignored.

Photo: Sarah Jane Scarberry
Photo: Sarah Jane Scarberry

It’s a sentiment captured in one Facebook post that went viral on March 28, in which a middle-school art teacher showed the image of a broken chair from her classroom. “Here’s my story and why I’m walking out,” Laurissa Kovacs, the art teacher wrote. “I literally do not have enough chairs for 32 students. This photo is something every one of my students is familiar with. This chair, or cheek-pincher, is what my students have to sit on. Most of the chairs in my room look like this.”

Lack of chairs, similar to the outdated textbooks, stem from dwindling budgets in schools statewide, an issue that relates to tax cuts. But the resource deficit isn’t the whole story. On top of lack of funding for their classrooms, the teachers themselves are facing record low salaries for U.S. educators, leaving them dangerously close to poverty.

According to the National Education Association, Oklahoma ranks 49th in the nation for the average teacher salary, coming in at just $45,276. Teachers there are paid the second lowest in the nation (only Mississippi teachers make less) and haven’t received a pay raise in a decade. As a result, many have turned to second, third, and fourth jobs to make ends meet.

The salary problem has long been common knowledge among teachers in Oklahoma and has even prompted some to move to nearby states to get a higher salary. But it wasn’t until a recent strike by teachers in West Virginia that Oklahoma teachers decided to take a stand. The West Virginia strike, which began at the end of February and lasted more than a week, earned teachers there a 5 percent pay raise.

Taking a cue from them, Oklahoma educators decided it was their turn. On Monday, an estimated 30,000 teachers descended on the capitol in Oklahoma City, demanding a $10,000 raise for teachers, $5,000 for support staff, and an additional $200 million in educational funding. Sarah Jane Scarberry, a ninth-grade English teacher at Heavener High School in eastern Oklahoma, planned to be one of them but came down sick in the days before.

Like Kovacs and countless other teachers, Scarberry has struggled to make ends meet financially. But it was the chairs in her classroom that proved to be the final straw. In pictures she shares with Yahoo Lifestyle, the yellow chairs in her English room are cracked, missing whole chunks, or without a desk at all — a situation that forces students to make do with whatever they can. “It goes without saying that we need money for books and desks,” Scarberry tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Photo: Sarah Jane Scarberry
Photo: Sarah Jane Scarberry

 Scarberry, who has been teaching at Heavener High for three years, says that when it comes to fixing things in Oklahoma classrooms, the money simply isn’t there. “I was given a room with books and desks. At the end of the year we do inventory and write in any requests. I request new books and desks. Then nothing happens, and we do it again the next year. It isn’t even a conversation anymore. It’s just understood,” she says. “They would provide if they could. So we teach and don’t ask. We understand that if we are struggling, then our neighbors in the classrooms down the hall are too. Why make a fuss? It’s not like they are singling out people that they don’t help. It’s just that the school funding is cut to a point where they can’t help any of us.”

As a mother of five, Scarberry has to juggle multiple jobs alongside her husband to make ends meet and provide for her family. Together they own a photography business, build and sell furniture online, referee basketball, and umpire softball — all of this on top of being a mother and teaching full time. In what little free time she has left, Scarberry tries to find resources for her classroom in whatever way she can. 

“I know many teachers that participate in nationwide charity funding and fundraisers to provide needs for their classrooms. That’s one thing I can say for us, though, we are probably the most resourceful people you’ll ever meet,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Our ship might have gone under a long time ago if we didn’t have overwhelming support from our community.”

Of all the issues at stake in the teachers’ walkout, which is set to continue on Wednesday, it’s the restoration of funding to classrooms that Scarberry cares about most. “I love my students. I’ve laughed and cried with them. You can’t be with people day in and day out and not love them,” she says. “They definitely deserve at least to sit in chairs that don’t pose a health hazard.”

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