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.

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Lack of chairs, similar to the outdated textbooks, stem from dwindling budgets in schools statewide, an issue that relates to tax cuts.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.

Related: More images from the walkout

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Oklahoma, Kentucky teachers walk out over pay
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Oklahoma, Kentucky teachers walk out over pay
FRANKFORT, KY - APRIL 2: Thousands of public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill at the Kentucky State Capitol April 2, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers are calling for higher wages and are demanding that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin veto a bill that overhauls their pension plan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 2: Elvin Lee, a teacher from Lawton, Oklahoma joints the teachers' rally at the state capitol on April 2, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Last week, Gov. Mary Fallin said teachers should come to the capitol to thank her for the raise. Thousands of teachers and supporters are scheduled to rally Monday at the state Capitol calling for higher wages and increased school funding. Teachers are walking off the job after a $6,100 pay raise was rushed through the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
Oklahoma teachers rally outside the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton
Thousands of Kentucky school teachers marched Monday, April 2, 2018 from the Kentucky Education Association's headquarters to the State Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. to protest legislative changes to their pensions and education cuts. Public schools in all 120 Kentucky counties were closed Monday, either to join in the protest or because of spring break. (Charles Bertram/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS via Getty Images)
Oklahoma teachers rally outside the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton
Oklahoma teachers rally outside the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton
FRANKFORT, KY - APRIL 2: Public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill at the Kentucky State Capitol April 2, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers are calling for higher wages and are demanding that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin veto a bill that overhauls their pension plan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Oklahoma teachers rally outside the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton
Oklahoma teachers rally outside the state Capitol in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, U.S., April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton
FRANKFORT, KY - APRIL 2: Public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill outside the senate chambers at the Kentucky State Capitol April 2, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers are calling for higher wages and are demanding that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin veto a bill that overhauls their pension plan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 2: Natalie Armstrong (left) and her two daughters Payton and Payzlyn, along with her mother Katrina Sinor rally at the state capitol on April 2, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Thousands of teachers and supporters are scheduled to rally Monday at the state Capitol calling for higher wages and better school funding. Armstrong said she has spent $3,000 this year for school supplies Teachers are walking off the job after a $6,100 pay raise was rushed through the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - APRIL 2: Oklahoma teachers rally at the state capitol on April 2, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Thousands of teachers and supporters are scheduled to rally Monday at the state Capitol calling for higher wages and better school funding. Teachers are walking off the job after a $6,100 pay raise was rushed through the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mary Fallin. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
Thousands of Kentucky teachers rallied at the state Capitol in Frankfort, Ky. on Monday, April 2, 2018. (Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader/TNS via Getty Images)
FRANKFORT, KY - APRIL 2: Public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill outside the senate chambers at the Kentucky State Capitol April 2, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers are calling for higher wages and are demanding that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin veto a bill that overhauls their pension plan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FRANKFORT, KY - APRIL 2: Thousands of public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill at the Kentucky State Capitol April 2, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers are calling for higher wages and are demanding that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin veto a bill that overhauls their pension plan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FRANKFORT, KY - APRIL 2: Thousands of public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill at the Kentucky State Capitol April 2, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers are calling for higher wages and are demanding that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin veto a bill that overhauls their pension plan. (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
FRANKFORT, KY - APRIL 2: Public school teachers and their supporters protest against a pension reform bill outside the senate chambers at the Kentucky State Capitol April 2, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky. The teachers are calling for higher wages and are demanding that Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin veto a bill that overhauls their pension plan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
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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

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.”

Related: Twitter takes on the teachers' strike

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#Oklahomateachersstrick trends on Twitter
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#Oklahomateachersstrick trends on Twitter
Our union of 8,000 faculty, postdocs and grad employees stands in solidarity with the #oklahomateachersstrike https://t.co/ydFokg0bwJ
Teachers deserve better pay. Instead of all taxes going to the already oversized military budget and building walls… https://t.co/flQEfUCz57
My favorite video of the day. Mrs. Bedwell, I’d like to meet you #oklahomateachersstrike #oklahomateacherwalkout… https://t.co/v3sEoZwoKW
Oklahoma Teacher since 1979 STILL RELEVANT 2018. #oklaed #oklahomateachersstrike https://t.co/iPrRMXSmXA
Congressmen (who make $174,000 a year) go on strike: It’s because they love our country. Teachers (who make $31,6… https://t.co/f80Vg9gDlJ
Picket line encircling the capital now, vowing to continue the walkout tomorrow if demands not met… https://t.co/z8ykCNtds5
Day 3 #oklahomateachersstrike Arriving same time 8ish And leaving after session. Just bc you plan a session at 3 d… https://t.co/9RoHVrUVZH
Her admiration to this job makes me hope I love my job just as much one day. I spend a lot of time around teachers… https://t.co/BDQg7BAp4X
what does it say about a country when it's teachers,those responsible 4 educating our children,have to beg to be pa… https://t.co/h8foy16EGA
Remember that teacher that was always trying to destroy society and undermine the fabric of the family by earning a… https://t.co/afYTRG4lfc
I don't think you understand. Most of my teachers gave extra credit for paper, tissues, hand sanitizer, dry erase m… https://t.co/2jS5Lawrhc
Our government pushes education on us but continues to do nothing for the educators. For all the teachers going on… https://t.co/PB2psKlrIE
Disappointed in my high school alma mater. #teacherstrike #OKwalk4kids #OklahomaTeachers 🍎😔 https://t.co/t4enanAs61
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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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