Careers

In Oklahoma you can make more money working at a gas station than as a teacher

A social studies teacher in Washington D.C.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
A social studies teacher in Washington D.C.

Yesterday, teachers in West Virginia ended a heated nine-day strike in which they bargained for a 5 percent pay increase for all state employees. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, teachers in West Virginia are the fifth lowest paid in the country, earning an average of $45,240 — but Oklahoma actually holds the title for the lowest paid teachers in the country.

In Oklahoma, the average annual income for a high school teacher is $42,460. Many make much less.

Larry Cagle, who teaches an Advanced Placement course at Edison Preparatory School in Tulsa, says he makes just $34,500 a year working for one of the best schools in the state. Inspired by the collective bargaining in West Virginia, he is organizing a group of Oklahoma teachers to begin a strike of their own.

"I am struggling to pay my bills," he tells the Los Angeles Times. "A student graduating from my class can become a QuikTrip full-time employee a year, two years later, making more than me."

According to Indeed, assistant store managers at QuikTrip in Oklahoma –a local gas station and convenience store chain — make approximately $60,774 a year. Other figures suggest that assistant QuikTrip managers in Oklahoma earn closer to $44,018 a year. Either way, it is likely that in Oklahoma, many gas station employees are out-earning teachers.

A customer fuels his car at a QuikTrip (QT) gas station in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Shane Bevel/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A customer fuels his car at a QuikTrip (QT) gas station in Tulsa, Oklahoma

This is not the case in many other states. The BLS reports that the lowest-paid 10 percent of high school teachers earn less than $38,180 and the highest 10 percent earn more than $92,920.

Pay disparity is one reason why Shawn Sheehan, Oklahoma's 2016 Teacher of the Year, decided to move to Texas, where teachers are paid significantly more. Last year he told NPR, "It feels good because I know I'm doing the right thing for my family, but it also feels sad."

At the time Sheehan and his wife Kaysi, also a public school teacher, brought in $3,600 a month. "After all bills are paid, we're sitting on about $400-450 per month," he explains.

When the Sheehan family had their first child, they had to reassess their finances. "Sure, life can be done on $400, $450 a month, but I would challenge others out there to buy diapers, groceries and all the things that you need for a family of three on $400," he says.

In Texas, the average salary is $55,500. Both of the Sheehans were offered positions that included $40,000 raises. The family is just one example of the teacher drain that low-paying states are witnessing.

"We have a really hard time holding on to our wonderful folks and recruiting others," said Deborah Gist, superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools, which has 3,000 educators and 40,000 students. "We lost 22 percent of our teachers last year, and over the last couple of years, more than 30 percent in total."

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