What the Oklahoma Teacher of the Year learned from her school’s walk out
Natalie Goodwin is a grade school teacher (Teacher Of The Year, in fact) in Norman, Oklahoma. That location is important. It adds political context that can’t be separated from the day-to-day of the job. Oklahoma is a difficult place to be a teacher, as the state continues to cut funding for education and educators. These cuts resulted in a recent, nationally-covered walkout that Natalie participated in.
Natalie is more comfortable discussing the minute-by-minute demands of being an educator than the larger context of the protests. There’s a vague sense that the low short-term payoff is offset by the longer one that education provides the country. But really, a teacher is often just too busy to get into it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Josh Rose: Tell me about yourself and where you come from originally.
My name is Natalie Goodwin. I’m 47. I’ve been teaching for 20 years.
I’m from Norman, actually, I grew up in Norman and went to public school here. I have one sister. She moved to California and married her college sweetheart. My mom and dad still live here and I see them quite a bit.
I lived and taught part-time in Dallas, doing what I love, teaching science lab to second, third, and fourth graders. I was only working part-time, which was great, but we needed more income. My husband got a job there in the energy department, but many of those jobs started getting outsourced to other countries.
Tell me about your husband and how you two met.
We met at KU. We were working at a little Mexican restaurant together. I was going to the University of Kansas. He wasn’t in school, but it was all good.
He ended up going to law school, because my father was an attorney and was like, “Take the LSAT, see how you do.” He did pretty good on it, and that’s when we decided Oklahoma was our place.
We had two kids at that time and decided we should be somewhere we could get some family support, so we decided to move back to Norman.
I knew the schools were great, and it was a good community for raising kids.
Does this job align with your interests, and are you good at it?
I think it lines up well. I’m a pretty good… I mean, I’m a good teacher.
I used to think anybody could teach, but recently I realized that it’s something unique. My 14 year old needed help on something. My daughter and husband were trying to help, but nobody could really explain it. He ended up getting really upset and started crying, which is not normal.
I realized at that point that they are not teachers. They are very smart, but they just don’t have that skill, and that it’s kind of a gift to be able to teach.
What are the key elements of teaching?
Patience, staying calm, and having a tool belt of ways to explain things.
I’ve tried so many things. The key is just having a lot of different methods, and showing them you care and you’re willing to work with them.
I think it’s also about making yourself available. It’s a little draining but there are kids who are willing to stay in at recess, lunch, or after school to work with you. Just finding that little bit of time to reach them and show them that you aren’t giving up on them.
What class, age and subjects do you teach?
I teach fifth grade; all subjects. Last year our school district shifted and some of us are doing what they call flexible scheduling.
The teachers buddy up and figure out our strengths and co-teach that subject. I chose science ’cause that’s where I have the most fun with the kids.
What drove you to be a teacher?
I think I had a slight learning disability growing up. I think about myself as a learner then and how hard school was, and how hard I had to work at it. I think it kind of led me to teach, because I wanted to be that person with patience, and that voice of, “You can do this!”
How would you describe yourself as a teacher?
I’m probably considered strict because I give zeroes. I don’t think it’s my job to be their friend. I try to show them compassion and build a sense of community, but I’m sorry, if you don’t turn in your work, you get a zero. I’ve gone through it with my own children and it really doesn’t do the kids any good if there are no consequences.
Some parents enable their kids and make excuses for them.
Last year a dad emailed me after the grading period and asked if his son could turn in missed work. I’m like, “No. I let the kids know what they’re missing and I hold them accountable.”
Can you tell me about an incident you’ve had?
I had a mom last year who wanted to move her son out of my class. I told her very calmly, “If that’s what you feel is best, then I don’t want to stop you. But we don’t always work with people that we love, and sometimes learning to work through that is super powerful.” So he stayed and we actually really bonded, and he ended up doing great.
I feel like our society doesn’t accept each others’ differences civilly anymore, and it’s partially because we don’t let kids work through those uncomfortable situations. I was so happy that his parent didn’t move him. He ended up doing so well and he was crying on the last day ’cause he didn’t want to leave.
It was just one of those moments where you really connect.
What is a typical day like?
We have to be at school at 7:30 a.m., and from the moment I walk in, I’m “on”. There’s no, “if you’re not feeling good you can just go sit at your desk, or have a few minutes to yourself.”
I get here early if I can, but with my own family it’s nearly impossible.
The kids come in at 7:40 a.m. and we do a class meeting. I started that last year because I had a difficult class and really needed to work on building community with that group. I found it to be super powerful.
After class meeting we have “instruction” for a good portion of the morning. We have a 45-minute break where the kids go to P.E. or music. That’s my first break of the day. I check emails, go to the bathroom, I might grade a set of papers, or have a conference.
Then we come back for another hour of instruction and then book club. I try to instill a love of reading.
Then from 12:20 p.m. to 1:10 p.m. we have lunch. Two days a week I have duty, which means I’m supervising while the kids are at lunch. So that leaves two days where I actually have a lunch, ’cause one of those days is team-planning.
After lunch, we have another hour and a half of instruction, which varies depending on subjects and pull-out groups.
We get done at about 2:50 p.m. and then teachers are required to be here for about 30 minutes. I’m usually here until 3:30 or 4 p.m., either helping kids, grading, or prepping for the next day.
How has social media affected what you do?
We’re kind of expected to post things about our classroom. I don’t really do a ton of that, but I thought that was kind of cool. I was thinking this year I might try to do a little more.
We have to be careful though because it does get blurry when you’re friends with people whose kids are in your classroom. Kids can’t be photographed for our social media, that’s against the law. I don’t usually accept them as friends until they get to be a senior or out of high school. Then again, my daughter is a senior and some of her friends are on my social media, so that’s kind of complicated because I want to follow them.
I see more impact on the kids. I feel like it’s affected them more than it’s affected me in the classroom.
They’re the first group of kids who have grown up with this technology. I had to change my discipline policy five different times last year because I couldn’t hold their attention. I don’t know if it was just that group, but I feel like it’s their generation. They’re just ready to move on. They’re like, “Oh, that doesn’t work anymore, or that’s boring. Let’s try something new.”
Sometimes I just have sensory overload by the end of the day.
Does this job support you, financially?
It’s really hard in Oklahoma. In Texas, I was making the same amount in a part-time job as I am here full-time.
Our legislature doesn’t value education. They would like to have everybody go to private schools. Their kids go to private schools. I don’t think they realize that Oklahoma is such a rural community. I don’t see a majority of Oklahomans being able to send their kids to private schools.
The incarceration rate is the highest in our state, and our schools are the lowest funded… I’ve been teaching 20 years, and I make about $40,000, and that’s the whole package. When I started 20 years ago I was making about $30,000. I always feel like I’m not contributing enough.
We get reviewed every year too. A doctor doesn’t get reviewed. We’re not treated the same professionally.
I don’t even know how someone could live on a teacher’s salary, honestly. I’m just blessed that my salary is supplemented by my husband’s salary, because it would be a whole different ball game if it was just my salary.
Tell me about the walk-out and what caused that?
They were going to cut the budget again. They’ve cut it three or four years in a row, massive amounts. So our superintendent, who was brand new this year, was like enough is enough.
Our school district has done okay, because our finance secretary is really good so the teachers and kids don’t feel it as badly, but we still see it.
So, the whole district walked out. The expectation was that this is your job, and you should be there talking to senators and talking to House members. It was hard. It was exhausting. I’d much rather have been in my classroom.
Did you meet with any Senators or House Members?
Yes. They would just blow smoke though. It just felt like they would tell you what you wanted to hear. You had the ones you knew were on your side, and they’d encourage you, and then they’d get shut down. The Speaker of the House would just tell them to basically sit down. They weren’t listening.
It was discouraging. We really didn’t feel like we made much impact.
I feel like the tides are turning though. I feel like things may change and I felt encouraged by that.
How does the current political climate affect you?
I try not to let it affect me too much. I just try to do my job. I have the freedom to choose a different job, but I keep coming back, so I must love it.
Not very many people in this state really like an outspoken Democrat, so I probably am a very quiet closet Democrat.
I don’t talk about my viewpoints much, but with the last presidential election I feel like it was pretty obvious where I stood.
Tell me about winning Teacher Of The Year?
I’ve been on the ballot a few times. You have to be interviewed among people within the district. You have to write four essays. Topics like, our philosophy of teaching. My philosophy is very hands-on.
There’s a new practice called guided inquiry, where the kids formulate the question and you guide them. It’s something you have to probe and research. We call it depth of knowledge questions.
Depth of knowledge questions are ones you can’t just find the answer to like, “Who was the first president of the United States?” Depth of knowledge might be, “Was he a good president?”
The point is, you’ve got to go back and find out. This is new, and I’m starting it myself, and just kind of figuring it out. It’s all about discovery.
What’s to be gained by these accolades?
They don’t increase your salary or anything. It’s just a pat on the back, and feeling good about yourself. And you grow as an educator through that reflective process. I was so glad I did it. I learned so much about myself.
When did you know that you’d be a teacher?
I think I‘ve known forever. Growing up we had a chalkboard in our garage, and I would make all the neighborhood kids sit down and play school.
What would you be doing if you weren’t teaching?
I kind of have a hard time picturing myself in another profession. I think I’d be doing something in the science profession, but I don’t think it would be as much fun.