Red Dirt Teacher

I was inspired to write (and record) this poem about the Oklahoma teacher shortage last summer.  My friend Shanedra always jokes that I do my best writing when I’m angry, and it may be true to the extent that those moments when I’m angry are the moments when I’m more likely to carve out the time to write.  Lauren Zuniga had just visited the OSU Writing Project Invitational Summer Institute, and she is a killer spoken word poet, hence my getting up the guts to record this one.  Stay strong, teachers.

Sidebar: If you are one of the handful of people who visited my education blog last summer, this is its new home.  Trying to resuscitate it with this piece and get into a routine.  Wish me luck.







Years ago a friend and I started a paper called

“Teaching and Learning in the Red.”

We carried a Ziploc baggie of dirt to our conference in Ohio,

In one of our checked bags,

knowing no one would really understand

what we meant

when we said the earth itself was red here.


I’m an Okie born and raised. 

I love this clay

unwillingly sprouting redbuds and okra,

Poke salad and persimmons.

Potato mountains roll eastward

that could carry a girl

right into Arkansas

And home again.


But now I hear fire and brimstone stories of how

all the schools are going straight to hell.

“Not yours?”

“Well, you know, there are those few exceptions.”

A lie repeated so often that, “Goodness,

It must be true…’bout everywhere but my child’s school.”

A billows fanning the flames of fear:


public schools



worth it.


Our police stations,

Fire houses,



And schools

falling down

around us.

Teachers making miracles in the rubble


For demanding textbooks

Updated more often than

“One day,

man may reach the moon.”


And don’t you dare ask for a raise, missy. 

Especially a teacher shouldn’t ask for a raise. 

Because she doesn’t do it

for the money.


Oh dear.

It hurts to know

Just how much

My pediatrician



my baby.

Why, what else could possibly explain her salary?


My grandmother watched her family leave

as the Dust Bowl

Drove them out.


There are days I dream of Oregon.

Mountain breezes and mail-in ballots

Call my name.

But red clay is a stain

I can’t remove.

This is where I’m from




Goerge Ella Lyon



Like my grandmother before me,

I’ll last through this not-so-great


Despite the fact that the hottest bumper sticker

this year reads,

“Okie teacher for Texas or bust!”

You won’t see me piling into

anybody’s damned jalopy.

But I can’t blame my friends who do.

Because the pay is only the first few steps on a steep hill.

I once ran a 5K at the Pawnee Bill Ranch.


Try it.


You’ll have a new appreciation for just what it means to run

up a steep hill.

It is


to pay

for the copy paper,

the classroom library,

craft supplies

out of your own



And forget that field trip.

Good luck finding a sub ‘cause we can’t pay them.

The Sherwin-Miller Museum is a 20 minute drive,

We can’t swing a bus to get your kids there anyway.

But I’m sure a virtual visit will be the same as standing face to face

With the Klan robes mounted there.

A white wave of nausea breaking over you.

But no time to think about that.

Because you’re teaching in a 4 day week what you’d have taught in 5

With 1/3 more students than you had last year.

Solve for



Because the good teacher

Doesn’t do it

For the money?


So yeah, I don’t begrudge anybody who walks back down this hill

Huffing and hot,

Muttering, “It doesn’t have to be this hard.”

After days of climbing the Pawnee Bill hill

Anybody will start wondering

how it’s still ascending all the way through the ranch

and back

In a mystical breach of the laws of physics,

that 5K ‘round a flat-as-a-flitter north Texas lake is soundin’ pretty good.

And that’s still a pretty intense run.

How long am I supposed to be mad at my friends — who are staying the course

But seek one that’s just not quite so steep?

Every body has its limits.

For this, dear colleagues, you owe precisely no one an apology.

You’re still running.


For those of us left here, we are going to have to

stand in line

Row upon row

Trees planted in our collective convictions

To keep these winds from further eroding the soil

From under our feet.

We are still,

for now,


Those who pretend not to see –

“What crisis?” –

are all bluster and illusion.

Their Scooby Doo villain

to our pesky persistence.

Bad hair day in the making

When we finally unite

with our communities to




Sure, it can look like a tornado

From a distance.

But when it gets closer

We find they’ve mustered only a dust devil.

Swirling broken promises

Etched on brittle leaves when finally


Red and blue,

we say

No more.


Leaves make for excellent compost.

And in Oklahoma, we grow hearty teachers.


Next time you hear someone say

“But they don’t do it for the money,”

Let’s be clear about what




The resource to make

A fertile intellectual space

for our students,

Rich with ideas

and some room to grow.

Okie educators are



For speaking

For our students

And ourselves.

Our kids and, yes,

our teachers,

need a lot more green.


7 thoughts on “Red Dirt Teacher

    • Thank you Jenn! I was reminded how hard it is to take a risk to try a new kind of writing — the spoken word piece especially was out of my comfort zone (I won’t tell you how many draft recordings are on my phone!) — I stayed up late getting this all ready to go and share so I didn’t chicken out, but as I told my little sister this morning, “You can’t be a chicken and be a writer, so here goes!” All that to say, I very much appreciate your feedback!


  1. Really enjoyed this. There is so much truth in these words. We teachers keep, keeping on, but it is getting harder and harder.


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