In just a few years, Ryan Walters has gone from commanding a classroom to having the ear of the governor.
Walters, a teacher from McAlester, was tapped by Gov. Kevin Stitt to serve as Oklahoma’s Secretary of Education earlier this month, following the resignation of Oklahoma Secretary of State Michael Rogers, who had been filling both roles. The appointment will require confirmation from the Senate.
Walters is the chief executive officer of Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, an education reform initiative that is the new iteration of Oklahoma Achieves, a project of the State Chamber. He was McAlester Public Schools Teacher of the Year in 2015 and a 2016 finalist for the Oklahoma State Department of Education’s Teacher of the Year.
We asked Walters about teaching during a pandemic and what initiatives he plans to tackle first in his new position. The questions and answers were edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: I was really encouraged to see that you are a classroom teacher. What was your classroom experience like?
A: I was one of those weird kids that figured out very early what he wanted to do. I remember sitting in my high school class, my history teacher was great. I had an amazing English teacher and I just wanted to be a teacher. I ended up back at McAlester teaching at the high school I went to with a lot of the teachers that were my teachers.
I learned a lot from them and just absolutely loved teaching. And in 2016, I was a state teacher of the year finalist. And that got me connected with Superintendent (Joy) Hofmeister and others on policy issues. I started off teaching special ed, then got into teaching the more on-level courses.
I’ll be honest with you: it was really hard to leave the full-time teaching position. When the Oklahoma Achieves position came open, they had reached out to me about that and I decided to give that a try. One of the things I wanted was to continue teaching. So I still actually teach at Millwood High School and I still teach a class virtually from McAlester.
“… all the online work can be quite difficult to do without someone there in-person to help you navigate that but also to encourage you.”
— Ryan Walters, Oklahoma Secretary of Education
Q: What’s different this year about what teachers need and what students need in this time of COVID-19?
A: It is incredibly difficult to take a classroom teacher who’s really effective in a classroom and make that teacher really effective virtually. It’s a heavy lift. I’ve been really impressed with the stories I’ve heard around the state of teachers that are doing some incredible things with their classes but doing it in the short time that they’ve been allotted.
And districts taking on new learning management systems and trying to get these new programs for teachers. The learning curve for teachers, it’s just been incredibly steep. And there’s the other side of finding good virtual online content. Just kind of basic things like that. I was always the teacher that I pushed my students academically. I always tend to hold them to really high standards and I really relied on the relationship-building aspect to let them know: I’m holding you to a high standard because I care about you, because I want you to achieve these things. I think it’s really hard to do that in the virtual space. I’ve seen some really great examples of teachers doing that, but it is definitely a difficult thing to do. For the student, if not done correctly, all the online work can be quite difficult to do without someone there in-person to help you navigate that but also to encourage you and to have that kind of relationship.
I’ve been really concerned about the academic side, the students that don’t have access, the students that struggle already and then you add on top of it all those technical difficulties that happen. I just got out of teaching a class earlier today with my Millwood students that are fully virtual. And I had a couple that were taking a test for me and the WiFi dropped. It’s just all those things.
Q: What initiatives are you looking at first? I’m sure you’ve got some priorities that you’re looking at.
A: Right now I’m really trying to go around and meet with all the key stakeholders. Superintendent Hofmeister and Chancellor (Glen) Johnson and Dr. (Marcie) Mack at Career Tech. And I’m trying to get out and meet with teacher groups and parent groups and try to provide the governor all that context. He’s very laser focused on improving education for all students. And I share a similar passion of: what can we do for all students, and how can we empower teachers? How can we make sure that they are in a position to be effective in this environment? How can we ensure that all students have access to good instructional materials and how can we ensure that learning is going on at a really high level through this pandemic and forward?
Q: What about the digital divide? Is that something you are looking at improving?
A: Absolutely. The Bridge the Gap Digital Wallet program that we’ve helped them out with at Every Kid Counts Oklahoma, one of the things families can buy through that program is 4G, and they could buy a device through that program. Districts do a great job at trying to get that technology to students, but we hear the stories of students falling through the cracks.
Q: Any advice to parents or teachers or students?
A: Teachers know what it’s like on the front line, so they understand what it’s like to teach in the environment that we’re in right now, they understand all the difficulties and obstacles of getting students to perform at a high level. I’m excited to bring that perspective to the governor and make sure that we’re representing all students.
I see parents doing great things, working with students at home to help them during this time. And we’ve got some incredible students here and I love being able to work directly with these young people. I know we’re going to come out of this and I know that we’re just going to keep improving and we’re going to keep working forward to becoming better every day.