Representative Mark Vancuren
Representative Mark Vancuren sits down with POE to discuss his love for education and what made him decide to run for office.
A Teacher, A Coach, and now, A State Representative
When you first step into Representative Mark Vancuren's office, you won't see photos of him shaking hands with the U.S. President, standing next to the Oklahoma Governor at a rally, or golfing with members of the U.S. Congress.
Instead, you'll see a personal collection of keepsakes and souvenirs telling the story of his 30 years as a high school teacher and coach. There are framed newspaper clippings, photos, and engraved trophies highlighting the major wins and championships of the sports teams he's coached; as well as autographed basketballs, baseballs, and plaques honoring his former students. There is an American flag displayed against the backdrop of a row of books on General Patton and American history. Photos of his family are prominently displayed on the counter of his credenza: his wife of 25 years, Sheila, and his three children, Riley, Jaxon and Avery and, of course, the family dog, Boomer.
Representative Mark Vancuren, District 74, is the Vice Chair of the Common Education Committee. He is a duly elected state representative of Oklahoma with more than a year of total service under his belt, but from the moment you step into his office and shake his hand, you realize, he remains first and foremost an educator and coach.
Growing up in Owasso, Oklahoma, Vancuren attended Owasso Junior High where his dad, Ted, was the principal. After junior high, he continued onto Owasso High where his mom, Ada, who was one of two school counselors, was able to keep a close eye on her teenage son. Coming from a family of educators, it may have been a foregone conclusion that Vancuren would eventually end up in the field of education when he decided to continue his studies, following high school, at Oklahoma Baptist University. Yet, at OBU Vancuren found himself as only one of 13 biology majors with all 12 of the other students setting their sights on medical school. This environment created a brief season of uncertainty as Vancuren's classmates and professors pressured him to pursue a career in the medical field. Yet, in the end, and confirming what his parents had always suspected, Vancuren set the pre-med requirements aside and enrolled in the additional courses needed to become a teacher.
Upon graduating from OBU, Vancuren packed up his bags and left campus for Westmoore High School where he began his new career as a biology teacher and assistant coach for the boy's varsity basketball team. As he adjusted to the new stresses and challenges faced by all first-year teachers, Vancuren made time to help lead his basketball team to the state finals. Although his team did not capture the title that year, Vancuren would go on to receive his first basketball state championship ring several years later as the varsity boys head coach at Seminole High School in Seminole, Oklahoma. Vancuren spent the next two decades teaching and coaching and adding to his state ring collection in various high schools in Oklahoma and Kansas. His success led him to a four-year opportunity to coach men's Division I basketball. Eventually, Vancuren found his way back home to Owasso where he accepted a job as teacher and coach.
Vancuren and his family still reside in Owasso and call it home, but you will no longer find him leading a dissection in the high school biology lab or courtside coaching basketball— although if one of his kids has a game, you will almost certainly find him in the stands, just off the court, cheering them on. Yet, Vancuren did not give up the classroom or coaching because he desired a change of pace or grew bored. At his core, he is still an educator and thrives in the arenas of competition. The motivation, he explained, was to affect a new kind of change, not leave the teaching profession behind.
“It was just the continuation of year after year after year of not seeing teachers respected and given some of the things they needed: whether that be in the classroom, whether that be pay raises — there are so many things like that we can talk about that teachers and school districts need. But, I guess the main thing was that this was in the time period of when we were looking at the step-up [pay increase for teachers] and all these different [bills] were being voted down by the state legislature and I just felt like I needed to do something.”
At this time though, for Vancuren, politics was still a distant and uncertain path. It was not until Vancuren's assistant basketball coach and close friend, J.J. Dossett, decided to run for state office that Vancuren started to seriously consider running for the state legislature himself. In fact, it was during a basketball game that Vancuren and Dossett were coaching when Vancuren truly decided to run.
“We were getting [election] updates, or [Dossett] was, I was trying to do my job and [Dossett] was worried about whether he was winning the election or not. But, it was really when he won that Tuesday night that it opened my eyes: a normal person, not someone huge in the community or a person who has a whole lot of money, but some teacher, [Dossett] was a teacher, and he won. It really opened my eyes.”
Despite Vancuren giving Dossett a hard time for being somewhat preoccupied during that basketball game, Vancuren was excited and inspired to see a teacher, and friend, win a seat in the State Senate and decided to take the risk himself.
“I had no idea if I could win [an election], but I wanted to try to make a difference in the lives of teachers, students, and school districts by running for office. I wanted to try to be the change that needed to be initiated to make positive strides in Oklahoma education.”
Maybe it was the competitive spirit that Vancuren carried over from his years of coaching, or maybe it was his deep-seeded drive to help teachers and students, but Vancuren did win the election and became the duly elected State Representative for Oklahoma District 74. And, when he arrived at the state capitol, he wasted no time in getting started on his mission. Vancuren was appointed as the Vice Chair of the House Common Education Committee and collaborated on a number of bills and initiatives to improve education.
One bill that Vancuren authored and filed is aimed at improving classroom safety for teachers and students, especially in grades kindergarten through fifth. House Bill 2786 aims to protect teachers and students from severe bodily injury inflicted by other students while simultaneously ensuring that the student in question is given the appropriate attention and services that he or she needs. At first glance, this may seem a strange bill for a 6-foot-4-inch broad-shouldered coach to file, but Vancuren relates a story he heard from an elementary school teacher and friend that made him aware of the situation.
He explains that he saw his friend at the local grocery store and asked how she was enjoying her life as a newly retired teacher. She responded, “It's great. I have not been kicked, punched, spit on, had my hair pulled, or been headbutted to the point where I have a concussion.”
“I was totally shocked.” Vancuren said. “This brought it home that this was something that teachers and administrators were experiencing in schools in Oklahoma.”
Many others, like Vancuren, are initially shocked to hear of such things. Yet, according to POE's annual member survey, more than 30 percent of teacher respondents indicated that incidents like the ones described above occurred multiple times a week. This issue, Vancuren continued, is something that surprises many people, but is an issue Oklahoma needs to address.
In addition to House Bill 2786, Vancuren has authored and filed several other bills aimed at collecting hard data from school districts and forming different task forces to help improve and incentivize the state to ensure schools have a sufficient number of counselors in every school, healthy and available lunches in every school for all students, and programs designed to help ensure students at risk can succeed academically.
It is evident from his appointment to Vice Chair of the Common Education Committee to the bills he has collaborated on and authored that Vancuren has hit the ground running. Yet, if you ask him about his days in education, he will tell you:
“I loved being in the classroom. I miss being in the classroom and teaching. And, I miss coaching — the competitive nature of the sports.”
But it seems Vancuren has found a new outlet for his competitive nature: contending for students and teachers, not in the classroom or on the court, but at the state capitol — fighting to improve education.
“I love hearing from teachers. And the other thing I will say [to them], you can win — run and win! It's a situation where we need your voice to be heard, whether it is calling your representative or senator on the phone or throwing your hat into the ring to run for office — make an impact.”