Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Teaching profession faces a crossroads: Will more pay result in more stability? | Legislature | New Mexico Legislative Session

Joshua Acuña sees his learned profession – the apprenticeship – as a vocation.

He says he’s not in it for the economic rewards, but the 30-year-old makes less than $20,000 as a full-time educational assistant at Santa Fe Public Schools, even after more than a decade in the field.

Acuña went through Santa Fe Public Schools herself and has high hopes of becoming a teacher.

But as he tries to earn his bachelor’s degree in education from New Mexico Highlands University while trying to avoid debt, one thing keeps getting in his way.

Money – especially the lack of it.

Acuña says he is encouraged by the legislation, which proposes a $10,000 increase in salaries for teachers in the state’s three-tier admissions system. If passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, would-be teachers would make at least $50,000 annually, with middle teachers rising to $60,000 and top-level teachers to $70,000.

In addition, Lujan Grisham wants to give all public school employees a 7 percent raise.

But will that help make a difference in a vexing and widening teacher shortage?

Educators, legislators and the leading teacher education programs are saying yes – in the short term. But they also say it’s just a start, adding raises needs to be ongoing. Even then, they recognize that there’s still no guarantee New Mexico can stem its capsizing retention numbers among the people who run its classrooms.

“This is one of the most important initiatives moving through New Mexico,” said Mary Earick, dean of the New Mexico Highlands School of Education, of the raise proposal. “For the first time in New Mexico, a middle-class teacher will earn a living wage. This is critical to recruiting educators.”

Mary Parr-Sanchez, president of the National Education Association New Mexico, said the step increases would make teacher salaries in New Mexico more competitive than in surrounding states like Texas and Colorado, where average teacher salaries are about $3,000 more than here.

This is especially important in school districts that border these states, where educators can easily commute across state lines to make more money.

Parr-Sanchez said she believes the state needs to keep increasing salaries for teachers and all public school employees every year “given the landscape and the fact that yesterday [Wednesday] The governor had to deploy the National Guard to schools because we are in a crisis.”

Lawmakers who once worked as educators also say steady pay rises will be key to keeping teachers happy and busy.

“She [the raises] must be recurring and they must be from recurring funds,” said Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, who taught in that city’s school system for 24 years.

For his part, Acuña says the pay increases will help support his two children, aged 8 and 10. His wife works full-time while he does odd jobs to cover expenses when he is not in a kindergarten at Atalaya Elementary School.

The pay was so low that Acuña says he left the classroom for a time to run a gas station in town. But the classroom and his desire to be a teacher called him back.

“I didn’t have a passion for it,” he said, referring to the gas station. “I missed working with students, so I left that, came back, and went back to working for pennies.”

Citing recent increases in minimum wages across the country and state, he said, “You don’t even have to have a high school diploma to make more than a teacher.”

While there are many reasons teachers leave the profession or retire early — including difficult-to-understand teacher rating systems and mental, emotional, and physical health issues associated with the demands of the job — Trujillo says she believes more money makes a difference can make.

The raises, Trujillo said, could lead some candidates to say, “Maybe this is a job I’d like to reconsider.”

Long before COVID-19 arrived in New Mexico and transformed public education, the state faced a teacher shortage. But national studies and reports make it clear that the coronavirus pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.

A Rand Corp. survey of teachers early in the 2020 school year found that a quarter planned to quit the profession by the end of that school year. Before the pandemic, that number was 1 in 6 teachers, the report said.

Still, some students seem eager to become teachers, Earick said, and Highlands has seen an increase in the number of candidates enrolling in its teacher education programs — up 28 percent over the past year and another percent this year.

She said she is particularly pleased with the fact that 22 percent of the college’s students entering the early childhood education field are Native Americans.

“We work really hard to endorse teacher candidates who are reflective of the students they teach,” she said.

But other educational programs across the state aren’t doing so well either. A recent New Mexico State University report on teacher shortages said 2021 had 50 fewer graduates from teacher education programs than 2020. Virtually half of these educators went through an alternative accreditation process, the report says.

Hansel Burley, the dean of the University of New Mexico’s College of Education and Human Science, said it was bad news that matched the national trend.

“Participation has gone down,” he said of enrollment numbers in his own teacher programs. “There are places across the country where enrollment is up a bit, but generally it’s down.”

Burley pointed to a variety of factors, some of which were due to student debt or difficult entry requirements to access some programs. Other factors — a lack of respect for the profession and lingering bitterness from the period of rigorous standardized testing — also play a role, he said.

He has also noticed an increase in educators entering schools through alternative admission routes. These alternative paths often come with shorter tenures and poor education, he said.

In 2020, the Learning Policy Institute reported that the majority of prospective teachers in northern New Mexico who had either completed or worked on an alternative licensing program felt “woefully unprepared” for the “complex work” of leading classrooms.

Burley claims pay is a factor, but far from the only issue.

“We made it a very difficult profession,” he said of teaching. “For the last 20 years or so, we’ve made ourselves a cucumber.”

Burley called the governor’s pay proposal a “beautiful thing” that could start to close that gap in job vacancies. But he warned that even if the increases become a reality, there should be short-term shortages.

“There’s no way we can fill that gap in a few months,” he said.

Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, a civics and history teacher, said lawmakers must address the reasons for the teacher shortage and find means other than pay increases to address the problem.

He, too, believes that the state must find ways to increase teachers’ salaries beyond a year. The public, he said, should continue to pressure the governor and lawmakers on the matter.

Other actions can be taken, said Rep. Debra M. Sariñana, D-Albuquerque, who introduced legislation to create a teacher residency program. The initiative, House Bill 13, would allocate $20 million to ensure first-time teachers can work side-by-side with experienced teachers during that first year.

“This new teacher would be able to see everything in the classroom,” she said. “How to run a class, how to handle children… tests.”

The raises will make a difference, but “I think what’s going to make the biggest difference for the newcomers is the way they’re educated,” said Sariñana, who left last summer after 20 years as a public school teacher in the United States retired.

Joshua Acuña says the proposed pay rises are “long overdue.”

He currently spends his time teaching classes for his Kindergarten class and accumulating student hours towards his degree. This month he’s teaching preschoolers how to rhyme words and single-digit numbers. His favorite moments at work are not unlike legions of other teachers: He says he’s overjoyed when “the light comes on in her head” and once-confused students grasp a concept.

To capture more of those moments, Acuña wants to earn a master’s degree in special education and stay in the classroom, likely as a special education teacher at an elementary school.

And yet, despite all of this — the sacrifices he’s already made, his love for the classroom — Acuna admits that he had a thought that affects those concerned about the future of public education in New Mexico.

“If I didn’t have the passion and didn’t get my degree, I probably wouldn’t be in education,” he said. “But since I’m so close, I’m sticking with it.”

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