Teachers Keepers

Amid historic educator shortages, a host of solution-oriented approaches aim to strengthen and build the workforce

Teachers got some unambiguous love during the 30-day legislative session that wrapped up last week, with the state Senate and House of Representatives voting unanimously to give them a $10,000 salary bump. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who supported the increase from the beginning, is expected to sign the legislation that made it so.

The move comes at a moment of crisis in the educator workforce. Lujan Grisham last month called in the National Guard, and encouraged others to volunteer, to substitute teach in the face of a shortage estimated at 1,000.

Santa Fe Public Schools saw increased interest in substitute teaching since the governor’s call for help—56 people have completed applications and nine of those are ready to help out in the classroom (though none is a National Guard member, SFPS spokesman Cody Dynarski tells SFR.)

The salary increase aims to make the teaching career more lucrative for existing educators and more attractive to those considering the profession.

While educators across the state welcome larger paychecks, those SFR spoke with say more money alone won’t fill the cracks in the teacher workforce pipeline that have led to the current situation.

Among other ideas to bolster the ranks: make the teaching career more accessible and retain educators past the critical, three-to-five year point when early-career teachers often leave the workforce.

Michael Bancroft was pursuing a degree in engineering at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology when he realized that career wasn’t going to be quite right. So he switched to a track in education, which aligned with his passion and ability to teach.

But the education courses at New Mexico Tech weren’t adequately preparing Bancroft to stand on his own in the classroom, so he transferred to a program closer to home.

The fourth grade teacher at San Juan Elementary School, who graduated from there over a decade ago, says he and his students share a similar upbringing. “Having my Native American and my Hispanic background, I can relate to all of the kids,” he tells SFR.

The “language classes aren’t barriers for me,” Bancroft says. “I can talk to the kids in Tewa and I can speak just enough Spanish for the ones who need it.” Apart from Bancroft’s infectious passion for education, he attributes his success in the classroom to the teacher training he received through Northern New Mexico College, which altered its program after a 2016 national accreditation visit.

Sandra Rodriguez, who chairs the department of teacher education, noticed many of her students were caught in the web of departments, and the lack of data about their progress was preventing them from finishing the program and getting into classrooms.

So she and her colleagues made some changes.

“Once we know they are even applying to the college, we begin tracking them and working on behalf of the student with, let’s say, admissions so that we can make sure they…have everything they need,” Rodriguez tells SFR.

That tracking, she says, continues throughout students’ studies at NNMC via a data analyst manager who helped find holes in the services the school provided to participants.

“We don’t have the traditional students,” says April Barela, the department’s data analyst manager. “They’re calling us after hours or emailing us after hours, and they need a response at that time.”

That means many late evenings for Barela and Rodriguez, but evidence of the structural changes to the department is clear.

In the 2017-18 academic year, six students graduated from NNMC’s collective teacher training programs. The following year, 16 students collected their diplomas to become teachers. The next two years, despite the added stress of the pandemic, the department of teacher education graduated 34 and 33 new teachers-to-be, respectively.

As one of those recent graduates, Bancroft benefited from the department’s flexible programming and tracking. Rodriguez explains these tools are essential “if we want to support student learning outcomes in teacher preparation programs.”

While getting new educators to complete the necessary training is one challenge, keeping them in the game is another.

There is a critical point in teachers’ careers, Missy Wauneka explains, when many decide to leave the profession. That falls between three and five years after they start teaching, when “their formal mentorships are done or they’re no longer in training programs, or some even have their master’s by then and they’re sort of questioning whether they’re going to stay in teaching or not,” says Wauneka, head of region for Teach for America New Mexico, which is part of a national teacher placement organization.

In an effort to retain early-career educators, TFA started the New Mexico Teacher Leader Fellowship, which provides coaching for career advancement and leadership training.

“A key aspect of the fellowship is helping teachers think about how to work with and influence other adults,” says Wauneka. She acknowledges it’s a broad goal but with this intention the program allows teachers to grow based on their own professional goals.

For Aubriana Knell, one of the most enlightening aspects of the fellowship is the chance to learn with “educators from across the state.” Knell, a first grade teacher at Cuba Elementary School, is in her fourth year teaching and hopes to develop her leadership skills throughout the six-month program.

“Everyone in education is a leader in their own way, right?” Knell tells SFR. “Even if you don’t have the title of leader in the school, you are still a leader in that place. You’re leading kids, you’re leading…coworkers,” she says.

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