LAS VEGAS, N.M.
When Monica Jose started teaching a third grade classroom at Laguna Elementary School last school year, she thought she’d just be substituting for a month. Come May, her school hadn’t found a permanent teacher and she was still working.
The experience sparked by New Mexico’s teacher recruitment and retention issue was a turning point for Jose, a longtime, 47-year-old educational assistant for Pueblo of Laguna Department of Education.
After watching students rebound from pandemic-era shutdowns and remote learning, she was inspired to enroll in online classes at Western New Mexico University to become a third grade teacher herself.
“The experience has made me want to become a certified teacher,” she said. “I want to be that person.”
Jose, a grandmother of six, was the eldest of 17 teacher hopefuls from across New Mexico recently selected to take part in the Golden Apple Scholars program run by the nonprofit Golden Apple Foundation for Excellence in Teaching.
The program wrapped up its first its first weeklong training session Friday at New Mexico Highlands University. Not all scholars could make it in person, so some will be attending a session in the fall instead.
Jose traveled to the program from her Laguna Pueblo home and braved the Highlands dormitories without air conditioning for the sake of the experience, which she said was worth it for the mentorship, connections and extra training.
“There are opportunities out there,” she said. “You just have to reach out.”
The Golden Apple Foundation for Excellence in Teaching is a sister organization to Golden Apple Foundation of New Mexico, which recognizes teachers in the state each year with financial awards and support.
At this week’s institute, Golden Apple Scholar participants received a $2,000 stipend for their time at Highlands, where they took part in teaching exercises and heard presentations from New Mexico educators — and from Alan Mather, president of the Golden Apple Foundation for Excellence in Teaching, who presented on competency-based education.
The group will reconvene throughout their college careers. Eventually, Mather said, they’ll take part in paid “summer teaching experiences” before finally completing full-year co-teaching residencies as seniors in college — something the state of New Mexico recently invested $15.5 million in this past legislative session.
The program is currently funded by the Golden Apple Foundation for Excellence in Teaching, but Mather said the nonprofit is seeking state funding.
In committing to becoming a scholar, Jose is also agreeing to spend at least five years teaching at a school that partners with the program in New Mexico within seven years of graduating from Western. That’s no problem for Jose, who intends to stay in Laguna Pueblo.
“I started my career there 22 years ago,” she said.
Jose said teaching runs in her family and that $10,000 minimum annual pay raises for teachers passed by state legislature this year are keeping her from second-guessing her chosen profession — which has become notorious in recent years for low pay and intense working conditions.
At the start of the 2021-22 school year, New Mexico State University’s Southwest Outreach Academic Research Evaluation and Policy Center identified 1,048 teaching vacancies at the start of last school year.
The scholars program is modeled after one that’s existed through the Golden Apple Foundation for Excellence in Teaching in Illinois for roughly three decades, which Mather said has been associated with high teacher retention rates. In Illinois, an average of 77 percent of scholars have finished their teaching degrees and got licenses within six years of starting school, and 82 percent stayed in teaching for at least five years.
Mather said the organization is still looking for applicants for another session in the fall and that organizers for the scholar program plan on creating more cohorts in the future.
Mather said program organizers are also hoping to help schools find what he calls “windows and mirrors” in cultural representation for their students by encouraging future teachers to teach in their communities of origin.
In the 2018-19 school year, according to Teach Plus New Mexico, 77 percent of public school students in the state were identified as “students of color,” while only 40 percent of the teaching population was identified as “teachers of color.”
In its recently released 55-page draft plan for addressing the findings of the 2018 landmark Yazzie/Martinez v. state of New Mexico lawsuit, which deemed education for the majority of public schools students in the state to be inadequate, the New Mexico Public Education Department called for a “developing a pipeline of home-grown teachers” to aid in improvements.
Mather, who spent 30 years as an educator in Chicago Public Schools, said teachers who work in their communities tend to build strong relationships with their students.
“They need to see themselves reflected in the curriculum,” he said of New Mexico’s students. “And they need a window to the outside world as well.”
The opportunity to be surrounded by other people who want to enter teaching was a gift to Eliana Martinez, 18, a recent graduate of Española Valley High School who is heading to New Mexico State University in the fall to study education.
“It was just overall good to know there are more people like me,” she said. “In high school, you just get questioned.”
Martinez grew up in a family of educators. Her aunt teaches, her mother is a school counselor and her grandfather was once a principal.
She said the pay is not the best, and the disciplinary side of teaching can be difficult. Even though people hassle her about her chosen career, it sounds worth it to her.
After all, Martinez said, all influential people start out as students in classrooms, and she wants to be there to inspire them.
When college is all done, Martinez plans to move to her hometown of Chimayó and teach for Española Public Schools.
“That’s my roots; that’s where I’m from,” she said.