Correction appended

Nava Elementary School student Atticus Guy still recalls the way his fifth grade teacher, William Rodriguez, showed he cared during the pandemic.

Learning from home in an online classroom, Atticus appreciated that his teacher checked in with all the students at the start and end of each lesson — monitoring their mental and emotional health while covering the basics of reading, writing and math.

“Every day you felt like he gave you exactly what you needed,” said Atticus, who’s now a sixth grader. “Teachers are the tops.”

He joined other Nava students, teachers, parents, lawmakers and education advocates on the campus Tuesday as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed several bills into law to help recruit, retain and support educators.

Chief among them is Senate Bill 1, which will give teachers in the state’s three-tiered licensure system a $10,000 boost in starting pay.

That means starting teachers will see their pay rise to $50,000 from $40,000; middle-tier teachers go to $60,000 from $50,000; teachers at the highest level will make at least $70,000, a boost from their current annual rate of $60,000.

The higher salaries also will affect pay for principals and assistant principals.

“There aren’t better educators around the globe,” Lujan Grisham said before signing the bills outside the school on Siringo Road in Santa Fe.

“They really care about you,” the governor added, looking at Atticus and other Nava students gathered nearby. “This job isn’t a job. It’s a career.”

Bill signings often are often accompanied by a touch of fanfare, and Tuesday’s event was no different: An array of speakers praised the work of educators and lawmakers who supported efforts to attract and keep them in a state facing a shortage of more than 1,000 teachers and half that many educational assistants.

But in the warmth of a sun shining down on the school campus, the event became a celebration of teaching.

Atticus and her fellow student council members first gave a brief history of Nava Elementary, a 1960s-era school named after Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Francis X. Nava, the first Santa Fean to die in combat in the Vietnam War.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, gave an impassioned speech punctuated by arm and hand gestures referencing the nearby students. Weingarten praised the governor and lawmakers for putting legislation into place that will make the job of teaching in New Mexico one “everyone wants to strive for.”

Nava Elementary School teacher Laura Mayo-Rodriguez followed Weingarten, sometimes choking up as she spoke of walking otherwise vacant hallways in the school on weekends and finding teacher after teacher working behind closed doors in their classrooms, preparing for the coming week’s lessons.

She described teachers as friends, counselors, parents, therapists, computer wizards and coaches, always working to buttress the pain of the pandemic and a war-torn world — all while encouraging creativity, a love of learning and a joy of lives of students.

“Every teacher I know is always ‘on,’ always teaching,” Mayo-Rodriguez said.

Others on hand, including state union leaders, lawmakers supporting the legislation and Secretary of Public Education Kurt Steinhaus, said the bills’ collective goals will help shore up not just the numbers of teachers in the state, but morale.

Lujan Grisham said she wants the state to find ways to “never fly back from these investments” in the future. Education advocates have said it is imperative New Mexico keep making such financial commitments to teachers to keep them in schools.

One of Atticus Guy’s Nava classmates, Ian Riesterer, said after the ceremony his teachers “go above and beyond” expectations every day.

“They make school more than just learning,” he said.

Correction: A previous version of this story used incorrect pronouns when referring to Nava Elementary School student Atticus Guy.

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

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