Michelle Lujan Grisham must’ve been a math whiz at St. Michael’s High School.
Who reads numbers, gleans numbers, better than the governor? As she runs for a second term, and clearly savvy enough to see her public education system creaking beneath the weight of COVID-19, MLG let her fingers do the walking on a calculator and came up with a payment schedule sure to warm every teacher’s heart: a 7 percent pay raise.
Actually, when you factor in the proposal to lift the flooring for the three tiers of pay that govern teachers’ income, it’s far more than a pay boost. What the governor is proposing in the 2023 fiscal year budget is the beginnings of a makeover in how New Mexico sees its schools.
Assuming the 7 percent comes through (and is implemented by all New Mexico school districts; never a sure thing), teaching in a public school is elevated into something resembling a real career, and not just a kindhearted avocation in which a long-suffering proletariat simply takes what is offered.
Yup, 7 percent is big. But let’s face it: The governor had little choice. This was a move of desperation, not magnanimity.
New Mexico’s teaching workforce is thin, tired and without many reinforcements on the horizon. That’s been true for a decade or more. But demographics and COVID-19 have created a perfect storm of real crisis. Together, they’ve left nearly every district in the state without enough teachers to man (and woman) classrooms.
Santa Fe Public Schools says it’s down 50 teachers. I’m shocked it’s that few. Statewide, New Mexico needs another 1,000 teachers.
Clearly, Lujan Grisham sees such numbers. And I’ll betcha she also has polling figures that indicate her Republican opponent will try to use education against her in the 2022 election. Add 2+2 — a need to generate more bodies in classrooms with a potential political vulnerability — and you have a solution.
Or, more accurately perhaps, a response. Sometimes, that’ll get you over the hump in an election year.
But here’s the next need for schools, and maybe, the bigger need.
It’s called time.
Talk to any teacher, and they’ll tell you they want and deserve more pay. That’s true, but it’s been true forever.
Dig a little deeper, and a good teacher will tell you they need more hours to be effective.
To be an educator.
I spent eight years of my life on the outskirts of education, working a job that let me take a look at classrooms and kids. Here’s what I learned: Education is not microwavable. It’s a slow cook in the crockpot, requiring dogged commitment and an ability to concentrate on the varying needs of 22 or 25 or 30 kids all at once. It can be done, it is being done, but for there to be any consistency, there must be fewer distractions and more uninterrupted hours.
But that’s not common in most public schools. For one thing, the traditional school year is woefully inadequate. A nine-month calendar with 180 or 183 school days built in no longer works for 21st century education. The school day itself likely is too short. Throw in all the other stuff — the trainings and retrainings; the grading; the inevitable changes in how to teach ever-evolving standards; the email tennis played with demanding helicopter parents — and you have a workforce that’s constantly behind, and often, unable to do the job for which it’s being paid.
They can be counselors and coaches and confidantes and social workers, but do they have the time to teach? In a word, no.
The state will say it’s worked to convince districts to get on board with extended-time school calendars to help bridge the learning chasms brought by the pandemic (and the yawning gaps that existed before COVID-19). But in essence, that’s been an opt-in/opt-out proposition, largely based on the feelings of teachers and teachers unions — and parents who couldn’t bear to give up part of their summer vacation to see Granny in Iowa.
From a simple educational perspective, the state can no longer afford such niceties. Students need to be in school longer. Period. Teachers need to be paid handsomely to work at a job that is closer to year-round than nine months. Period. And New Mexico, which for so long has whined about its education system without actually ponying up to create a better one, had better be ready for the bill when it comes due.
Lujan Grisham came to office in 2019 promising the oft-repeated “moonshot” for education. I’m not sure she ever really got off the launching pad. Yes, COVID-19 changed the entire paradigm, forcing the entire educational system to discard aspirational greatness for simple survival.
In the process, exhausted teachers, principals and administrators have quit. The others, bless them, are hanging on for dear life.
A pay raise will help. But in New Mexico’s classrooms, time is money — and money is time.
The math whiz in the Governor’s Office should factor that into the calculation, too.