In my early years of teaching, it was easy for me to identify the champion teachers within my building. I gravitated toward them. I often observed their classrooms and stole great ideas to use in my own classroom. I loved how Mr. Torres used the first-grade spelling words in math word problems that his students were solving. I looked for ways to integrate this within my lessons. Mrs. Garcia taught me about the power of movement. Students were often out of their seats, loud, and learning. This energy was used to teach academic terms to third-graders. I learned strategies to differentiate my instruction, not from my college courses, but from these master teachers. Like them, I set the bar high for every student and created different pathways to help them reach it.
These master educators are the same teachers who often serve on school, district and state committees. Imagine my surprise when I learned many of these teachers, whom I considered mentors, were not paid at the highest level available in New Mexico. Although they have demonstrated their high level of effectiveness throughout their many years as educators, those without a master’s degree are required to remain a teacher at the midlevel certification, Level 2. In fact, in New Mexico, you need to have either a master’s degree or be a National Board Certified Teacher in order to advance to the highest of three salary levels. A teacher with these credentials could advance to the highest level in New Mexico in as little as six years. However, despite proven high-quality teaching year after year, even a Level 3 teacher cannot advance further. For teachers, the only option for continued advancement is to become an administrator. In New Mexico, champion teachers are not being incentivized to stay in the classroom and continue to make a direct impact in the lives of our students.
I chose to go back to college and earn my master’s degree. I did not want to be limited in my career, and I felt that having a master’s degree would give me more options to make a difference on a larger scale. If had to do it again, however, I’m not sure that I would. I learned lots from some courses and not so much from others. My main source of learning has always come from practicing the work itself. I completed my master’s program in three years with three children at home. Oftentimes, being a great mom, a great teacher, and now a great student was a real challenge. I did most of my homework in my car as I sat outside my son’s football practice with the baby napping in the back seat. And when that practice was over, I rushed to get my daughter to her softball practice, and the homework continued.
As an educator, I know that I have made a difference in my students’ lives. I come from a background similar to most of the poorer students in New Mexico and so I understood the challenges that they faced and the support they needed. I know that they left my classroom more confident in their academic abilities and more knowledgeable about their opportunities in life. My student data was always very strong. I developed SATs for my struggling students and worked with other teachers to better support their learning. I participated in numerous teams and committees and became known as a “teacher leader,” not only in my school, but in my district as well.
I did all this without and then with a master’s degree. The degree did not change my commitment to my students or the high quality of my instruction. A variety of high school graduation requirements are made available to students to demonstrate their mastery and readiness to complete that stage of their educational career. I believe we should also develop a variety of pathways to acknowledge our best teachers by giving them opportunities for advancement while staying in the classroom. There are many champion teachers without a master’s degree. They may not have the money or the opportunity to go back to school. But this doesn’t lessen their commitment, just like it didn’t mine. These teachers need to be acknowledged and compensated for the master work that they conduct, even if they don’t have a master’s. We should value and support our champion teachers to remain classroom leaders instead of having to become administrative leaders, so they continue to do the important work of teaching our kids.
Hope Morales was a Teacher on Special Assignment at Military Heights Elementary School in Roswell and is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna.