I will never forget when, during the first year at my school, my students asked, “If I come back to visit next year, will you be gone?” There was huge turnover in my district and teachers did not stay long. My students knew this. Teachers left for districts with higher test scores, new opportunities and better pay in other states or professions. Last school year, my current students’ teacher left mid-year for a position out of state, leaving them to build a relationship with the new teacher after the holiday break. This year, one of the students asked me if I would be back after the break. I had to work hard to convince him that I wasn’t going anywhere.
Our students deserve, and families should demand, highly effective teachers who have the ability to accelerate the academic growth of their students. But we must provide such teachers with reasons to stay beyond commitment to their students. In New Mexico, salary increases and professional incentives are virtually nonexistent for many educators who have “topped out” at the Level 3 licensure. Our students are losing the teachers they value, and their academic outcomes are suffering as a result.
Low socioeconomic areas like Bernalillo, Belen, Grants – and Kirtland where I teach – find it even more challenging to keep highly effective teachers. The students in these districts desperately need consistency and high quality but often see teachers leave after one or two years. Teachers in every district make a difference, but in areas like mine students look forward to having the teachers that their brothers and sisters have had. My students’ siblings tell me often that they can’t wait to have me in sixth grade. James is the brother of a student I had last year. He struggles in many subjects, but has an A in my class. My team often tells me it is because of the relationship I have with him. I agree. Teachers who stay in their community have years of experience and knowledge that is invaluable in teaching.
In every career, professionals need to be able to grow. When it comes to teachers, our state’s current system only allows for growth up to a point. The system is not set up to keep great teachers where they are most needed. But we can change this.
First, a Level Four license should exist for the educators who have attained masters’ degrees and certification, and who also participate in leadership roles while staying in the classroom. At Level Four, educators will remain in the classroom working directly with students to help them achieve at a high level while providing other teachers the support they need to improve their teaching.
Second, New Mexico should provide a certain level of financial reward as teachers gain experience and increase their professional growth, especially when that teacher is making a difference in closing the achievement gap for students.
New Mexico’s teachers should be given the opportunities to grow in the greatest career field, education.
Ruth Gallegos teaches sixth grade Language Arts at Kirtland Elementary School. She is a Teach Plus New Mexico Teaching Policy Fellow.