When Toni Seidler, a teacher of 34 years, gets on an airplane, she tells people she’s a waitress.
She doesn’t want a lecture.
“I don’t want to hear about what they have to say about education,” she said. “Everyone always blames the teacher.” She says that, over the decades, she has noticed that as the perception of teaching gets lower, the number of teacher vacancies gets higher.
As of the first of October, 1,173 educator positions, which includes counselors, librarians and nurses as well as teachers, in the state were open – 342 more than last fall.
That means that 740 of New Mexico’s classrooms, or about 53,455 students, are being taught by long-term substitutes versus certified teachers. The student estimation assumes elementary teachers have between 15 and 20 students, while middle and high school teachers have about 100 students a day, based on multiple periods per school day.
The educator vacancy report was prepared by the New Mexico State University College of Education Southwest Outreach Academic Research Lab.
The report comes at a time when school districts are trying to keep up with a growing supply and demand issue by looking out of state and even out of the country.
For instance, Albuquerque Public Schools offered teaching jobs to about 60 people from the Philippines this year.
The central area of the state – Albuquerque, Los Lunas, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe – has the most openings and “includes four districts with large enrollments,” the report says.
According to the report, Albuquerque has 277 teacher openings. Altogether, the district has 318 open educator positions.
APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta said it makes sense for the Albuquerque district to have the most openings, since it is the largest school district in the state.
“APS, like every other public school district in America, is being impacted by a serious teacher shortage. We’ve been talking about this for more than a decade, and now we’re living it,” she wrote in a statement to the Journal.
“Some experts predict it will take a generation to turn the shortage around. Americans understand how important teachers are, and how important it is as a nation to grow our collective intellect, but teacher compensation hasn’t kept up to match those values.”
In other districts:
• Santa Fe Public Schools has 66 teacher openings.
• Roswell Independent School District has 38 vacancies.
• Central Consolidated School District, which is in the Four Corners region of San Juan County, has 31 teacher openings.
• Rio Rancho Public Schools has 28 openings.
Vacancies vary greatly by discipline.
Special education, math and science teachers are among the positions with the greatest need.
Special education teachers account for more than a third of the vacancies, with 267.
Seidler, the head special education teacher at Albuquerque’s Garfield Middle School, is all too familiar with this, pointing out that it isn’t just teacher vacancies that affect special education students. She said she is seeing fewer speech therapists and educational assistants being hired in special education as well.
That means teachers are being asked to do more with bigger class sizes, and the kids are the ones who suffer, Seidler said. “Kids get less of the kinds of supports they require to be successful,” she said.
Seidler also said she believes teachers have more on their plates these days because kids face more and different traumas than they used to.
“We are having to deal with so much more than we’ve ever had to deal with,” she said. “Teachers have to figure out how to get them food, how to get them clothing and then how to teach them math.”
Seidler calls teaching the hardest job in the world.
But she loves it and says passion and wanting to make a difference keep her going at it.
‘On the rise’
The NMSU report indicates that several factors are contributing to the shortage.
The state has a teacher attractiveness rating of 2.18 on a scale of one to five, based off a tool that looks at compensation, working conditions, teacher qualifications and teacher turnover.
Still, in response to the report, the New Mexico Public Education Department says the state is “on the rise,” touting the state teacher evaluation system, stipends for high-rated teachers and higher retention than other states.
“New Mexico is on the rise because of the hard work of our nearly 24,000 educators across the state – with 13,000 more students reading on grade level and 11,000 more students doing math on grade level than ever before,” Chris Eide, director of educator quality at PED, said in a statement.
“And because New Mexico has elevated the teaching profession by raising teacher salaries three times since 2011, putting a meaningful teacher evaluation in place, creating the state’s first-ever Excellence in Teaching Awards, and developing the Teacher Leader Network with nearly 1,000 teachers, more New Mexico teachers are staying in our classrooms than their national counterparts.”
The profession’s reputation is likely a compounding factor to the shortage as well.
According to 1,900 survey responses collected by NMSU, 50 percent would not recommend a career in education and 31 percent were undecided.
Seidler said she would only recommend becoming a teacher with caveats.
“Unless things change, I would say go teach in a more affluent state,” she said.
It’s something she says kids pick up on, too.
“Kids are smart enough to not become a teacher,” she said, adding that they notice the stress in their environment.
The president of the local teachers union, Ellen Bernstein of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, agrees that the rhetoric around teaching affects staffing.
She called the level of teacher vacancies a “crisis.”
“This is truly the worst it’s ever been,” the president of 18 years told the Journal.
“When I started teaching, it was hard to find a job,” she said about kicking off her career in 1982. “There were so many teachers.”
Pay, working conditions and a lack of respect for teachers are all contributing to the current shortage, she said.
Seidler, who is a member of the union, agrees pay is low, saying she makes within $5,000 of what she has made since 2002, despite a master’s degree and 22 years as a head special education teacher.
According to the NMSU report, more teachers in New Mexico feel job insecurity related to standardized testing than in other states.
“In New Mexico 32 percent of the teachers surveyed said they had testing-related job insecurity,” the report said. “The national average was 12 percent.”
The union president echoed this.
“Teaching has become test prep,” Bernstein said. “Really capable people choose to leave because that’s not what they wanted to do in the first place.”
On average, about 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation is based on the growth in their students’ test scores.
The NMSU teacher vacancy analysis also notes policy changes that have “made it more difficult in recent years to attract and retain students interested in pursuing degrees in education,” such as educator preparation program admission requirements being raised.
And universities are graduating fewer and fewer students.
From 2010 to 2017, the University of New Mexico saw a 42 percent decrease in students finishing their educator preparation programs, from 434 to 251.
This year, that number dropped again to 203 students finishing their education preparation programs.
The UNM College of Education sent a statement to the Journal saying that the cost of a four-year degree is something many students question or struggle with.
The college also said students say the return on that investment is limited, because the starting salary of a teacher is below that of other professions.
To boost recruitment, the department has streamlined its programs to reduce credit hour requirements and, therefore, cost, according to the UNM College of Education. It’s also working with high schools to identify people early for the educator prep program.
NMSU also saw a 58 percent drop, with 294 students finishing their program in 2010 and 123 in 2017.
NMSU had 115 students complete its educator preparation program in 2018.
Karen Trujillo, director of NMSU’s Alliance for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, said there are several reasons fewer people are becoming teachers, including a shift of focus toward testing.
“Before, potential teachers were evaluated more holistically,” she said. “Now there are more tests.”
Data collected from 12 of the state’s colleges and universities that offer teacher programs show that a total of 843 people finished the educator preparation programs in the 2017-2018 school year.
“Who wants to do it?” said Seidler, adding it’s not surprising fewer people are becoming teachers. “Our working conditions haven’t improved, our pay hasn’t kept up with the cost of living, I don’t feel trusted and respected.”
But her reason for teaching, which mirrors so many others in her profession, is that she sees the difference teachers make in kids’ lives. That love and passion keep her in the field.