I am writing today to announce the closure of the New Mexico Independent. After three and a half years of operation in New Mexico, the board of the American Independent News Network, has decided to shift publication of its news…
Teaching in the Valley
Why would anyone give up a long career in any profession to teach? Well, it isn’t all about having summers off. It is also not all about being unhappy with your current career. It is not even all about having a notion that you can make a difference in the lives of children.
It can be all of those things and more, I’ve discovered. I have entered the teaching field at the age of 45, after having a first career as a journalist. For the most part, my journalism career was satisfying. Something, however, kept pulling at me when it came to education. In the 20-plus years I spent at the Albuquerque Journal, I would find myself writing about the problems in education, the highs and the lows. And with every story I wrote, there was something that kept gnawing at me. Could I be part of the solution rather than writing constantly about the problems? I wasn’t sure, but when I finally made the decision to leave the Journal, I knew that the only second career I wanted was in education.
I’m a new teacher — one of many, who felt this way and took a leap of faith to enter the field. There are some of us who have added some risk to the already challenging prospect of teaching for the first time. I’m teaching at the Atrisco Heritage Academy, a high school classified as being in a “high needs” community. It’s a school where most of the students come in with low test scores and from families in the lower income levels. The community we serve is on the far southwest mesa in Albuquerque’s South Valley. There is a large immigrant population — English learners, for the most part from Mexico. And it is a school where, presumably, good, experienced teachers shy away from working because they really do not want to deal with socio-economic problems. They just want to teach.
I won’t lie. That’s all I thought I would have to do too. I quickly found out how little I understood about teaching, especially at this school. It’s been five weeks since I first started writing this new teacher diary for the New Mexico Independent, and I can tell you I’ve had to deal more with discipline than I have had to deal with grading papers. My colleagues and I go through our lesson plans, but some of these students haven’t learned that homework is necessary. It’s hard for many of them to sit still for the 88-minute block classes, and many of them come to school unprepared for work. Some even come to school without pencils and paper. The basics are missing, including classroom manners, for some of these students.
My friends listen to my stories in disbelief. Many of them are like me. They grew up in the South Valley, were children of low or middle income parents, and somehow they made it out of high school into college or took on jobs that turned into careers. When I tell them about students who make no bones about the gangs they are in or how they show up without pencil, paper and plenty of bad attitudes about school, my friends are taken aback. They wonder if the South Valley has changed that much or have their own lives.
The stories at my school are enough to make me feel like I was raised in some sort of privileged family that didn’t struggle. That of course is not true, but the struggles I faced growing up in the South Valley are nothing like the ones some of my students face every day — parents who deal or do drugs, poverty so great homelessness is not just a possibility, it’s a reality. Most of these kids have seen violence or have been victims of violence. They have been toughened up so much it’s hard to break through the exterior to find that vulnerable high school student that I or my friends were when all we had to deal with was being out of fashion or forgetting our homework on the kitchen table.
Still, I haven’t regretted making the career change. Thankfully, there was an alternative licensure program that met my needs, because the prospect of going back to school for an education degree wasn’t doable at this point in my life. Not only was it was cost prohibitive, but I have a family — two teen boys who need my chauffeur service more than anything. But I found a program — and there are plenty — that offered me the chance to work as a teacher while getting my credentials.
These types of alternative licensure programs have crept up over the years as the teacher shortage reached critical mass. The program that I and several of my Atrisco Heritage Academy high school teachers are in is Transition to Teaching (T2T).
There’s Dr. Donna Navarrete, an Albuquerque native, who spent more than 10 years working in the nuclear defense program for the Department of Defense at Sandia National Labs. Her work days were spent in a lab with engineers, scientists and other government employees.
“It wasn’t for me,” she said. “I was making great money, I had a great job in one of the most prestigious places to work in the state, if not the nation. But there was something that just kept me thinking I wasn’t in the right place.”
She had always loved libraries, so she looked into getting a library science degree. She already had an undergraduate degree and started applying to colleges for a master’s in library science. While doing so, she applied for the first round of the Bill and Melinda Gates Millennium Scholarships. It was the first year the Gates scholars awarded graduate scholarships. She was one of 200 awarded a scholarship, and the only one from New Mexico. It allowed her to get her master’s degree from the University of Southern Mississippi, and then to get a doctorate at the University of New Mexico. She got a job at Honeywell, making good money, but she continued to pine away for either a library job or teaching. She decided on teaching.
She was out of the nuclear bunker and into the teaching frying pan, however, when she was hired at Atrisco. Like me, she’s in the T2T program through the state Public Education Department.
“I won’t lie, this is challenging,” she said recently. “But I’d never quit on these kids. Not knowing what I know about them and what they face everyday. I just don’t want to deal with all the basic discipline problems, so I hope they all get better with that soon. It’s hard with freshmen, but we have to keep giving them consistent rules. It’s our only hope to get somewhere with them.”
In addition to Navarrete, we are joined by second-career teachers who left jobs at Honeywell and Intel.
Through the T2T program and others, including the Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEMS) program through the University of New Mexico, my colleagues and I are taking on the challenges of not only teaching for the first time, but teaching in a “high needs” school. I hate labels, but if we’re talking about needs here, this school has plenty, as do many in the Albuquerque Public Schools system and many, many more across the state.
The community is in one of the poorest parts of town in the South Valley’s Westgate, 98th Street and Tower neighborhoods. I say poor in the sense that the average household income isn’t much over $15,000 annually, according to census figures. There aren’t many services in this part of town, no large shopping malls, no home improvement store (though this may change soon) and families have to go north of Central to watch a movie or play putt-putt golf.
The schools have been deemed “high needs” because of standardized test scores that for the most part are some of the lowest in the district. Many students need to learn English as a second language. Many need to go on the free-and-reduced lunch program in order to get fed during the school year.
Jesus Reveles, assistant director for the T2T program, said that since it started in 2002, the program has placed more than 300 teachers in high-needs schools. It operates with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education as part of its Innovative Education platform. Funding continues through 2011.
“The average age of someone completing our program is about 42,” Reveles said. “Of the people who are age 30 and younger, there’s a fair percentage of them who don’t complete the program, change their minds and don’t stick with teaching. What that tells us is that maturity plays a big part in whether or not a person will be able to handle teaching in these schools.”
He said that teaching in general is a “tough job” and that he finds the more mature teacher is less likely to “judge students” that are living in communities of need.
The state’s rural school districts, in particular in Grants, Gallup and Jemez Valley, continue to struggle to find teachers. The T2T program and others are hoping to make up ground. There is a great need for teachers on the Indian reservations, as well, he said.
Reveles said people who get into the alternative licensure programs come from various backgrounds, but lately there are some interesting applicants.
“One of the largest groups of people coming into our program have business degrees,” Reveles said. “I think many of them are leaving the world of finance to teach. The mortgage industry and banking, as we know, are in a down time and I think it has people thinking about leaving the business altogether. These people make great teachers because of their mathematics background.”
Others come in after military careers or after having served in the Peace Corps., he said. Another large group of second-career teachers come from other countries, he said.
“They bring their language skills and provide such great diversity for our students.”
Yes, Reveles said, some doctors, lawyers and engineers leave their careers to teach. Not all of them are T2T participants, but Reveles has seen a few of them become teachers.
“All of this has helped bolster the teacher numbers in the state,” he said. “But we need so many more. In particular, male teachers, science and math teachers and special education teachers are in high demand, not just in high-needs areas, but everywhere in the state.”
One of my colleagues is retired after a 30-year career as a scientist in the mining industry. He teaches math. His son is attending a prestigious California college, which he said his first career allowed for. He and I meet up in the halls just about every day and exchange thoughts about teaching. Sometimes we vent. He’s finding it as difficult as I am on certain days to endure the bad classroom manners in order to get a lesson in. But the other day, this teacher — an Anglo man teaching mostly Hispanic kids, who really doesn’t need this job, said to me, “I just want to give back and hope that I’m making a difference to at least one of them on any given day.”
I have the feeling he’s making a positive impression on many of them every day. Several weeks ago, he was chosen the teacher that best exemplifies Atrisco Heritage Academy values and goals.
He wore the AHA football jersey proudly on game day. He’s a tough teacher who believes in what he’s doing. I’m lucky to call him my colleague. Keep at it, Mr. Stanley Lewis. Because if you continue to believe in them, how could I not.