Cooper De Uribe: Filling Teacher Vacancies Is Critical & Comprehensive Bill Passage Is Key

Teach Plus New Mexico

“I haven’t seen you in what seems like forever!” I said to my friend and colleague, Miriam, who teaches kindergarten.

Her colorful room is filled with art and work in Spanish by her budding bilingual students who often wrap their arms around her leg to say, “I love you, Maestra Miriam,” in two languages. 

“I know,” she told me with an exhausted smile, “It’s just a lot to stay on top of.” Miriam is teaching a full group of kindergarteners in a language immersion setting and taking three education classes for her degree. This year in her classroom, Miriam doesn’t have an educational assistant to help provide her students with the academic and social support they need. 

Studies consistently show that one of the most important contributors to student learning is access to classrooms with highly-qualified teachers. According to the most recent Educator Vacancy Report from New Mexico State University, unfilled positions in New Mexico essentially doubled in the past year. We need upward of 1,000 educators to create learning environments tailored to the specific needs of approximately 25,000 students, notably in areas such as math, science, and bilingual and special education. 

As a bilingual first grade teacher at a school that offers instruction in Spanish, I know what it takes to try and find colleagues for these hard-to-fill positions. At New Mexico International School (NMIS) where I teach, we had a packed schedule this past summer interviewing prospective candidates who could meet all the bilingual licensure requirements of our school. And yet despite all the time and effort, we are still a part of the state’s teaching vacancy story. 

How do we recruit and retain teachers? One of the most immediate ways is to show that we value them. Just as teachers at my school worked overtime over the summer to find effective educators to fill much-needed positions, we also work evenings and weekends to increase our own knowledge to serve our students better. 

This is a propitious time to underscore the value of this work. It is crucial for our legislature to pass multiple bills to raise New Mexico teachers’ salaries, offset insurance premium increases, and target high-need positions. Take-home pay increases are one of the key ways to help recruit and retain a diverse and sustainable educator workforce for the state of New Mexico. It will place higher cultural value on the work of education while simultaneously making it a more economically viable professional pursuit. 

Fortunately, this year’s legislative session offers a comprehensive range of bills that can both increase teacher pay and offset insurance costs, thus truly increasing the long-term likelihood that we can attract talented people to meet our classroom needs.

The legislature should support three separate proposals: 

Base-pay increases for all three levels of licensure, group insurance contributions to offset the cost of insurance of all employees, and an overall minimum increase in pay. Bills such as SB1, SB 132, and HB59, as well as the governor’s proposed budget for the House’s spending bill, can begin to effectively address each of these three recommendations respectively. These efforts alone won’t remedy the teacher vacancy crises, but they will make a difference. 

I encourage you to reach out to your legislators right now in support of these legislative initiatives. Our 25,000 students who are currently without these needed teachers deserve it. I know that Miriam’s kindergarten students have open arms waiting to welcome one of them. 

Alisa Cooper de Uribe teaches is a Spanish immersion first grade teacher at New Mexico International School, an International Baccalaureate school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is a 2021-2022 Teach Plus New Mexico Policy Fellow.

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