A rosebush blooms outside of Maize Elford-White’s home in a bright shade of purple-pink.
She has raised plants for most of her life, but what makes this rosebush more special to her is that it was a gift from the Española School District, which gave all retiring teachers one of these plants as a goodbye token.
Gardening will be a major part of her life as a retired elementary school teacher in the coming years, and that rosebush is just one special part of her experiences.
Española School District Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez gave the plants to teachers during a May 15 banquet in their honor, but Elford-White could not be there, as she was at another school event.
She received the plant the next day in her classroom and planted it on the side of her house, near her other rose bushes. She built a small, white and green fence around it.
With more time during retirement, she’ll be raising vegetables and flowers, walking her dog, Posie, around the neighborhood, hiking in the mountains around Tesuque, cooking and practicing yoga.
For Elford-White, gardening is a lot like teaching — she plants seeds and watches them grow.
“It’s about giving someone an idea and where they’ll go with it,” she said.
During one of her last days of class at Alcalde Elementary, May 17, Elford-White was relaxed as she directed her second grade students to complete multiplication and division assignments on their laptop computers in preparation for the upcoming school year’s math lessons.
The atmosphere in class was disciplined but laid back. At one point, a student got up and walked over to Elford-White’s desk to tell her a joke.
Alcalde Elementary Principal Kiva Buckworth-Moulton was Elford-White’s supervisor for about one year. She said the students enjoyed Elford-White’s peaceful, calm demeanor, adding that she embraced technology and had a great last year before retirement.
“I had to teach myself to pause ... rather than just reacting quickly,” Elford-White said. “Because kids sometimes say and do things that you get taken aback, or surprised. ... I remember being a kid myself, you know, people are complicated. Your emotional life is so complicated.”
She recalled a time she needed to be patient in class. She was teaching a science lesson about different types of earth, and students shook pebbles, rocks, sand and gravel in a screen to separate them.
In the final hour of the day, they reached a lesson involving making beads out of clay. Elford-White let the students divide the remaining clay and do whatever they wanted with it.
While most of the students quickly finished their art projects, one boy spent the rest of the class working on his, even while everyone else started cleaning the classroom and packing up to go home.
“I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, I wish he would hurry up,’” Elford-White said.
But she held her tongue and let him go undisturbed, while everyone worked around him. When it was time for him to get his backpack to go home, she discovered he had made a pot out of the clay.
“That’s why he took so long, and he wasn’t a person that was particularly careful with everything, he didn’t always do meticulous work,” she said. “I hadn’t thought of that being his personality, but I was very surprised. That he had taken so long with this, making this little pot. He wanted it to be perfect, and it was. A perfectly symmetrical pot, completely smooth on all sides. Just a gorgeous little pot.”
The episode tells Elford-White something about education in general.
“Things can be rushed,” she said. “There’s so much to do and so little time. Education hasn’t always been that way. ... The idea that a child would start a project, then be able to work on it until they finish, it’s not really like that. You have a schedule and then sometimes, you just have to break out of the schedule and complete what they’re working on, so they can do a good job and really get into something.”
Becoming an Artist
Elford-White, who is one-quarter Alaskan Native, or Athabascan, grew up in Gig Harbor, Wash. with her parents, Lola and Ed Elford.
Her parents both worked for the federal government at the Bremerton Navy Yard — her mother as a payroll manager, her father as a scheduler.
“They were very hard-working people,” Elford-White said.
She attended Peninsula High School and graduated from the Holy Names Academy in Spokane, Wash. She will be attending the 50-year Peninsula High School class reunion this July.
She moved to New Mexico in 1980 and earned her bachelor’s degree in humanities at the College of Santa Fe four years later.
From 1986 to 1990, she studied silversmithing and jewelry at the Institute of American Indian Arts.
Elford-White became a member of and showcased her work through the Palace of the Governors Native Artisans Program — she sold her jewelry there until 1999. Now that she is retired, she hopes to sell her jewelry there part-time.
She is still a member of the Native artisans group at the Palace of the Governors.
“So that’s probably what I’m going to do now, just part time, sell jewelry. I can’t live on my retirement and social security,” she said with a laugh. “Maybe if I had taught for 30 years. But that’s not my story.”
She likes making and selling jewelry, because she makes a personal connection with the person who buys the jewelry.
“And then they keep the jewelry forever,” she said. “My friends still wear my jewelry, I still get mail from people that have kept a bracelet, a necklace or something. I wanted to do something that was more challenging. Teaching definitely is really challenging. I don’t think people realize how hard teaching is.”
Evolution of an Instructor
In 1999, Elford-White moved back to Washington to study teaching at Evergreen State College, and earned her master’s degree in teaching by 2001.
After graduation, she began teaching in Olympia, Wash. and lived in Washington until her parents died and her daughter, Cedar Elford, graduated from high school.
She moved back to New Mexico in 2006.
She began work at Abiquiú Elementary School two years later. She later worked at Sombrillo Elementary, Chimayó Elementary, La Tierra Montessori School for the Arts and Sciences and most recently, Alcalde Elementary School.
Española School District Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez said she only met Elford-White on a few brief occasions.
When reviewing files, Gutierrez found that Elford-White frequently incorporated artwork into her lessons and that she was committed to making art feel like a joyful form of self-expression and committed to teaching her students to express themselves.
She also found that Elford-White had great instruction, attention to detail and the ability to apply class work to real-life examples. Elford-White was also great at improving students’ work when they were initially performing below grade level.
Española School District Deputy Superintendent Denise Johnston said Elford-White worked with a mentor through the district. Although she does not know her well, Johnston said Elford-White conducts herself in a kind, warm and calm way.
Over the past few years, she said she has visited Elford-White’s classroom a number of times. During these visits, she noticed Elford-White had a caring attitude in the classroom. On a day she evaluated the classroom during the 2016 - 2017 school year, she noticed Elford-White executed the lesson well and was well-organized.
She said she also noticed that Elford-White enjoyed learning and that she seemed to get a lot out of professional development sessions and was always appreciative.
Technology, art, school involvement
“This is the best school I’ve been at,” Elford-White said, referring to Alcalde Elementary. “This school has a really great staff. And the kids are just really sweet.”
She called the school family-oriented and a central space for community involvement.
One of her favorite school years was this past year, when she taught second grade, which is something she wishes she would have done sooner. Before that, she taught third, fourth, fifth and sixth grade.
“Seven- and eight-year-old kids are just fun,” because they have learned how to read and it is an exciting time for them to be learning how to use computers, she said.
The best day she experienced as a teacher was when the WiFi service, which was usually spotty, started to work. She said this gave the staff an opportunity to open a crate of Chromebooks for student use.
Almost every year of her teaching career, Elford-White has taught students how to use computers.
She said having students exposed to technology like this is valuable.
“That’s what they’re using,” she said. “That’s the world they’re living in.”
She also plays the piano and sings during Christmas activities at Alcalde Elementary, which has no music program.
“The expectations for teachers are really high,” she said. “We plan all our own field trips. It’s a computerized grade book. If kids are not doing well, it sends me a message and I have to go in there and teach that. We’re really held accountable for everything.”
Maria Cata, the current school nurse at Alcalde Elementary, first met Elford-White when they were both working at Sombrillo Elementary.
She described Elford-White as a hard worker, who is dedicated to her job.
Cata said she enjoyed working with Elford-White.
“We really enjoyed each other’s company — we talked about the school, our lives, the community or nation,” Cata said.
Marie Maestas teaches bilingual education at Alcalde Elementary School, where she met Elford-White. She said Elford-White was pleasant to work with, was punctual and cared a lot about her work and her students.
She said the space Elford-White created in her classroom was student-friendly and stress-free. She said there was a blend of both fun and games as well as class work.
Maestas saw Elford-White as soft-spoken, friendly, professional and quiet, adding that she has never seen her angry or upset. She said she was always upbeat, positive and welcomed in any social circle.
A connection with children
“Second grade was a perfect fit for her,” Cata said. “The kids really enjoyed her, and she enjoyed them too.”
She said Elford-White’s classroom focused on teamwork. Each time she stopped by her class, she noticed the students were either working together in a large group or in smaller groups.
“She is a very peaceful person, and I think she instilled that in her classroom too,” Cata said. “She has a calming effect on people.”
Cata said Elford-White is intelligent, well-spoken and can manage stress with a calm outlook or disposition. She said this ability to keep herself calm is a positive trait in the classroom, because teachers have to face a lot of stressful situations each day.
“A lot of people realize the demands teachers face, but it’s kind of easy to overlook it, and we kind of take it for granted that they’re there,” Cata said.
Cata said she has been working with the public schools for 14 years, and each year, there are more and more demands on teachers, such as more training, documentation and statewide standards.
“It’s a lot that they have to cover,” she said. “We have some very good teachers in our district and thank goodness they’re able to take on all of that.”
Gutierrez said she hopes teachers who work with the Española School District recognize just how special the students are, especially when considering the negative elements that impact the community, such as poverty, drug use and crime.
“We have the most amazing young people,” she said. “I just hope that (teachers) take away how much they love the students here.”
She said the community frequently compliments District students’ involvement and engagement.
Whether someone spends a couple of years as a teacher or makes teaching their career, Gutierrez said she hopes their time with Española schools creates some of the most endearing years they experience.
“A lot of (Elford-White’s) students were very happy to have her as their teacher this year,” Cata said, recalling one moment that stood out to her in particular.
During a fire drill, students lined up outside. Elford-White’s second-graders were lined up beside a row of first graders, and Cata said the first-graders told Elford-White that they wanted her to be their teacher the following year.
Ultimately, what stands out to Cata about Elford-White is that she is a good teacher and a good role model.
The road ahead
“She’ll be missed,” Maestas said of Elford-White.
Any time another instructor needed help or there may have been an issue with a student’s behavior or personal life, she was always happy to be there for both the students and staff, Maestas said.
“She always made time for everybody,” Maestas said.
Gutierrez described Elford-White’s personality as kind and sweet, adding that she was soft-spoken and also beautiful.
When she visited Elford-White’s classroom at Chimayo Elementary, she said she felt the space was warm and welcoming.
Cata said she hopes the first thing Elford-White does with her retirement is rest. She also hopes she can get back to jewelry-making and gardening.
“When you’re working, you don’t always have time to do that,” she said.
Cata said she will continue to work with the public schools, and with the start of Elford-White’s retirement, the two will more than likely keep in touch.
Elford-White said it feels great to reach the end of her teaching career.
“It’s really hard work, and I’m actually tired,” she said. “Of course, everybody is tired at this time of year. But you know, I think it’s time for me to stop and reassess.”
What did she say she will be missing most about her retirement? Working with the children.
“(My students) inspire me to be fully present in the moment (and) be my best self,” she said.
Gutierrez was grateful for the skills Elford-White brought and her love of art.
“We were happy to have her for the time she was here and certainly wish her well in retirement, and I hope she continues her amazing work as an artist,” she said.