Mandi Torrez, New Mexico’s 2020 Teacher of the Year, spoke before the Legislative Education Study Committee about many of the issues she sees plaguing students in her classroom and across the state.
“We still need to have these debates for the sake of our kids and the sake of our future,” she said.
Torrez teaches third grade at Placitas Elementary in the Bernalillo School District. She said her school and many others in New Mexico face daily struggles due to lack of funding.
“We need to stop making excuses,” she said. “We can’t just throw up our hands and accept this.”
The state of New Mexico and the Public Education Department are currently involved in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit, the result of which found that many students were not receiving their constitutional right to a quality education, particularly students of color and those with special needs.
During her speech, Torrez addressed the issues identified in the Yazzie lawsuit, while also highlighting the struggles that teachers face on a day-to-day basis.
Specifically, she mentioned a Rio Grande SUN article that revealed how students at Española Valley High School are taking online courses in lieu of teachers and are placed in the school cafeteria when teachers or substitutes are unavailable.
Torrez said these examples are indicative of problems faced by rural students in New Mexico.
“We fail them again, by not being able to provide them with the same level of education that other kids receive,” she said.
These issues, in part, are caused by teacher shortages and vacancies faced by districts all over the state. An October study conducted by New Mexico State University found, despite a 13 percent decline in vacancies, there were still over 1,000 open positions available.
These vacancies, Torrez said, are caused by the various stresses teachers experience, including purchasing their own supplies, undergoing frequent observations by superiors and facing constant scrutiny.
“We are the scapegoats for all that is wrong with education,” she said.
In response to the Yazzie lawsuit, nearly $500 million in new funds were put toward education by the state, much of which went to cover a 6 percent pay raise for public employees mandated by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, asked if these new funds have been felt in the classroom.
Torrez said while teachers have felt the positive effects of pay raises and a new evaluation process, she still faces many of the same challenges as before. She cited, for example how many teachers work unpaid overtime after the bell rings.
“It’s just expected that we work overtime,” she said. “The good ones never take the summer off.”
New Mexico often ranks at or near the bottom among U.S. states in terms of childhood education, usually next to Mississippi.
Torrez gave an example of how Mississippi is tackling dropout rates and teacher vacancies by recruiting African-American men to teach, since that demographic makes up 51 percent of students in the state.
She said the same strategy is not happening in New Mexico and that students often do not see themselves reflected among their teachers.
Lawmakers agreed that learning materials and school environments are not best serving minority students.
“We’re not providing the correct materials that address the needs of multicultural students in our classrooms,” Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, said.
All the points made by Torrez, almost all of which included detailed citations, followed a main theme—increased funding across the board is a must.