Teaching a viable career option again

by Edward Tabet-Cubero, published in the Santa Fe New Mexican

It’s no surprise that my daughters used to line up their dolls and play school everyday; I was their elementary school principal. From teacher and school administrator to teacher-developer and advocate, I’ve spent over two decades working in education. Growing up in schools, my daughters’ imaginary classrooms were equipped at a whole different level. Each day, the older two would fight over who taught little sister — a real live student in “class” who, unlike their dolls, could raise her hand, answer questions and be bossed around.

Eventually, my oldest moved on to other games, but the idea of being a teacher stuck with my second oldest, Hope. I was proud that my profession appealed to her. However, as the years went on, it concerned me that instead of reading picture books and leading art projects with her imaginary students, she began spending more time “testing” them. She would regularly bring me results of her reading tests on her little sister. Testing had become the most important activity of children playing school — a disconcerting sign of the times.

As Hope entered high school and began exploring possible college majors, teaching was still what compelled her most. But I have a confession to make: I discouraged my own daughter from considering teaching as a career. I didn’t want her subjected to the frustration I’d seen teachers face over the past decade in New Mexico.

Base pay hadn’t really increased in 15 years. The teacher evaluation and school accountability schemes were incomprehensible and unfair, punishing those who chose to teach at the highest need schools. And myriad mandates had de-professionalized teaching. In response, New Mexican teachers left in droves.

Thankfully, 2019 ushered in a new day for public schooling in our state. In a few short months, the leadership of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, Public Education Department Secretary Karen Trujillo and her skilled team of deputy secretaries has turned the tide in ways I didn’t think possible. Gone are the high stakes tests, draconian threats to close schools and oppressive teacher evaluation system.

The new team at the PED is replacing those ineffective, heavy-handed tactics with innovative approaches that couple accountability with support. These new systems are being informed by actual educators, parents, and community.

What’s emerging is a student assessment system that actually informs teaching and a shared accountability system in which the state and districts are also held accountable for providing schools the support they need to succeed with students. Informed by community, the definition of “success” is expanding beyond academic tests and now includes a more holistic look at student development. Our schools are transitioning from a top-down to a bottom-up approach of accountability to our local communities supported by the PED — as it should be.

I had the chance to serve on the governor’s transition team and was unsurprised to learn that the past PED leadership passed judgment on local schools and educators via “desk audits,” reviewing documents far away from local communities at an office in Santa Fe. In stark contrast, the current PED team is strategically crisscrossing the state, celebrating teachers and students and asking local communities what support their schools need. They are, indeed, leading by listening.

The secretary’s enthusiasm for the teaching profession, coupled with a significant salary increase under the governor’s leadership, have made teaching a viable career option again. As my daughter enters her final year of deliberation on her college major, education is back on the table with her old man strongly encouraging her to follow in his footsteps and make a difference in children’s lives by becoming a teacher.

Edward Tabet-Cubero is executive director of the Learning Alliance of New Mexico. He lives in Santa Fe with his wife, also an educator, and all four of his daughters attend New Mexico public schools.