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NM struggling with vacant teaching positions

The Santa Fe Rotunda. (Eddie Moore / Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Teacher vacancies in New Mexico public schools have exploded this year – with a still high volume of openings for elementary and special education teachers, according to preliminary research shared on Tuesday.

Rachel Boren, director of the Southwest Outreach Academic Research Evaluation and Policy Center at New Mexico State University, said she and her students are still finalizing an annual report on vacant teaching positions.

But initial analysis suggests New Mexico had more than 1,000 openings this fall, up from 570 last year, she told lawmakers in a hearing on Capitol Hill.

“It’s a mind-boggling number,” she said of the vacant teaching posts.

New Mexico has about 21,000 to 22,000 teachers in total.

The revealing vacancy report came as members of the Legislative Finance Committee assessed academic and policy research ahead of the 2022 legislative session. They heard from a number of experts in a hearing Tuesday afternoon.

Improving student outcomes is a particular priority for the upcoming semester, following a landmark 2018 court ruling that found the state violating the rights of some students by not providing sufficient education. Much of the case focused on students learning English, Native Americans, or from low-income families.

Boren said the job postings his students reviewed suggest New Mexico needs more teachers at the elementary level and with special education training. There is also a high demand for teachers in math, science, health, English and other subjects.

Danny Espinoza, researcher and policy associate at the nonprofit Learning Policy Institute, told lawmakers that teacher qualifications and experience are an important indicator of student success.

Teachers, for example, seem to improve over the course of their careers, he said, making retention an important strategy to help students. But teachers in New Mexico are leaving the profession at a much higher rate than the national average, Espinoza said.

Compensation, work environment, director support and mentorship are factors that help with retention, Espinoza said.

About 23% of teachers in New Mexico are inexperienced, he said, a figure that rises to 36% for schools serving very poor communities.

“New Mexico has struggled with teacher shortages for years,” Espinoza said.

The state has jumped in the national teacher pay rankings in recent years, he said, but it still lags behind neighboring Colorado and Texas. Average teacher salaries in New Mexico range from around $ 43,000 to $ 61,000, according to his presentation.

Senator Pat Woods, R-Broadview, said the Legislature must ensure its spending is directed appropriately to improve retention.

“Obviously, we’re not spending the money in the right place to do it if we have that many starts,” Woods said.

Sen. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, retired educator and Democrat from Ranchos de Taos, said higher pay will have to be part of the answer.

“The bottom line is going to have to be better wages,” he said.

Representatives from the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation, a nonprofit group in northern New Mexico, shared quotes from local teachers as to why teachers might be leaving. Many have said they don’t feel valued and need better support from leaders, a raise in salary, and ongoing professional development.

One teacher said that every educator is supposed to be a “miracle worker” and treated as “flawed” if they don’t succeed.

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