Opinion: In classrooms around New Mexico, acts of nobility

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This is who I am: a teacher. It is a profession that has absorbed me for a quarter-century. Like most New Mexico teachers, I have days when the stars are in alignment and I think that I could teach forever. And then there are the days when other thoughts cloud my mind because education is a political piñata, and it has been for some time. Through it all, I do my best. That is the life of every teacher as we work in a profession that is essentially one of service.

Every teacher I know has at some point spent money for classroom supplies. It is an unspoken pact among us – all teachers will do what needs to be done, despite even the flimsiest of paychecks, in order to get students what they need. It has always been this way – this silent teacher subsidization of our national educational system. And it is not unique to New Mexico.

An Oklahoma teacher recently gained national attention when she convinced people to provide more than $25,000 for her classroom projects. The way that she accomplished this was disturbingly unique – she panhandled for it, and a viral photo of her did the rest. I applaud her guts and creativity where others might not. Hey, you gotta get the money somehow, and she did. For the kids.

Meanwhile, a recent survey of 1,800 teachers conducted by an organization called Adopt-A-Classroom found that teachers reported they spend about $600 on average for their classrooms annually. Adopt-A-Classroom estimated that teachers nationally spend about $1 billion of their own money each year. That is a lot of money leaving the pockets of teachers who often cannot afford such subsidies, but pay they do – regardless.

New Mexico is by no means immune to such teachers – it is quite the opposite in my view, perhaps because poverty is so glaring here. But in this state, it appears to go beyond just caring and generous teachers. I have seen administrators, social workers, secretaries, counselors, custodians and parents lovingly contribute funds, often anonymously and always with staggering grace. I have witnessed teachers purchase enough used desks for a classroom – and then pay to have those desks power-washed and painted. I have observed teachers purchase banners, books, globes, microscopes, telescopes, maps and carpets. I know some teachers who have painted their own classrooms. For every student who cannot afford a field trip, there is a teacher willing to pick up the tab. I have done it myself, countless times.

During the summer, I drove to Santa Fe for nearly two weeks to quietly monitor a District Court trial that, at its core, will determine whether the state of New Mexico adequately funds some of its most poverty-challenged districts, including ones serving Native Americans, low-income students and where students experience English as a second language. That suit, now before District Judge Sarah Singleton, will in all likelihood be challenged regardless of her decision because the stakes are so high. But what the trial, in all its intricacies, left no doubt about, however, is the extent to which many New Mexican teachers relentlessly deal with the existential grind of poverty.

During the trial, educators spoke of harsh conditions. They spoke of students in poor rural districts who leave home before sunrise and return in the dark after traveling to a school that is miles away. They discussed how state and federal funding never fulfills the obligations and needs of a free and appropriate public education. They spoke about how challenging it is to sometimes acquire the basic needs of modern education – a computer, a current book, transportation to a field trip or a room that isn’t frozen in January. What none of those educators discussed was the idea that they would give up.

All this is not to say that there are organized attempts at classroom funding beyond what teachers willingly pay. New Mexico’s Public Education Department has in recent years provided each teacher with a $100 gift card. I appreciate the gift and the gesture, although some teachers regard such attempts as subtle bribery.

Additionally, there are countless sources of revenue to tap. Parent-teacher organizations, charities, online-funding programs, bake sales, school fairs, magazine drives – all of which are bold attempts to fill a funding void that at times takes on the gravity-sucking dimensions of a black hole. We will all continue with the necessary, yet at times, Sisyphean arguments about education and funding and how much is enough – and whether a state like ours can withstand much more of a pounding as education revenues diminish and services are hollowed out.

Meanwhile, during these first weeks of school, let us reflect for a moment about how thousands of New Mexico teachers reach into their wallets and purses selflessly in an annual ritual of giving. 

Gullett, a former journalist, teaches at a charter school in the Albuquerque area. He earned his master’s and doctoral degrees in special education, with a focus on gifted education. He is from Placitas. This opinion piece was first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sister publication of The Taos News.

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