February 2010: Teachers give hearts, souls

This guest column appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.

There's something I'd like you to know about me: I usually sleep well at night. That may sound strange, given recent headlines and TV reports detailing allegations of teacher misconduct in Albuquerque Public Schools. With that unhappy news as a backdrop, you might naturally assume I would stay awake with worry.

Not so.

In my role as APS superintendent, I know that instances of teacher misconduct, while inexcusable, are exceptionally rare. I don't kid myself; in a teacher work force of nearly 7,000, we are bound to have employees who cross the line. That being said, APS currently has only a handful — fewer than 10 — who have been placed on administrative leave while under an investigation of misconduct. That's less than one-tenth of 1 percent of our entire teacher population. While I understand that those who violate the public trust must be reported by the news media, they are a microscopic number of our total work force.

But it's not just math that gives me reassurance. It's the human stories that are all around us, every single day — stories of teachers' devotion and dedication that make me proud to say I am their colleague.

Let me give you just a few of thousands of examples. Pepsi, in partnership with the APS Education Foundation, recently began recognizing APS teachers for their outstanding contribution to the classroom, school and community. The foundation randomly selects one APS school each month, and that school's principal is asked to choose a teacher to be honored. The teachers receive a $50 check from Pepsi and acknowledgement on the APS Web site and Facebook page.

In APS, we have teachers like:

  • Sandra Simons-Ailes, who has spent a quarter-century at Monte Vista Elementary, not only as a dynamic classroom teacher but also as the technology coordinator responsible for wiring the university-area school for technology. Thanks to Sandra's incredible work, she helped make Monte Vista the state's first computer-networked school back at a time when most of us didn't really understand this thing they called the Internet.
  • Alamosa Elementary special education teacher Andrea Villano, who gets to know her kids on a level that brings out the best in each child. Villano's students are immersed in a regular fifth-grade class that she co-teaches with two others. The students rotate among the three teachers as part of their preparation for middle school.
  • Vanessa Urisote, a world history teacher at Atrisco Heritage Academy High, whose approach to education has been described by colleagues as "brain friendly." Urioste has been teaching for 10 years in the South Valley community she grew up in. Last semester, her classes sponsored a Heroes Fair during which students chose a historical figure, studied and researched the individual's life, then created a presentation to share with the rest of the school. While some students chose more traditional posters to present their topic, others got creative, developing mobiles, life-size replicas, cereal boxes, place mats and CDs.
  • McKinley mid-school English teacher Justin Landis, who not only teaches eighth-graders, but also leads the student council at its fund-raising efforts in the community. And coaches the boys' track team. The McKinley student council has raised hundreds of dollars over the past couple of years for UNM Children's Hospital, breast cancer awareness and other worthy causes.

I'd also be remiss not to mention two additional teachers in the district today who deserve to be household names. Manzano High School biology teacher Marianne Evans saved the life of a student recently after he collapsed and stopped breathing at school. For 15 minutes, she provided CPR to the young man until EMS arrived on scene. Doctors say Marianne Evans is not just a teacher, but a lifesaver.

And someday, Whittier Elementary fourth-grader Luis Vasquez will likely describe his teacher as a different kind of hero. Shawna Clark took it upon herself to organize benefits for Luis and his first-grade cousin, Edgar Cabrera, after a tragic car accident claimed the life of Edgar's father and left both families in dire straits. Their plight was brought to the public's attention because of Shawna's efforts. It's thanks to her that the community has come to the families' aid.

It may seem to you that these are examples of extraordinary teachers. Well, yes and no. The circumstances surrounding the stories may be extreme, but the actions taken are exactly what I've come to expect from those who choose education as an occupation.

Again, let me stress: I'm not disregarding the few bad apples mentioned earlier. You have my assurance that when employees behave inappropriately, they will be dealt with quickly and appropriately.

Still, I'll sleep well again tonight, knowing the overwhelming majority of Albuquerque Public Schools employees won't make the headlines we've recently seen. Their professionalism — their heroism — is the kind that doesn't always make the newspapers. But it's the kind of commitment that will serve our children for years to come.

For the most part their stories are reserved for dinner tables, cocktail parties and intimate conversations where countless students credit their success and possibilities to the educators only they know by name.