Every year, Rio Rancho Public Schools needs not just teachers, but quality teachers.

Three longtime educators — amassing more than a century of teaching and administrative duties — recently talked with the Observer about what they’re doing through New Mexico Highlands University to help future teachers prepare for and stay in the profession and enjoy it at the same time.

Cathy Baehr

They are Janis Keene, the head of the student teaching program at NMHU, a former teacher and girls basketball coach at Rio Rancho Elementary, with 40 years in education; Cathy Gaarden, a former principal at Maggie Cordova and Sandia Vista elementaries, with 37 years in education; and Cathy Baehr, the former principal at Enchanted Hills Elementary, with 35 years in the profession.

Gaarden and Baehr were drawn back into the field to oversee much of what future teachers are doing, infused with the experience of this trio, and others.

The NMHU Rio Rancho Center started out providing the community with distance-learning, and it’s come back, full-circle, due to the pandemic.

The trio does observations online, sometimes virtually observing virtual classes.

Gaarden and Baehr are among the seven educators who supervise student-teachers, Keene explained.

Cathy Gaarden

“The caliber and the experience and the incredible knowledge that these folks have: There’s three faculty members, three retired principals and a master-teacher who sued to supervise at (University of New Mexico),” she said. “Their support and guidance, I think, has made a significant difference in the readiness and preparedness of our graduates.”

“We have 298 students, university-wide, in the school of education at Highlands,” Keene said. “This semester, we have 45 student-teachers; we had 44 in the fall, so pretty close to 100 student-teachers graduating. We have eight currently in RRPS: Stapleton, Sandia Vista, Puesta del Sol, Colinas and Shining Stars.”

 

Wishing they’d known more

“I wish I had had more instruction at the university in classroom management,” Gaarden said. “This is something I tell all of my students at Highlands. I think the most important piece really is the connection, knowing your students. I think we can all learn the curricular materials, the instructional materials and the strategies.”

“Understanding the different cultures and diversities they bring to the classroom — it’s everything that’s not in a book,” Baehr added. “Every child coming in the room, any given day, they may have had a death in the family or not had breakfast or maybe had a fight with their parents — and they bring all of that with them into the classroom.”

Good teachers, Baehr said, will have a way of discerning those problems: “Usually, they’re very talkative, and now to see they’re very quiet. You go by them and say, ‘Did you have a tough morning?’ They say, ‘Yep,’ and you say, ‘I’ll get back with you later.’”

“Way back, when we started teaching,” Keene recalled, “teaching was a very individual effort. Today, there’s all kinds of platforms for collaboration and teaming and all that.”

Baehr said she learned about the importance of collaboration across grades when she began her career in a Houston middle school and enhanced the practice in Rio Rancho.

“When I was a principal at Enchanted Hills we would do our ‘above and below’ meetings; you would go to the grade above and the grade below, and you would have those perspectives,” she said. “In fact, sometimes we would send our fifth-grade teachers to Mountain View, and we had conversations with the sixth-grade teachers.”

The three said the most important things future teachers need are an open heart and an open mind; appreciation of diversity in its many forms; and not going into it as a job.

“It is a career that evolves every day,” Baehr added. “No two days are going to be alike, and it’s not only you are there to teach the students, but be open-minded that they are going to teach you a lot, as well.”

“Embrace every moment; never stop learning,” urged Gaarden.

 

Looking for a teaching job?

Each had advice for prospective teachers seeking employment.

“I needed to see that heart connection, that I felt they were going to be compassionate, loving, caring teachers — and that their heart was in the right place,” Gaarden said. “The other skills, you can teach.”

As a principal, Keene looked for character, integrity and a positive attitude in prospective teachers.

“We can teach them how to deliver the reading program and do the assessments,” she said. “…but you can’t teach somebody to absolutely cherish children.”

“I would add a sense of humor — and a sense of humility,” Baehr said.

 

Aretha sang it: R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Keene said much of society has lost respect for teachers.

“It’s unfortunate with the pandemic, but I think a lot of parents have a different perspective of what it takes to teach,” Baehr said. “Teaching is so multi-faceted. I hope they learn a little bit about what we have to commit to.”

“I think public education the past 20 years in America has become so political, and I believe that public education and public schools are blamed for this enormous amount of social decay in our culture — and we are not responsible for it,” Gaarden said. “It’s a much bigger breakdown of communities and families and a much bigger cultural problem, but people just love to blame the public schools for it and it’s so unfair. The majority of public-school educators are so dedicated and they do such a good job with so little resources.”

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Gary Herron | Observer staff writer