RRSEU President Billie Helean teaches first grade at Ernest Stapleton Elementary. “I always wanted to be a teacher,” she said. (Gary Herron / Observer)

The Observer sat down with Billie Helean, the president of Rio Rancho School Employees Union since May 2019, recently for an inside look at the education scene in the city.
RRSEU has 350 members; Helean said Rio Rancho Public Schools has about 1,700 employees, so she speaks for about 21 percent of the district’s educators.

Have things stabilized in education, after nearly two years of the pandemic?
That’s a tricky question to answer because the last two years have really shown us the good and the ugly of education. Stabilized is a good question and I think it’s a really good goal; I don’t think we’re quite there yet.
There are so many things we’ve learned in the last couple of years, about how to teach, and how students learn, that incorporating those things into our practice, what we call pedagogy, is really tricky, but I think we’re getting there. I think this next school year coming up, we’ll see more stabilization than we’ve had for a while.

Have the teachers talked about career-technical education; are they on board?
Absolutely we are. In fact, we are so on board that we were invited to the Roundhouse to meet with the governor and Dr. (Sue) Cleveland and other stakeholders to see about how we can get some balls rolling to make CTE happen and have a model program in Rio Rancho, so other places in the state can follow suit.
It’s a huge priority for Dr. Cleveland, for our community and, honestly, I haven’t heard a single negative word about it from anyone.

I’ve heard the RRSEU has been in talks with labor unions in the area when it comes to bringing more CTE here. What do you know about that?
Other locals in Albuquerque are working directly with Larry (Davis, RRPS CTE head) to make sure we have everything we need (for CTE). One of the nice things about meeting with Dr. Cleveland and Larry and the governor, one of the things that came out of that, was contact with some of the trade unions so they could work together and make sure that they had staff and folks that could teach, with equipment, space and all the resources they need, and modeling, because a lot of those trades unions in Albuquerque, they’ve been doing this for years, so they know what they’re doing and they can really help the district with some organizational aspect of it.

One issue making the news around the U.S. is Critical Race Theory. What’s the union’s take on CRT?
CRT is not something we teach in K-12; it is a college-level course. It is college-level material that would never be appropriate for K-12 — never. Do we talk about the history of racism in this nation? Absolutely.

Extended school year; what’s the take on the 190-day school year?
We actually surveyed our bargaining union on what they felt about the extended school year and the options that were presented. We did give a very brief yes or no: Would you be in favor of working 10 days with extra pay? The overwhelming majority said yes. …
We heard from some people who didn’t want to do it for various reasons. We’re always going to have that, but it doesn’t change anything.

Raises were OK’d by the governor; I guess everyone was on board with that?
That’s not just teachers (getting raises), because everyone in our school system is going to see a raise. … I can’t give specifics because we’re in the middle of negotiations right now, and that’s closed — but we are negotiating with the district for a new negotiated agreement that will begin in July, and salaries are always part of that.
… We always want to see our staff who are paid the least get more than they are getting, so they can live in Rio Rancho and have a good life.

There’s not much antagonism between the union and the district, as there has been in the past. Why is that?
We have developed a really, really great partnership to make sure our staff and students have everything we need to succeed. And when you serve your staff, and make sure your staff are happy and they’re well-rounded and have everything they need to do the best they can in their profession, that reflects to kids.
Kids see and they know when their teacher is happy and fulfilled in the classroom, and they can feel it. It makes a difference in that classroom environment.
And because the teacher is more engaged with the kids, the kids are more engaged with the teacher. It’s a very reciprocal relationship, and so because of that, the district is very invested in making sure that everybody has what they need. People first — always.

This has to come up: Dr. C said there are 250 vacancies and 50 more are retiring. Are teachers leaving because of different kinds of reasons than in the past?
I think a lot of the reasons are very similar. Most are ready to retire; they’ve been in this a long time and they’re ready to retire. I think that’s the vast majority.
But with COVID and with teaching the last couple of years, folks who have been ready to retire but weren’t ready to cross the finish line yet… I think they’re exhausted. All the educators I have talked to have said they’re fried, they’re just fried. …
We had two teachers right here in my grade level who left because the technology was just too much. …
It was very challenging, teaching under COVID, and having to switch back and forth between in-person and online. It was asking educators to do stuff they’d never done before, even new teachers.
Going from teaching kids in-person and teaching online, that’s an experience that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully understand the impact of how that worked because it’s vastly different.
Teaching and learning are very reciprocal but they’re very personal: The relationship a teacher has with students is an integral part of teaching, and without that relationship, it’s much more difficult to reach students.