Above: Melisha Martinez teaches a math lesson on money and decimals, asking her students to count by pennies, nickles, dimes and quarters with written calculations and by using calculators in preparation for a mock store.
Melisha Martinez was on a very different career path before becoming an educator. Over 10 years while her three children were young, she worked her way up from desk clerk to manager at a Santa Fe hotel with a daily commute from Ohkay Owingeh.
After the recession in 2008, with her husband facing a layoff, Martinez and her family moved north to Ojo Caliente. They heard good things about Mesa Vista Consolidated Schools, and her husband, an electrician, found work in the area.
“My kids had finished elementary school, and we were looking for schools and a place to live that were a better fit,” she said.
Martinez became certified as a substitute teacher and had no trouble finding work at the local schools across Kindergarten through 12th grade due to the shortage of teachers. “The combination of the good and not so good teachers” is what inspired her to teach.
In 2016, she transitioned to La Tierra Montessori School in Ohkay Owingeh. There, her commitment to teaching has strengthened.
“I connected with everyone, and they offered me the long-term position as a sub,” she said. “They really encouraged me and made me feel confident. I enjoyed the job and decided that this is what I really want to do.”
She tested for a Level III Education Assistant license and passed, which allowed her to take on her own class full time, combined third and fourth grades.
Martinez reads aloud, alternating paragraphs with her students so everyone has a turn and opportunity to practice.
“We’re so shorthanded, I have to maneuver myself between the two grades. We don’t have enough teachers in the area or others applying to meet the need in our regular classrooms, so we had to look out of the country,” she explained. Several schools in Española, including La Tierra, have contracted with teachers from the Philippines to fill the shortage.
Martinez is proud to know the names of every student in grades K–6. “The kids take to me, so I feel at home. La Tierra encouraged me to take it further, because I did a great job with the children.”
Her husband was also a huge supporter of her career. “I doubted myself, but he always saw the potential in me,” she said. So, in January 2018, she secretly enrolled in classes at Northern New Mexico College (NNMC) to surprise him.
It was hard at first but her husband pushed her. Then when he suddenly passed away before the end of the first semester things got even harder.
“I had every excuse not to go, but when I made the dean’s list, I was even more motivated to do it for him. I have that motivation to continue every day.”
Martinez is studying to earn an Associate’s degree in education from Northern New Mexico College in Española, in addition to pursuing a Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certification. The TESOL program courses include multicultural education, approaches to teaching English literacy skills, informal assessment and second language acquisition that capitalize on the unique linguistic skills and culture of the Northern New Mexico community. She will conduct research and study theory, pedagogy and curriculum development in bilingualism and second language development mostly through classes.
“Our students in Northern New Mexico are so diverse, and we see that in our classrooms. It’s really a joy to be able to work with these children and recognize their culture and individuality—it affects their learning,” she said.
In her third/fourth grade class, Martinez has a couple of ESL Spanish-speaking students and a few others who speak Tewa, which is also her second language.
“The best thing I love about teaching is when I’m able to teach them when they’re struggling. When they really understand, the look of happiness on their faces makes me happy. Happy kids mean great teachers.”
La Tierra Principal Monique Garcia knows that the TESOL program builds highly qualified teachers, and she hopes to encourage others to pursue certification. “The more teachers trained, the more equipped we are to build the capacity of our staff and better serve our students,” Garcia said.
In May, Martinez will finish three-semesters and graduate with her Associate’s degree in Education and be TESOL certified. The credits she’s earned feed into the Bachelor’s program, which she hopes to finish in another year. And her plans and commitment to education and her students don’t stop there.
“When the new teacher comes, I hope I can stay with this class and be a co-teacher and learn from her,” she said. “I have a 10-year goal, I’d love to be Montessori certified, still working with this school and bringing those hands-on learning techniques too.”
The Impact of Triad Funding
Eleven Northern NM teachers attending the TESOL certification program at NNMC are funded by $56,400 from the Triad grant to LANL Foundation. Ten, including Melisha Martinez, will complete the program in May 2020.
LANL Foundation K–12 Professional Development Coordinator Doris Rivera, a former classroom teacher who oversees the teacher training programs and the partnership with NNMC, wants to support more local teachers, especially native teachers, to become TESOL certified to better serve students’ learning needs.
“Teachers like Melisha are perfect for this program. They are already connected to education and working in the community. Four years at the school shows commitment,” she said. “We need to support and sustain our own teachers that come from our own communities. People who are invested in the wellbeing and future of our own communities will stay and teach but also want to make the education experience the best for our students because they are their own children, grandchildren, neighbors and friends in the schools.”