Sara Solovitch, Searchlight New Mexico Published 8:00 a.m. MT March 9, 2019
Q&A with Karen Trujillo, New Mexico education secretary
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has made her commitment to children a mainstay of her next four years in office. By every metric, New Mexico is considered the worst state in the nation to be a child, and the governor has pledged that her administration will change that awful statistic.
Change begins with her newly appointed secretaries, those charged with affecting the lives of the state’s 517,000 kids. Searchlight New Mexico recently spoke with each one of them about how they intend to move the needle.
Karen Trujillo, the newly appointed secretary of New Mexico’s Public Education Department, comes from a long line of teachers. She taught math at Las Cruces High School, served as principal at Las Cruces Catholic School, and was, until recently, the interim associate dean of research at New Mexico State University’s College of Education.
Across the state, she is perhaps best known for her advocacy work, encouraging young students to become teachers. It’s in that spirit that she served as state director of Educators Rising, a national organization for aspiring teachers. According to Trujillo’s own study, there were 1,173 educator vacancies last year. So she clearly has her work cut out for her.
Searchlight New Mexico: You have spoken publicly about how young people are actively discouraged from entering the teaching field — not just by their parents but by teachers and job counselors. Were you similarly discouraged?
Karen Trujillo: I was a math major in university, and I had most of my classes with engineering students. And I got lot of pushback: “Why don’t you become an engineer? Why do you want to be a teacher?” By that point I was pretty committed. I come from a family of teachers. My mom and three of her sisters were teachers. Five cousins and myself, we all ended up teachers.
SNM: One of the big problems, here and everywhere, is keeping good teachers in the classroom. You yourself left after eight years. What can be done to keep teachers engaged and satisfied?
Trujillo: My cousins have been in the classroom for 20 years and they’re still invigorated. I think the key to that longevity is having a network of colleagues. Plus always doing something new — to engage in continued learning.
SNM: Do you ever miss the classroom?
Trujillo: I do miss the classroom. But I was very intentional. I knew my goal was to transition to the university, but I didn’t want to be someone who hadn’t been in the classroom for 20 years. I wanted that reality check. So in 2010 I went back for a year to Alma (D’Arte Charter High School, in Las Cruces) and I really enjoyed it.
SNM: The state struggles with a huge number of teacher vacancies, especially in science, math, bilingual education and special ed. What are school districts supposed to do?
Trujillo: That’s the million-dollar question! At NMSU, we’re trying to figure out how to identify those students, especially in the STEM areas — biology, chemistry and math — where the students may be too far along in their degree work to change but already know they don’t want to work in a lab. So it’s a matter of identifying those students to say, “Hey have you ever thought of being a teacher?”
SNM: What can you do as PED secretary that you couldn’t do at NMSU?
Trujillo: In my new position what we’re trying to do is change the narrative of what it means to be a teacher. Instead of all the negative things, we want to focus on the fact that you can be creative, make a difference, give back to your community, and make a good living. At this level, it’s just changing the narrative — that teaching is a positive choice.
SNM: I recently read a statistic from the New Mexico Department of Health — that 50 of
every 1,000 births in Socorro County are babies born with opioid dependency. How can the PED even begin to address a problem of this magnitude?
Trujillo: Drug abuse is an issue in New Mexico. Poverty is an issue. ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) are an issue. As awful as all that is, right now we are making an effort, not only in our department but across departments, to figure out how we can collaborate and work together. I think the creation of a new early childhood department will help us identify and respond early in a more coordinated effort. So much of the problem is not talking about it until it’s too late.
SNM: The Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit sought to address a lot of New Mexico’s educational
failings. How will your department respond?
Trujillo: One of the things we’re very excited about is community schools, which would
allow us to coordinate with cities, counties and nonprofits to provide wraparound services for kids through the schools. Our entire leadership team is based around that. Another idea is fully funding and supporting the Indian Education Act. That means providing sufficient resources to native communities, honoring the identity of multicultural and multilingual aspects of those communities. To ask, what is important to you? And if the answer is to maintain their language, we can say, OK, here’s what we can do to help. To really engage communities to learn about their rich history. It goes back to that whole idea of changing the narrative — not just of being a teacher but what it means to be a New Mexican.
SNM: Countries with high-performing education systems typically pay their teachers a
whole lot more than we do. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has proposed bumping up starting salaries to $40,000 for a beginning teacher. Is that enough?
Trujillo: The medium income in a lot of places in New Mexico, I believe, is in the mid- 30s, so there are a lot of places where teachers are already the highest-paid professions. A $40,000 job is not easy to come by in New Mexico.