As New Mexico’s Teacher of the Year, I help revamp remote learning, strategize how to safely reopen schools, and work to make education fair for everyone—all while taking care of my own kids.

By Mandi Torrez, as told to Jessica Hartshorn
September 09, 2020
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Mandi Torrez with husband Russell Contreras and daughters Ava (left) and Elena
| Credit: Courtesy of Mandi Torrez

In my third year of college, I had my first Latina professor. Growing up in rural Colorado, I’d never had a teacher who looked like me, so she was a queen in my eyes. One day she talked with me about how far I had come and asked me to help others follow. After graduating and working as a journalist, I eventually dove into education. I moved to Boston and took grad-school night classes while working days in an elementary school.

My husband, Russell, and I wanted to settle in New Mexico to be closer to family, but when I saw the starting salary for teachers, at first I was like, “Nope, not doing it.” Pay was low at that time. However, with more than half the student population being Latino, I knew it was where I could make a difference.

So for nine years I’ve taught third and fourth grade at Placitas Elementary, near our home in Rio Rancho, where we’re raising two kids. I’ve promoted, in education speak, CLRI, which means Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Instruction. It’s using kids’ culture in the classroom. For example, many children are uncomfortable raising a hand or shouting an answer. Maybe they need to talk out a problem because they come from a more communal culture, so I might break students into groups and allow them all the chance to discuss. It helps them open up like they might at home.

I am honored to say I was named New Mexico’s 2020 Teacher of the Year. Before the pandemic, I advocated for a more diverse workforce, among other things. During it, I began to do triage, answering urgent teacher emails about health and safety, and finding them resources on virtual learning, social-emotional support, and helping students understand the social-justice protests. I’ve written opinion pieces for newspapers and moderated a town hall on the pandemic.

It’s safe to say that being the voice of teachers on a state level has become a bigger job than I anticipated. How do we make online learning work if students lack Wi-Fi or a device? Inequities are now so apparent. But teachers are resilient and adaptable, and I know that we’re going to get the job done. We’ve been given this opportunity to reconsider everything from the content that we teach to our grading policies. And now people respect us and get how important our jobs are, so there’s a lot of opportunity.

I want everyone to remain optimistic, because our kids are watching us, and they follow our lead. You may not agree with how your kids’ school is handling things, but don’t say that in front of your kids. Share your concerns with your friends and your spouse in private, but stay positive for your children.

New Mexico is starting virtually and will move to a hybrid model if it’s safe. Our older girl, Ava, 6, is in first grade remotely, and our younger, Elena, 3, is home while her daycare is closed. Russell works for the Associated Press, and we’re grateful for our paychecks, but I feel I have not been Mom of the Year. My crying kids barge in on my Zoom meetings with the Public Education Department. Like everyone else, I’m figuring this out, and I look forward to the day I’ll be in my classroom again.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's October 2020 issue as “Now Everyone Respects Teachers.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here.

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