Guest Contributor: Amber Valencia, FMS Early Childhood Special Education Teacher

Twelve years ago I found myself feeling unfulfilled in my career. It startled me, because after spending years in college working toward a Bachelor’s degree, how could I be feeling this way? My entire life I have had a passion for helping and advocating for others, but I found myself working in jobs that left me feeling drained, ineffective, and like my work was just a drop in a large bucket, never seeing immediate change.

One day I came across an article in the newspaper about a program at San Juan College that offered something called an alternative license for teaching in New Mexico. Apparently, I was one of many people in our community who was left feeling unfulfilled with my degree path and career choice. The program would give individuals with undergraduate and graduate degrees an opportunity to build toward a new career. We could use our foundational knowledge and experience and add to it through coursework at San Juan College to become licensed New Mexico teachers. I vividly remember people’s response when I told them my plans to not only go into education but special education. People flat out told me I was crazy. They told me I’d regret it and be sorry. At the time, it really added fuel to my fire to step into the trenches. The rest is history.

I am now in my 12th year as a special education teacher, and while the teaching profession has proven to be one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had, it’s also been the most fulfilling. You see, I work with some of the most vulnerable and exceptional young children in our community and get to see firsthand how powerful my impact is in the classroom every day. In a time when there are over 1,000 teaching vacancies across the state, teachers are facing serious burnout. Young adults are steering away from the profession because it has become an undesirable career choice because of low salaries and raised expectations and responsibilities.

Yet so often I hear people talk with criticism about our community and the societal ills that plague our towns. It can feel overwhelming and as if there is nothing that we can do about it. While I am not moving mountains or creating massive, measurable change, I know that each day I step foot in a classroom with children, I have the opportunity to make a lasting impact with even the smallest of things that can feel monumental to that child and their family. There are so many challenges but at the end of the day, those magical moments in the classroom are what keeps those of us in education going.

Our lawmakers have worked this legislative session to offer higher compensation and better benefits to all education personnel and especially classroom teachers. We’re moving in the right direction. But we also need your help.

We are in desperate need of other people with the same heart for advocacy and helping others to step into our classrooms and give back to our community. At the risk of sounding cliche, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” We can’t change our communities without education, and we can’t provide quality education without a full staff of teachers. I won’t pretend there aren’t some significant systematic issues within education in our city, state, and the entire country. However, we need to look to our community to step up and fulfill this need for the children in our community. Nobody knows our children as we do. We must rely on each other to lift our community and our children. Hopefully, 12 years from now you won’t regret having read a newspaper tidbit that inspired you to apply to San Juan College and set out on a path to the classroom. Be the change.

Amber Valencia is an early childhood special education teacher with Farmington Preschool Academies working with children with developmental disabilities and delays. She has worked in the 4 Corners Region as a special education teacher for the last 12 years, having been with Farmington Municipal Schools since 2015. She completed the San Juan College Alternative Licensure Program in 2011. She is also an NM Public Education Department State Ambassador.