Rachel Rodriguez doesn’t remember not wanting to be a teacher. And it has never occurred to her to leave her beloved hometown—Gallup, N.M., a small city in the heart of American Indian country.
She started her career as an elementary teacher at the same school she attended as a child, with a sense of community and belonging that has rooted her throughout her 22 years working in the Gallup-McKinley County district, where she is now a director of instruction.
Rodriguez, 46, is charged with improving instruction and teaching practices in a beleaguered district, located in one of the poorest counties in the country. She has taken her love of learning—cemented throughout her career as a teacher, a principal, and a district-level administrator in various roles offering support to educators—and poured it into initiatives to better train and support teachers and principals.
“Situations happen where you think you can do it better,” she said, reflecting on what she said was a difficult decision to leave teaching for a leadership position in the district. “When you’re a teacher, you can impact a classroom, when you’re a principal, you can impact every student at that school, but when you’re in the district office, you can impact the entire district. And that’s an amazing thing.”
The nearly 11,600-student district, which stretches out over 5,200 square miles across both the Navajo and Zuni Indian reservations, is on an upward climb, despite the challenges of poverty and geographical isolation. In the 2013-14 school year, 11 of the district’s schools received an F grade from the state of New Mexico. Over a three-year period, the district reshaped its teacher and principal professional development, revamped its curriculum, and added regular student data analysis until there were zero failing schools in 2015-16.
“Nothing that we do anymore is by chance,” Rodriguez said. “In the past, teachers taught off instinct, assessed off instinct. … We [now] have a very precise set of standards that you teach every quarter, that we assess every quarter. So no longer is the excuse, ‘Well, I taught it; it’s not my fault they didn’t learn it.’ We’re changing that paradigm. We are not a teaching culture, we’re a learning culture.”
“It doesn’t matter if you taught it, did they learn it? They didn’t learn it? Teach it a different way. We are constantly reassessing, we are constantly differentiating instruction. … Every student in every grade level in every school needs to be growing and learning.”
But in 2016-17, four schools in the district received F’s—a setback Rodriguez largely attributes to a lack of alignment among curricula, instruction, and assessments.
“Now that we have everything aligned, we expect everybody to grow again or maintain. We don’t expect any F’s again,” she said. “Every year, you have to refine what you’re doing or you will go backwards, because we’ve had so much growth.”
Rodriguez oversees 11 schools—mostly elementary, with one middle school and one high school—that are spread across the vast district. Rodriguez visits about two a day, leaving her spending large stretches of time in the car—hours she spends listening to the radio, brainstorming, and problem-solving.
When she’s visiting a school, she is coaching principals and conducting classroom walk-throughs. Her job is to observe the principal, to see if he or she is looking for the right skills and strategies in teachers, said Gerald Horacek, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
“You have to have the right leader in the building, so all of our support is tailored around making the principal the true instructional leader,” he said.
That support for principals has been particularly important because one of the major shifts in the district in recent years has been the rise of classroom-embedded, real-time coaching for teachers.
“No longer do we have drive-by professional development where teachers get excited, and they sit in a training for a day, and they figure out all these new things to try and use—and then you go back into your classroom and you just revert back to what you’re used to,” Rodriguez said.
In 2015-16, a principal Rodriguez was working with hired consultants to come into the school and provide direct coaching to teachers, and his school’s state grade went from an F to an A in less than two years.
That growth lent credibility to the other five schools Rodriguez was working with at the time. And when their scores improved, too, Rodriguez asked to become the Title II program manager for the district, a position that allocates federal funding for teacher and principal professional development. This year, the district received just under a million dollars for this work, which Rodriguez manages alongside her other duties.
“I was so jazzed about the success that my small zone was seeing,” she said. “I knew if I had any kind of control or impact over the districtwide funding, then we could replicate that success across the district.”
Now, there are 24 instructional coaches in the district’s 33 schools—one at each of the 18 elementary schools and six at the secondary schools that don’t have assistant principals. Principals must do at least five classroom walk-throughs every week. That allows school leaders to collect trend data for areas teachers are struggling in, so that their training is up-to-date and immediate. It’s a lot of responsibility for principals to balance the managerial duties of their job with being the educational leader, said Jack McFarland, the principal of Hiroshi Miyamura High School in Gallup.
That’s why it’s helpful that Rodriguez has been both a teacher and a principal, he added.
“She’s talking with experience that’s very well-received by principals,” he said. “She comes up with solutions that fit you.”
The district’s commitment to training teachers on a regular and consistent basis has yielded results, along with the implementation of a rigorous statewide evaluation system that ties teacher performance to student growth on standardized tests as well as teachers’ absences, classroom observations, and student-satisfaction surveys.
In 2015-16, there were 54 teachers in the Gallup district who were ranked “ineffective” by the state. The next year, that number dropped to 41. Now, in the 2017-18 school year, there are just 19 teachers who were rated ineffective out of about 800 teachers, Rodriguez said, attributing the decrease to a combination of resignations, retirements, and firings.
Critics have said New Mexico’s evaluation system, under which about a quarter of the state’s teachers have been labeled as “minimally effective” or “ineffective,” is unfair. But to Rodriguez, it’s vitally important to weed out struggling teachers.
“We know that students who have ineffective teachers for two years in a row almost never catch up,” she said.
When student achievement scores improve, teachers are eligible for incentive pay from the state, thanks to a competitive grant the district received.
In addition to bolstering retention, all this change has helped attract more teachers, Rodriguez says, something that’s historically been difficult. Gallup is a poverty-stricken area. Located between Albuquerque, N.M., and Flagstaff, Ariz., and hours away from either city, the district is so remote that some teachers live in areas without a nearby gas station.
Now, support and community-building for new teachers is a priority. In addition to instructional training, new teachers receive coaching on self-care and stress management. There are regularly scheduled activities—ranging from hiking and biking to attending Indian dances—for the teachers to bond.
Nothing that we do anymore is by chance. We are not a teaching culture, we’re a learning culture.
At Ramah Elementary School, which Rodriguez oversees, April Burson is in her first year of teaching 2nd grade, after serving as a long-time substitute.
Once a week, either Burson’s principal or her instructional coach—or both—are in her classroom. She said at first, the regular observations were a little intimidating, but the feedback has been constructive, and it’s helped her implement new teaching strategies. That support, Burson said, has been valuable, especially after a challenging first semester when her students struggled during interim testing.
“I do need some additional support, and that’s OK,” she said. “I’m learning as I go, and I’m just trying to keep my head above water.”
To that end, Burson said she’s grateful for the regular professional-development sessions. One she attended recently focused on teacher self-care.
“They let us know that it’s OK to feel overwhelmed, and this profession—it’s one of the most highly stressful jobs, statistically,” she said. “They understand, and they’re here for us, and I thought that was really supportive, and I appreciate it.”
Over half the district’s teachers are white and just over a quarter of teachers are Native American, although about 79 percent of the students in the district are Native (mostly Navajo), and 5.2 percent of students are white. About 27 percent of students are English-language learners.
Because of that mismatch, the district’s cultural department works with the PD and teacher-recruitment teams to make sure teachers are well-equipped to teach students from different backgrounds, said Rodriguez, who is Hispanic. For example, teachers are reimbursed by the district to earn a Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) endorsement. The district has also recruited teachers from the Philippines. (Asian teachers make up nearly 18 percent of the district’s workforce).
“In an area that’s real hard for recruiting talent and doing innovation-type work, [Rachel] has been excited about innovation, and she’s committed to staying there,” said Josie Hernandez-Gutierrez, an educational consultant who has been working with the district for about five years.
“All those challenges just don’t slow her down.”
‘Willing to Roll Up Her Sleeves’
Rodriguez’s colleagues say she’s a kind, gregarious person who is serious about improving the district.
Thirteen schools in Gallup have just completed the University of Virginia’s school turnaround program, a rigorous effort that pairs consultants, either from UVA or outside of the university, with school and district leaders to make organizational changes that will improve student outcomes.
That process, which took the district three years to complete, was painful and exhausting for everyone, said Wade Bell, a fellow director of instruction. Meanwhile, Rodriguez consistently takes on extra work with an unfailingly positive attitude. For example, when the district transitioned from pencil-and-paper tests to online assessments, Rodriguez took on the role of testing coordinator.
“No one else would even touch it,” Bell said. “She was the only one willing to roll up her sleeves.”
Rodriguez is quick to deflect credit, stressing that all the work has been a team effort. And indeed, her colleagues consistently describe her as a team player.
“She is a voice for the principals and for teachers,” Bell said. “She’s never forgotten what it’s like to be a teacher in this world or a principal.”
In district-level meetings about new initiatives, he added, Rodriguez will be the first to say: Will this work for teachers? Is this too much? Are we pushing so hard that we’re going to break them?
Yet Rodriguez saves her fiercest advocacy for students, Bell said. Every time he goes out to eat with Rodriguez, Bell said, her former students will come up to her, saying, “Mrs. Rodriguez, do you remember me?” She always does.
Said Bell: “She’s never lost that connection of why districts are in business.”