This is part of an ongoing series of Q&As with New Mexico educators, parents, policy makers, wonks, leaders, and students. Find the entire series here.
Full Name: Brittany Behenna Griffith
Hometown: Gettysburg, PA (though hometown questions have always been hard for me)
Current City: Santa Fe, NM
Grade(s)/Subject(s) Previously Taught: Preschool / Special Education
School and District: Nye Early Childhood Center with Santa Fe Public Schools
The name of this series is Coffee Break of course. What coffee ritual, if any, do you have?
My coffee consumption depends on my workload and the amount of sleep I’m getting, or not. Some weeks I reward myself with coffee on Friday and other weeks I need it everyday!
You mentioned the concept of a “hometown” is often challenging for you. Where you are from and how did you end up in New Mexico?
My dad was in the Air Force, so we moved around a bit as I was growing. I graduated from Gettysburg High School in Pennsylvania and “claimed” to be from there for many years. I was a pharmacy technician in high school and thought I wanted to be a pharmacist as my career. When I researched the best pharmacy schools in the nation, UNM was in the top ten. My dad had been stationed in Albuquerque for part of my elementary and middle school years, so I felt I would be coming home in a sense.
What got you into teaching in the first place and how do you feel to be nominated for a 2019 Golden Apple award?
I was at UNM working on my prerequisites before I could apply for pharmacy school and I started looking for volunteer opportunities to give my pharmacy school application a leg up on other applicants. I started reading with kindergarten students at a local elementary school and found I would much rather be with those students than cramming for chemistry exams.
I also came to realize that pharmacists in large cities had little of the individualized knowledge of patient needs they did back in small town Gettysburg, so I changed my major. I got a job as an EA in a autism specific preschool classroom and found a passion for special education. I decided to get dual-certified in elementary and special education.
As for Golden Apple, I am completely honored, but I honestly am not sure I’m deserving. I do work hard and I love what I do, but when I look at other teachers around the state, especially the one next door to me, I wish I could be half the teacher they are!
The best teachers share great ideas with each other and tweak those ideas to meet the individual needs of their students. My partner teacher has great ideas and is constantly inspiring me with her creativity, making me think and causing me to raise the bar for my students. I wouldn’t be a Golden Apple teacher if it weren’t for strong collaboration with my peers and a vision for excellence instilled by my school administrator.
What brought you to Teach Plus New Mexico and what’s that been like?
I am always looking for opportunities to grow in my profession. When I completed my Masters degrees I promised my husband I was done with school, so Teach Plus was a way for me to continue to learn and grow without “the tuition and school work.” Education policy had been completely foreign to me prior and public speaking has never been something I was comfortable with.
Teach Plus helped push me out of my comfort zones and empowered me to use my voice. I realized I have a lot to say when it comes to education policy and it’s about time teachers have a seat at the table when decisions are being made that impact our classrooms and students.
Prek has been a hot topic in New Mexico for many years, tell me more about your work on this topic.
I have worked with Teach Plus to write a policy brief that outlines a checklist for students that should be served first as we roll out prek opportunities around the state. Everyone wants to expand prek around the state, but it is more complicated than increasing New Mexico’s overall prek budget.
We need to ensure prek programs are of high-quality and staffed with qualified early childhood educators. There is also an infrastructure issue when it comes to preschool. Many districts simply don’t have the space to add preschool and many of our rural districts don’t have enough preschool age students to fill a classroom. Until we navigate these issues in rolling out universal prek, we researched who should be given priority in prek programs first
It can be challenging to be a current classroom teacher and active educational advocate simultaneously. How have you advocated for your recommendations to prioritize pre-k?
Juggling motherhood, teaching, and running a non-profit. Why not add a little education advocacy work to my plate while I’m at it?
I researched and helped write the policy brief I described above. I have given testimony at the LESC a couple of times and talked to legislators at the Round House during last year’s short session to discuss my recommendations for expanding pre-k opportunities around the state. I also helped write an op-ed that was published in the Santa Fe New Mexican highlighting the importance of Child Find and identifying students with special learning needs while in preschool, rather than students falling further behind while waiting for the Student Assistance Team (SAT) process to work once they are in elementary school.
In addition to this and teaching, I serve as board president of the Lexiam Heart Foundation. The mission of Lexiam Heart Foundation is to provide support to children and families affected by congenital heart defects, with priority given to families residing in New Mexico, through financial assistance, community resources to support education and emotional wellness.
I found my passion for this work after my son, Liam, was diagnosed with several critical heart defects in utero. On May 17, 2015, my husband, Brady, and I experienced the wonderment that came with welcoming our firstborn into the world, and sadly experienced the heart wrenching loss of Liam just 21 short hours later. Since then, I have made it my mission to keep Liam’s name alive by raising awareness for the 1 in 100 diagnosed with CHD’s and to provide support for New Mexico families and their heart warriors.
As a parent I have had to place all of my trust in a stranger, when I handed my son over to a surgeon. I completely understand how hard it is for parents to hand their preschoolers over to me, many times leaving their children for the first time, and trust me to take care of their babies. I take that trust very seriously.
What should state leaders keep in mind regarding high quality prek programs?
Prek is much more complicated than funding. I am all for expanding preschool, but it has to be done right. I think NMPED has done a great job of increasing programs each year, while also ensuring each program is of high-quality. I think we should continue on the path of increasing prek funding by $10-15 million per year until all preschool students can be served. At the same time, we should focus, as a state, on recruiting and retaining highly qualified teachers. Preschool programing for all will not reap the expected outcomes if there aren’t qualified teachers and staff in each of those classrooms.