When Pamela Cort was a little girl growing up in Santa Fe, she wanted to be an actress. “Doesn’t everybody?” she asked with a laugh during a recent phone interview. Her parents were educators, and she was pretty sure she did not want to be one herself, although as a child she would play teacher, using her mom’s textbooks, with her two younger sisters.
Earlier this month, the Las Cruces Public School District French teacher was named New Mexico Teacher of the Year during a surprise celebration held in her school. “They made a red carpet from butcher paper and laid it out from my room to the administrative office, and they had all of the kids out of class decked in confetti, and the band played for me and the superintendent was there — it was amazing and wonderful, and I felt overwhelmed,” she said.
The former Santa Fean has nothing but good memories of her public-school education in the capital city: “All my teachers were amazing, from my time at Wood Gormley Elementary School through Santa Fe High School. I can remember the names of all my teachers — not in their content areas, but in terms of the impression they left on me of the importance of being a lifelong learner and continually being educated.”
She first took French in high school because, in those days, the school had an open-enrollment, first-come, first-served policy and it turned out that Spanish class was already full. Her French teacher, Judy Greaves “opened my eyes to how exciting it is to learn another language and learn another culture.”
Cort first studied at New Mexico State University, then transferred to Washington State University (where she earned a bachelor’s degree in French) and then returned to NMSU, where she graduated in 1986 with a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and her teaching certificate. She taught French at West Mesa High School in Albuquerque before relocating to Las Cruces. She has worked there for 20 years.
The state started its Teacher of the Year award in 1963. Last year, Pecos Independent School District’s MaryBeth Britton earned the honor for her work in raising test scores among her students. Cort acknowledged she is amazed that a foreign-language teacher who teaches an elective won the honor this year. But, she noted, “Through teaching another language, the students learn a lot about their own language. This is not just an elective. It is an academic course and through it they will learn more about their other subjects.”
Advances in technology help her in the classroom. “I can bring France and French-speaking cultures to our students. In the past it was limited to using cassette tapes and written documents, which, by the time they got to us from France, was already old news. Now we have access to current events and because of that they have a better global understanding,” Cort said.
Every other spring she takes some of her students on a trip to France for three weeks as part of a home-stay program. She will do that again come May. In the interim, she is scheduled to meet the rest of the nation’s Teachers of the Year at a gathering in Dallas in January and then, in April, the whole lot of them will travel to Washington D.C., to meet President Barack Obama.
Her husband, Bob, works for NASA — “He wears a shirt that reads, ‘Yes, I am a rocket scientist,’ ” she noted — and she has a daughter studying music at the University of Colorado in Boulder and a son attending Las Cruces High School. Both her children took French classes, she said.
She said being named Teacher of the Year “gives value to what I do and hopefully gives value to what we all do in the educational profession. We get a lot of flack from the press and the public. There are really high expectations in our profession, but I think teachers hold those expectations as sacred.”