Amie Baca-Oehlert is a high school counselor and the president of the Colorado Education Association, the 39,000-member-strong statewide teacher’s union.
She won the job by acclamation when she was elected to a three-year term in 2018. Baca-Oehlert had been the union's vice president since 2012. She succeeded Kerrie Dallman, who was term-limited.
She works for the Adams 12 Five Star Schools and is a past president of the District 12 Educators’ Association and an ethnic minority at large member on the CEA Board of Directors.
She started out at Adams City High School, where she was also the varsity cheerleading coach.
Here's what else we learned about the teachers' rep:
Colorado Politics: What is CEA hoping to get out of this legislative session, given all the state budget is up against?
Amie Baca-Oehlert: Every public school should be a place with exceptional teaching and learning, no matter what neighborhood it serves.
Especially during COVID-19, many students aren’t getting the education they deserve because teachers and support staff don’t have what they need. Many school districts don’t have safety measures like adequate PPE, easy access to adequate COVID-19 testing and classroom ventilation systems. The truth is certain politicians and wealthy special interests have underfunded our public schools for years, so even after the pandemic is over, class sizes are too big, students have outdated textbooks and many teachers don’t earn enough to pay the bills.
CEA is the voice of educators from across the state — working together in a strong union to ensure all students get the public schools they deserve. That’s why our legislative agenda focuses on advocating for adequate funding — including closing corporate tax loopholes — so we can:
- Ensure exceptional classrooms in every neighborhood;
- Attract/retain the best teachers by increasing salaries, decreasing class sizes;
- Improve accountability by increasing support for educators and students and moving away from punitive measures that only hurt schools and kids.
CP: How much of the burden of the pandemic is being shouldered by schools and teachers?
Baca-Oehlert: Public school educators have been carrying an exceptionally heavy load since the pandemic began, especially with little to no time to ramp up and in an underfunded and under-resourced environment. Educators had the herculean task of overhauling their teaching practice overnight. Not only did we quickly have to learn how to master and juggle in-person, remote and hybrid teaching and learning modes, we also had to figure out how to get food to students and families who rely on our public schools' basic nutrition and find ways to extend technology and internet access to students and families who didn’t have access.
As the school year approached this fall, educators and districts were faced with enormous challenges in figuring out the safe return to in-person learning — and were faced with growing mental health and social-emotional needs of students trying to navigate the pandemic crisis. A teacher recently told me about a recent phone call to a middle school student who had been skipping classes. The student shared that his mother had recently passed away from COVID and he — at the age of 13 — was trying to help care for his younger siblings. In the midst of this level of chaos, it should be obvious that standardized testing should be postponed until next year; forcing stressed students still adjusting to different learning modes would only take away invaluable learning time and add to their anxiety.
Given everything we’re dealing with, it’s no surprise that our educators are feeling crushing physical and emotional stress right now.
CP: How do you think the pandemic will change education in the medium and long term?
Baca-Oehlert: Our students face grave inequities in our public schools and communities; while these inequities were not created by COVID-19, they certainly were exacerbated by it. The pandemic shone a bright light on the problems and my greatest hope is that a sustainable commitment to erasing those inequities will bring about lasting change. We should demonstrate a steadfast commitment to advancing educational equity by closing the digital divide and dismantling systemic racism so a child’s zip code doesn’t determine his or her success.
I think there is a greater appreciation for the value of educator voice now. No one knows better on how something will impact the classroom and students than the professionals who do the work daily. Our voices need to be included in all educational policy decision-making and going forward, I hope that this will be more of a given and less of a struggle. Educators have proven they are creative and innovative during the pandemic, so allowing teachers the autonomy they need to meet the needs of their particular students absolutely will be a silver lining.
CP: What inspired you to get into education?
Baca-Oehlert: After my dad returned from Vietnam, my parents married very young, had four kids and worked very hard to support our family. Growing up in a small ranching town in northern New Mexico, my Dad had limited access to education as a young boy. However, a constant narrative in my house growing up was that education is a door opener and that my siblings and I would all go to college, even though my parents didn’t have the means to pay the tuition.
A hard-working student in high school, I was so proud when I came home from school one day to excitedly declare, “I did it! I’ve been accepted to college to become a teacher.” My dad looked me dead in the eyes and said, “I had always hoped for more from you.” I was devastated, because I knew I always wanted to be a teacher. Nevertheless, I persisted and earned my degree in secondary education-English from Clemson University (to which I only recently paid off my college loans, over 20 years after graduating). With a lot of extended family in Colorado, I worked summers during college at Camp Santa Maria near Bailey and fell in love with the state. After I graduated from Clemson, I decided to move to Colorado to start my teaching career.
On the long drive from South Carolina to Colorado, I found the courage to ask my dad why he had declared that he wanted more for me than to become a teacher. His answer forever changed how I would view my role as an educator. He said to me, “I know how disrespected teachers are in this country, and I never wanted that for any of my kids.”
So I started my teaching career with that heaviness on my heart — but no parent should have to fear that their child who wants to become a teacher will enter a disrespected profession. As I started teaching at Adams City High School, I was faced with students walking into my classroom with unbelievable and sometimes unfathomable life experiences, like the one unable to complete homework not just because she worked after school to help pay for family expenses, but also because they were living in their car. So I have dedicated my entire career to doing those two things — speaking out for students and speaking up for my profession.
CP: What were the things you liked about your education, and are you delivering those things to kids today?
Baca-Oehlert: When I think back on my education, I remember the teachers and educators who had a significant impact on my life and on my learning. One of my greatest memories from my own education was the sixth-grade outdoor education trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and my eighth-grade trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. These trips inspired me as a student in an academic sense but also prompted much personal growth.
Many of our students in Colorado don’t get these types of experiences — let alone electives, up-to-date textbooks, mental health supports, sports, etc. — because they have long ago been cut due to budget cuts. More than half of the school districts in Colorado are now on a four-day week primarily due to budget constraints. The very things that keep so many kids connected and engaged in our public schools have been cut because of the lack of funding.
Building relationships with students and being able to provide creative learning opportunities are at the core of student success. But the budget stabilization factor (the dollar amount by which the legislature underfunds our public schools annually) currently sits at $1.18 Billion, which should be a statewide outrage. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us yet another opportunity to see for ourselves how critical our public schools are for not both our students and communities. We must do better — our students are counting on us.
Where did you grow up? Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
Tell me about your family. Husband (middle school assistant principal); three kids (two girls and a boy, ages 12, 10 and 8), two rescue dogs (Duke and Roscoe)
What was your first teaching job? Language arts teacher at Adams City High School
Were you a good student, hardworking student or a student lucky to get by? I got good grades, but I had to work hard to get them
Who's your favorite band? Really into Chris Stapleton right now and love Nathaniel Rateliff
Education aside, what's your dream job? Travel guide author