ONTARIO – Theresa Martinez always wanted to be a teacher.
As other children created games or emulated their favorite super hero, Martinez was playing teacher to her younger sister.
“That was my favorite,” said Martinez.
Martinez eventually fulfilled her dream to become a teacher and then switched careers and became the coordinator of the Eastern Oregon Child Care Resource Referral Department in Ontario, part of the state Department of Early Learning and Care.
Now, Gov. Tina Kotek has appointed her to a key state commission that focuses on higher education.
This month, Martinez will travel to Salem for a state Senate confirmation before she takes her seat on the Higher Education Coordination Commission.
Martinez said she was notified of her appointment by the governor’s office in June.
“I am very excited. When I do my Senate confirmation I will take my 10-year-old daughter because I think she should watch me do this,” said Martinez.
The Higher Education Coordinating Commission oversees a budget of $1.4 billion for Oregon universities, colleges and other post-high school training programs.
The 14-person commission is a major force in education in Oregon and meets monthly in Salem.
The Eastern Oregon Child Care Resource Referral is part of the new state Department of Early Learning and Care, an agency designed to support the development and security of children and to ensure families gain access to early learning.
Martinez covers Malheur, Baker and Wallowa counties where her primary goal is to help child care providers develop work plans, find professional development and assist with state licensing.
“We are here to be a conduit between them and the state. We help them with anything they need. I am responsible for our deliverables back to the state, keeping data as far as how many child care providers we are bringing into the system,” said Martinez
Martinez, 45, said her office serves nearly 50 day care providers in Malheur County, around 30 in Baker County and around 10 in Wallowa County.
Martinez grew up in Vale on a small farm and graduated from Nyssa High School before attending Western Oregon University. She earned an English degree with an emphasis in secondary education.
Martinez subsequently earned master’s degrees in curriculum instruction and in special education from Portland State University.
Martinez returned to Malheur County 12 years ago and taught special and alternative education at Ontario High School and the Ontario Middle School before she went to work for Malheur Education Service District.
As the coordinator of the child care service, Martinez also works to get day care providers the level of education they need to be effective. Right now, she said, the early childhood development industry across the state – but especially in the eastern Oregon region –lacks an “effective workforce.”
Martinez said she spends a lot of time helping local providers “get through the ivory tower of higher education.”
“We need an effective workforce in early childhood care. What we need at the early learning level is a workforce that really understands childhood development,” said Martinez.
Now, said Martinez, many early childhood providers are “really good people who love kids but don’t have that extensive background.”
“A lot of them haven’t attended college because they are scared of the math class or the history class or the sciences and it keeps them out of the higher-level jobs such as a teacher,” said Martinez.
Martinez wants to change that. She sees finding a way to streamline the path to higher education for early childhood providers who may become teachers as a key future goal.
Her enthusiasm stems from her years as a teacher.
“If I can get teachers the support they need so they don’t burn out and get really qualified people (into early child development) who are ready to build brains, that will make change,” she said.
One of the major challenges now, she said, is “getting people to even want to come into the field and having them stay.”
“It is super important that parents have choices. We need to have a lot of options because right now options for families is whoever has an opening and if the hours work,” she said.
Now, she said, child care providers face a bewildering number of challenges involving behavioral issues with children.
“It is a lack of socialization, especially since we are coming out of Covid. They haven’t been around a lot of kids. The kids are not used to being around others kids and especially not used to being in a structured environment,” said Martinez.
At the same time, said Martinez, the early child care workforce “love kids but don’t understand how to create the environment to make sure it’s structured.”
“We need to be talking to them, reading to them, asking questions so they are making questions in their brains and they need to play,” said Martinez.
Socialization at an early age is key, said Martinez.
“We need adults there to help them problem solve and help them get along with each other. We are absolutely about making that foundation,” said Martinez.
Parents in all three counties face one familiar problem – lack of housing.
“Especially in Wallowa. Housing prices are outrageous. Baker isn’t great either and they especially have issues with professionals moving in but there is no housing or child care. Malheur County is a different animal. Because we do have child care on the Fruitland side,” said Martinez.
Early childhood development and education across the three counties also must contend with drug abuse and poverty, she said.
Martinez said her job presents something new every day.
Martinez, who said she is most proud of her three children, said she stays motivated by helping make early childhood providers successful.
“There is so much secondary trauma that all of us caring for children are experiencing right now. The kids are coming in with all of these behaviors and we know a lot of trauma is happening in their lives. It is really wearing on caregivers,” said Martinez.
News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]
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