Home » Education » In mid-year pivot, Vandals get able fill-ins for teaching positions

In mid-year pivot, Vandals get able fill-ins for teaching positions

Rebecca Baker (left) and Nema Udom stepped in to fill two teaching positions that opened up mid-year at Miami High School. Photos by LCGross

Maintaining staffing levels at Arizona high schools can be difficult under the best of circumstances, but sometimes positive changes can come when the lives of teachers change.

For Miami High School, the 2023-2024 school year has seen some comings and goings and longtime instructors returning to help.

“We’ve had to make some mid-year adjustments and temporarily fill a position as we search for a permanent faculty member,” says MHS Principal Shawn Pietila. “But we’ve been able to bring in some excellent teachers with deep connections to the community.”

As the search for a permanent, full-time science teacher has gone on behind the scenes, Pietila has been fortunate that a long-time former instructor has stepped into the classroom to help bridge that gap to the end of the year.

Nema Udom in the chemistry lab. Photo by LCGross.

Science teacher Nema Udom has nearly 20 years of experience teaching in both the Miami and Globe school systems. Her bonifides include certificates for teaching chemistry and physics, so when the district needed a science teacher to finish the school year, she was more than happy to step into the role.

“This is my home, and my children came through the Miami Unified School District,” Udom says. “We’ve lived here some 33 years and my kids are all Vandals. Unfortunately, my situation is questionable because I’ve been a Vandal and I’ve been a Tiger.”

Udom is originally from West Africa, but came to Arizona around 1986. She taught in the MUSD for 13 years, leaving in 2004 for San Tan Valley to work for her church.

“I could say I left reluctantly,” she says. “I was having a good time here, but I answered another call in San Tan Valley and did some church work there. But while I was there, I continued to work in the schools.”

She taught at several districts in the Valley and even tried her hand working for the prison system for three years in Florence, but returned to teaching when a position opened up at Globe High School in 2017.

At the end of the 2022-2023 school year, Udom decided to take a sabbatical from teaching to focus on her church work and contemplate retirement. But when she received a call to re-enter the classroom after the departure of Erika Vargas, she was more than happy to return to the school she had devoted so much of her life to.

While the faces have changed and the school district has received an almost complete overhaul, Udom has not seen much difference in Vandal classrooms.

“The kids are the same kids I’ve been teaching continually,” Udom says. “The big difference is now everybody has a cell phone in their pockets: All the extra technology is very helpful, but of course, sometimes it’s a distraction.”

Rebecca Baker with her apple collection. Photo by LCGross

When English and Drama teacher Liz Barangot abruptly announced her departure in December for a job in Minnesota, Pietila recruited another longtime Vandal, Rebecca Baker.

Baker, a Phoenix native raised in Prescott, spent some time in Houston, Texas before returning home. Her family lived in Gilbert for eight years, where two of her daughters graduated high school, and 20 years ago she and her family moved to Top of the World.

“I started here mid-year in January and, of course, students thought I was a substitute so they were a little unruly,” Baker says. “I have a history of teaching eighth and ninth grade, so I quickly won them over. The administration and the other teachers and everyone here has been super accommodating and friendly.”

Three of her five children have been Vandals or Tigers at some point and she even briefly taught at Globe High School with one of her daughters.

Her educational journey has been an interesting and uncommon one. Baker says she was not a good student who struggled from second grade on because she felt as if she “didn’t fit in.”

“I ended up dropping out of high school myself,” Baker says. “The last graduating day, I had one credit for all four years of high school.”

She said the reason for her lack of success was that she did not feel smart enough to succeed and her teachers “made her feel stupid.”

She married her husband 25 years ago and became a step-mom to five children. It was then she decided it was time to finish her education so she could help them with theirs.

She attained her GED and began taking class at the Gila Pueblo campus of Eastern Arizona College when the family moved to Top of the World. With 80.5 credits on her way to becoming a surgeon physical assistant, Baker found she had to take calculus to graduate.

However the thought of passing such a tough course intimidated her, so she wound up getting her bachelor’s degree in sociology at ASU with honors.

“That shocked me to death because I thought, ‘How did I do this,’ but I could do it,” Baker says. “I had to overcome many obstacles while raising a family at the same time and going through all of that.”

Once she graduated, she answered an advertisement for a substitute teacher position at High Desert Middle School. Three weeks into the class, the original teacher quit and Baker was asked to take over full-time and within the year she was teaching English at Globe High School

“Since my degree was in sociology, I worked toward my masters degree in secondary education while I was teaching high school, juggling family and a lot of things,” Baker says. “I ended up with my master’s from GCU and working on my PhD back at ASU.”

Her daughter Danielle Baker similarly did not do well in high school and at the age of 14 earned her GED and started taking college classes at Gila Pueblo. She had her bachelor’s degree by the time her contemporaries were graduating high school.

Mother and daughter taught together briefly, but Danielle eventually moved to Texas.

“I’ve been teaching—this would be my ninth year—in Globe-Miami and I’ve never taught anywhere else,” she says. “I absolutely love it: The students are such a unique set of people and I really enjoy them.”

Her remaining children are spread about in Arizona—daughter Brandi Baker is currently teaching sixth grade Science at High Desert—Texas or in the military, so now Baker and her husband are empty-nesters. Now that they’re used to it though, they look forward to living life far from away from the city and she feels as if she has found a home in Miami.

She also feels that her educational experiences will be an asset in her ability to relate to her students, particularly if they are having problems adjusting to school.

“I feel that my experiences gave me the opportunity to see the students from a different perspective, rather than just as an educator,” Baker says. “I recognize the individual in them and that they’re facing challenges we can’t even begin to comprehend.”

Although the search for a science teacher will continue, Pietila is satisfied he has found a long-term solution to his English classroom and appreciates everything Udom and Baker bring to the table.

“We are so grateful for the talent and dedication of these women,” says Pietila. “We appreciate Mrs. Udom’s legacy and willingness to step up and Mrs. Baker’s amazing talents.”

For Baker, it represents both a challenge and an opportunity.

“I love change; I think it’s part of what we need to do to continue to grow,” she says. I love it here and believe I can teach here until I retire.”

This article has been edited for clarity.

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