Alumni Spotlight: New Mexico Lt. Governor Howie Morales

Howie Morales has many titles: Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico, former public school educator, longest serving Big Brothers/Big Sisters New Mexico volunteer, dad, and Head Start alumnus.

Growing up in Silver City, New Mexico, Howie Morales learned the value of education at an early age. His parents enrolled him in Head Start, and he went on to become a first-generation college student. Howie worked to put himself through school at Western New Mexico University, earning a Bachelor of Science degree and then a Masters degree in Bilingual Special Education. After beginning his career in a special education classroom in his hometown of Silver City, Howie went on to earn a PhD in Education Curriculum at New Mexico State University.

We caught up with Lt. Governor Morales in 2019 to learn more about how his own Head Start experience contributed to his path to success in politics and his continued dedication to improving lives through education.

Lt Governor Howie Morales standing with children in a Head Start classroom.

Thanks so much for taking the time to share your story with us in celebration of Head Start Awareness Month. We’d love to hear about your Head Start experience. Any memories you have from those early childhood days?

I attended El Grito Head Start in Silver City, New Mexico, in the late 1970s. Head Start served as a foundation builder that helped me develop habits and the ability to begin learning how to learn. I can recall the pride I took in carrying my own lunch tray, completing responsibilities of doing things on my own and the wonderful community graduation celebrating accomplishments of the program. Mrs. Sista Luna and Doris Vargas from El Grito Head Start were my wonderful teachers.

It’s amazing that you still remember those little things that helped you develop a sense of responsibility. Do you think those lessons from Head Start impacted your later school years? Or even your experiences beyond?

Without a doubt the daily habits I learned in Head Start set the stage for the ability to adapt in various classroom settings and schools.

The Head Start philosophy of instruction revolves around the idea that learning should be student-centered, and recognized that learning wasn’t a race, but rather a patient process where knowledge was acquired through discovery, play, and a spectrum of activities. This philosophy remains central for me to this day in my professional career as an educator.

That’s right, you were an educator for many years before beginning your political career. Can you share a little bit more about the lessons you learned from working with children and families in that role?

Sure, as I mentioned, the personalization of learning was instrumental in my academic success. As I had the opportunity to educate students in all areas, that philosophy remained with me. First and foremost, it was always important to demonstrate and reinforce that I cared for my students as human beings, capable of surpassing any obstacles they may encounter. I taught in an alternative high school where students may have fallen behind in credits, had a child as a teenager, or were at risk of not graduating. An important lesson I learned from my lead teacher in my first year was “society will say, you messed up your bed so lay in it. But a truly compassionate, caring and loving environment will say, you messed up your bed, here let me help you make it up.”

I am proud to say Head Start created the same kind of environment for me, and it helped me to recognize that even though my family didn’t have much financially, the love and support of the school and home environment would allow me to accomplish all that I did.

Compassion and individuality are so important in Head Start’s work, and clearly those values influenced your own approach as an educator. Given your Head Start experience and all the time you have spent in classrooms, why do you believe it is important to invest in Head Start, and in children and education more broadly?

Investing in education always provides the best return possible.

Head Start was a game changer for me to break the cycle of poverty and blaze new paths for me and my family members who followed, and for whom I tried to set an example.

As a teacher, I saw changes to our educational system with No Child Left Behind that I disagreed with. I didn’t like that the creative and compassionate aspect of teaching would be minimized, and replaced by standardization and test scores. I made a decision to pursue a PhD and commit myself to making policy changes for the better, for all students and educators. …Education doesn’t need to be reformed, it needs to be transformed and education never needs to be further standardized, but rather individualized. These are lessons I learned as a Head Start student.

Malkia Payton-Jackson

Malkia Payton-Jackson

Malkia Payton-Jackson is NHSA’s first-ever director of alumni engagement. Back in Cambridge, Head Start is where she made her first best friend — and now, she’s inviting Head Start alumni to connect with one another, share their unique stories, and help keep Head Start strong for generations to come. Join the network here.

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