Gallup instructor earns UNM Teaching Excellence Award

UNM-Gallup Assistant Professor Aretha Matt, who was recognized as the Branch Campus Tenure-Track Teacher of the Year during the UNM College of Arts & Sciences 2023 Teaching Excellence Awards, poses for a photo on the Gallup branch campus June 13, 2023.

Gallup instructor earns UNM Teaching Excellence Award

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Aretha Matt recognized for empowering students through culturally responsive teaching

By Richard Reyes, Friday, June 16, 2023

GALLUP, N.M. — An instructor at The University of New Mexico-Gallup earned a UNM Teaching Excellence Award in May for being a branch campus leader in culturally responsive teaching and empowering students through texts that reflect their identities.

UNM-Gallup Assistant Professor Aretha Matt, who teaches English, was honored as the Branch Campus Tenure-Track Teacher of the Year during the UNM College of Arts & Sciences 2023 Teaching Excellence Awards at Hodgin Hall on the Albuquerque campus May 5.

“Dr. Matt is a consummate professional and an extremely excellent teacher who does us proud,” UNM-Gallup Dean of Instruction Dan Primozic said. “And, I am sure, she always will. She is diligent, engaged, brilliant, kind and student centered. She also has the makings of a future leader should she decide to embark on that journey. I celebrate her award and her great work for UNM-G.”

Matt said she was surprised at earning the award because there are a lot of quality instructors within the UNM system, especially at the community campus level.

“The smaller campuses really pride ourselves on teaching, so I felt like there were a ton of great teachers,” Matt said. “I never see myself as a good teacher, let alone as an outstanding teacher, so it really was surprising, and it was exciting at the same time.”

A leader in culturally responsive pedagogy

John Zimmerman, the chair of the UNM-Gallup Fine Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences Division, nominated Matt for the award.

In a letter to the selection committee, Zimmerman expressed his unequivocal support for Matt as the Branch Campus Tenure-Track Teacher of the Year. In particular, he recognized Matt for being a leading faculty member in the area of culturally responsive pedagogy.

Culturally responsive pedagogy is a teaching method or practice that incorporates the cultural identities and lived experiences of students as tools for effective instruction in the classroom, according to the website EducationWeek.

“It’s time for culturally responsive teaching to be recognized, especially at the higher education level,” Matt said. “So I think when I got the award, it was confirmation that other people see it too. It’s time to move in that direction.”

Matt’s approach to culturally responsive instruction is most notably informed by Gloria Ladson-Billings. Matt said the concept has changed over time, but essentially it means teaching in a way that reflects students’ identities.

Aretha Matt

UNM-Gallup Assistant Professor Aretha Matt, who was recognized as the Branch Campus Tenure-Track Teacher of the Year during the UNM College of Arts & Sciences 2023 Teaching Excellence Awards, poses for a photo on the Gallup branch campus June 13, 2023.

Empowering students

Matt noted that the current educational system tends to reflect the culture of white students. As a Navajo woman, Matt incorporates Native American culture, literature and social conditions in her lessons in order to give Native students confidence in speaking and writing about their experiences.

“When I give students something to read, I’m assigning articles that speak to the social conditions on reservations or places like Gallup because we can see ourselves in those texts,” Matt said. “It’s very empowering.”

In his nomination letter, Zimmerman said culturally responsive instruction approach is especially important at UNM-Gallup, which has a high percentage of Native American students.

“This creates a sense of belonging for students who share a commonality with the cultures being taught about and a learning opportunity for the students of different cultures,” he said.

Zimmerman also highlighted an instance when he observed an exercise in Matt’s class during which her students displayed their trust in her by comfortably reading aloud.

“I think that any of us who are or have been teachers would agree that these components are fundamental to a positive student experience and go a long way in preparing students for life beyond the classroom,” Zimmerman stated.

Representing Native voices

Zimmerman also mentioned Matt’s extraordinary amount of service at UNM-Gallup, including as a member of the Distance Learning Committee; the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion taskforce, the UA-UNM BIPOC Caucus; the Library Committee; the Adjunct Affairs Committee; the Teaching Excellence Committee; the Committee on Student Affairs; and the Faculty Professional Development Committee, which she will begin chairing in Fall 2023.

Matt has also served on a variety of hiring committees and has been voted by her peers to serve in substantial leadership capacity to the UNM-Gallup Faculty Assembly.

“For someone who has not yet earned tenure, these are daunting roles which Dr. Matt has managed with aplomb,” Zimmerman said.

Matt said her motivation for being so involved stems from her desire to see students succeed. She wants to make sure she gets a seat at the table to represent Native American voices when decisions are being made.

“When I’m part of those teams, it keeps me motivated, knowing I can be part of circles and groups and have a voice,” she said.

Matt said she believes she always knew from a young age that she was going to become a teacher. She found that she often went into teacher mode as a child, helping other students in class or being a babysitter.

Then in graduate school, she studied under female professors who inspired her to see the importance of educating at the college level.

“I felt so empowered to sit in their classes and the amount of knowledge they had, their experiences, the writing they put out in the world,” she said. “All of that was really inspiring. For someone like myself who is Native and didn’t see that growing up, being a first-generation student myself, it was empowering. I’m hoping students can draw from that like I drew from my previous professors.”

Matt holds a doctorate in English from the University of Arizona. She also holds a a Master of Arts in English, a Master of Education in educational leadership, and a Bachelor of Science in political science — all from Northern Arizona University.

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