Hometown Heroes: Teacher says she learns from students

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By David Giuliani

Carmen Baca teaches both American and British literature at West Las Vegas High School. And she has a clear favorite between the two.

“British literature. I’m more comfortable with it. I don’t know why,” she said. “American literature is dry.”

A Las Vegas native, Baca has spent her entire 32-year teaching career in the West district. She spent her first six years at Valley Junior High, but she moved on to the high school in 1983.

Around that time, she was working on her master’s degree and found that she preferred “intellectually stimulating” environments. Teaching high schoolers fit the bill.

“It’s difficult to work with the little ones. They don’t do what you tell them do do,” she said.

In her first years at the high school, she mostly taught students with low reader skills. However, since the early 1990s, her class load has included Advanced Placement classes for 11th- and 12th-graders, which she said she finds challenging.

Students in the high-level classes can take the national Advanced Placement test, and if they pass, they get college credit. A few years ago, AP students could get concurrent credit from Luna Community College for taking classes such as Baca’s, but state rules now prevent them from doing so.

In her classes, Baca said she tries to present as much literature and as many literary devices as possible to prepare students for the AP test. In American literature, she includes a variety of literature, including Native American and African American.

Following in her footsteps in the teaching profession is her son, Michael Baca, a physical education teacher at Armijo Elementary. Her other son is David Baca, who works for a program that helps troubled youths. She is married to Michael Baca Sr., a semi-retired home builder.

Baca is often asked when she is going to retire. It’s a question she dislikes.

She said she’ll work as long as she is healthy.

“What am I? An old horse that needs to retire,” she said. “If you choose to do something you like, you won’t work a day in your life.”

She has seen some of her colleagues retire, and they take jobs such as greeters in stores. “I don’t want to do something like that.”

While veteran teachers often complain about the added paperwork over the years, Baca has no such laments. She points to her computer as a big help.

“A lot of people don’t want to adapt. I’m all for adapting,” she said.

She also believes she still has much to learn about teaching. She’s gone to as many as 20 training sessions over the last couple of years, she said.

As for handling disciplinary problems, Baca said she prefers to deal with students one on one. They become defiant when a teacher yells, she said. She takes those with problems aside.

How does she deal with plagiarism?

Baca flunks the student for the assignment in question, calls a conference and involves the principal in handing down a punishment. She notes that plagiarism is much easier to catch these days. Just input a few words from a student’s paper into the Google search engine and put quotation marks around them. It’s a process that has revealed offenders.

Cell phones?

Baca won’t tolerate their use. She warns students who use them and takes them away after subsequent violations. She has yet to catch anyone cheating on a test using a cell phone, but she’s on the alert.


She doesn’t have much of a problem with them, but she has to enforce school rules that bar their use in class.

While many adults complain that youths are ruder these days, Baca said she doesn’t believe that to be the case. She said they are just as respectful to adults as they used to be.

However, students swear more often now, she said.

“When they notice we’re there, you’ll get an instant apology,” she said.

On the whole, she said she learns from her students. She said she struggled to understand “Paradise Lost,” a British classic, when she was working on her master’s degree.

But she said she is amazed about how her students pick it up so quickly.

“They love it. It’s hard to believe students can understand it,” she said. “It’s a gratifying feeling when they have a grasp of great literature.”