National Guard soldiers now replace teaching in New Mexico

In a sunny classroom at Pojoaque Valley Middle School in northern New Mexico, a class of energetic teenagers do a group reading exercise. Specialist Austin Alt paces, looking over their shoulders. It’s her second day as a substitute teacher and her arrival was a surprise.

“I went to one of my classes and saw him there. I was a bit shocked at first,” said 14-year-old Joshua Villalobos.

As of this week, 78 members of the New Mexico National Guard began working as substitute teachers. They are responding to a call from Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who also asked state employees to volunteer in an effort to keep schools open during an acute teacher shortage exacerbated by the omicron wave of COVID-19. .

Alt is 25 and has no teaching experience, usually working as a technician in the Los Alamos labs. He says he volunteered after watching his younger brothers struggle with remote learning.

“Online content just doesn’t reach them properly,” he says, and many children don’t have access to a fast internet connection. “And also, people may have to leave the kids at home, like — alone. Like, that’s not the safest thing to do.”

Alt says he had a few hours of training and a background check before his first assignment – teaching a music class. He didn’t feel fully prepared.

“I was anxious. I didn’t know what to expect,” he says. But the students were kind to him, “welcoming me and being very respectful and so on. They taught me a lot about learning music,” he laughs. “It was a learning experience on both sides.”

The students say they love Alt and have no problem with a substitute soldier if it means the school stays open. During the omicron wave, there were even fewer teachers than usual.

“It’s quite stressful,” says Villalobos. He hasn’t learned much during remote learning and says going back to school has been difficult. “I was a little nervous. Like, we got there, I didn’t speak to anyone, neither of us really knew each other. Like, if the teacher called me, I wasn’t really going to know what she was about. was talking.” He now feels a lot more confident.

School principal Mario Vigil says the poorest students suffer the most when the school closes. The Kids Count 2021 data book indicates that New Mexico ranks 48th in the nation in child poverty. According to the non-profit organization Feeding America, one in five children go hungry.

“It was very difficult for our students to be home alone,” he says. “We have families that are working class families that have one, maybe two, sometimes three jobs, and they’re busy working and putting food on the table.”

But keeping the school open is becoming increasingly difficult as more teachers retire or resign, devastated by remote learning and dealing with students affected by loneliness, difficulties or the grief.

“We ask them to be counsellors,” says Vigil, “we ask them to be teachers, we ask them to be guardians. exhaust.”

Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus praises teachers who have adapted to the pandemic. “These teachers stepped in and worked overtime, worked weekends,” he says. But as the months pass, “our teachers are saying, I’m tired. I’ve been in this emotional wagon here for so long that I just can’t go on. And so it’s really hard there.”

He says there is now a shortage of more than 1,000 teachers, which is “the biggest challenge in terms of numbers that we have ever had”, with the number having more than doubled since the start of the pandemic.

When Steinhaus took the job last year, he told the governor he wanted to do everything he could to keep schools open, first to try to improve student achievement. “In areas of high poverty, student achievement dropped dramatically when we went to totally remote areas,” he says.

And second, and more importantly, the “social, emotional, mental health, behavioral health, there are a lot of words for that. But that’s how kids feel about themselves.”

Inviting the National Guard and state employees into schools is, he concedes, a “crisis measure”, but worth it because, “some children, the family is not stable, but the school is stable. There is someone to rely on, there is food”. in many of our schools it is breakfast and lunch. »

Not everyone agrees that poorly trained volunteers are the solution.

“I thought it was a nice gesture, but I think it’s completely impractical,” says Jennifer Barnwell, a teacher in the town of Carrizozo. “The only way it’s going to be a help is if these people can plan their curriculum, meet the standards, know how to run a classroom effectively with classroom management, if they can meet the emotional needs of these kids, I mean, are they going to do that?”

Others working to reduce criminal convictions and incarceration of young people have raised concerns about military personnel in classrooms. Activist Xiuhtecutli Soto of the New Mexico Youth Justice Coalition said in an email that he thought the initiative “could be harmful to young people because it can be used as a method to further militarize and control young people.”

There are plans to recruit and retain qualified teachers. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has proposed a big pay rise for educators. New Mexico ranks 32nd nationally in average teacher salary. But right now, during this crisis, the governor has volunteered to be a substitute teacher herself.

“What’s happening to our children right now is likely to affect them for many, many years,” Steinhaus says. “And we have to work really hard to make sure they’re emotionally connected with at least one adult.”

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