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Filling desperate need, National Guard substitutes in schools  

Alice Fordham
Austin Alt after his second day teaching in Pojoaque Valley Middle School

Specialist Austin Alt taught a class for the first time ever last month: eighth grade band.

"I was anxious," he says. "I didn't know what to expect…I'm not a big instrument player."

But, says the 25-year-old who usually works at Los Alamos National Laboratory, the students of Pojoaque Valley Middle School treated him kindly.

"Welcoming me, and very respectful and such," he says. "They showed me a lot about learning music - it was a learning experience on both ends."

He laughs through his mask, speaking after an English language development class, where he's just put the chairs up on the desks at the end of the day.

Alt is one of about 3,000 New Mexicans who volunteers with the National Guard and one of the first to answer Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham's call to step up as a substitute teacher. New Mexico has a shortfall of over 1,000 teaching positions and as the omicron wave of COVID-19 ripped through the state, it was getting harder to keep schools open.

That was reason enough for Alt to step forward. "I have younger brothers," he says, "I feel like the online stuff just doesn't get to them correctly."

"And as well, people having to leave children at home, alone," he adds. "That's not the safe thing to do."

He touches on a point that many people raise. When schools close, the poorest children suffer. The 2021 Kids Count data book says New Mexico ranks 48th in the country in child poverty. The nonprofit Feeding America says one in five children here face hunger.

"It was very difficult for our students to be home alone," says Principal Mario Vigil. "We have families who are working class families who have one, possibly two, sometimes three jobs, and they're busy working and putting food on the table."

Since the initiative, known as Supporting Teachers and Families, was launched on January 19, the Governor's office says the Public Education Department has received 988 substitute teacher license applications from Guard members and state employees and issued 473 new licenses. By comparison, the department received 89 substitute applications in about the same period of 2021.

The head of the National Guard in New Mexico, Brigadier-General Miguel Aguilar, says he recognizes the ideal situation is that only trained professionals work as teachers in schools. But when he heard his volunteers were going to be called upon to help, he wasn't surprised.

"My wife's a teacher in Albuquerque," he says. "She and I had had several discussions over the last few weeks about how they were going to keep teachers in the classroom, because you get to a certain point where you can't condense classes, you know, because you only have so many common spaces.

"And so, when the governor called this meeting with the Guard and the Public Education Department and a few others to have this discussion – you know, it made sense."

State employees are also being encouraged to volunteer, and the Governor herself has signed up.

But not everyone thinks having volunteers with a few hours of training and a background check is a good solution to the problem.

"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 these kids' emotional needs, I mean, are they going to do that?"

Others, who work to reduce criminal convictions and incarceration of young people, have raised concerns about military personnel in classrooms. Activist Xiuhtecutli Soto from the New Mexico Youth Justice Coalition says in an email he feels the initiative, "may be detrimental to the youth due to the fact it can be used as a method to militarize and police young people further."

When asked about those concerns, Brig. Gen. Aguilar said that individual school districts could choose whether the National Guard came to school in uniform or not.

Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus concedes the shortage of teachers is a big problem that Guard and state employees are not going to solve long-term. The pandemic has taken a huge toll.

"Those teachers stepped up to the plate and put in extra hours, worked weekends, and from my experience, were just incredible," he says. "So you can do that for a week or a month or three months. But we did this for a year. And now we're doing it again. And our teachers are saying, 'I'm tired. I've been on this emotional wagon here so long that I just can't continue.'"

Many have taken early retirement or quit. Steinhaus and others are trying to reverse the exodus by, among other measures, increasing the base level of pay for teachers by as much as $10,000. A law to that effect has now passed the state Senate and is headed to the House.

For now, the children at Pojoaque Valley Middle School say they are okay with having a soldier in the classroom if it means school stays open.

"I was shocked at first," says Joshua Villalobos, 14. "He got us through the class though, it was pretty fun." He says when he was being taught remotely he didn't learn much and felt isolated from other students. Coming back to school was weird and difficult.

"I was kind of nervous," he says. "I didn't talk to nobody, none of us really knew each other. If the teacher called on me, I didn't really know what she was talking about, because I didn't learn nothing."

He says he feels much more confident now, after being back in school several months.

Outside, as school ends for the day and students run across the snowy yard to the buses, Hannah Sarmiento, 13, and Anaadaly Firro, 14, say they were also depressed when school was closed. "Kind of sad, because we didn't get to see our friends," Sarmiento says.

And when it reopened? "Nervous, but exciting," says Firro.

They hug, and walk off together across the schoolyard, surrounded by shouting, laughing teenagers.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.