Staff Sergeant Rainah Myers-Garcia talks with students about a spelling test on Monday.
Cathy Cook| El Defensor Chieftain

 

Three schools in Socorro County are using members of the National Guard to substitute teach. Finding substitute teachers has been a challenge for the entire school year, as COVID has kept more staff members home and dramatically increased the need for substitutes.

A lot of the staff at Socorro High School were a little reluctant to have someone from the National Guard work in the classrooms, said Principal Christine Peguero.

“Well, Senior Airman Cash has proven that it is a success, for us it has been such a success. Students are attentive to what he has to say and to what he has to share,” said Peguero.

In January, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced an initiative encouraging state workers and National Guard members to volunteer as licensed substitute teachers or child care workers in an effort to keep schools in person. PED has also waived the substitute teaching licensing fee, to make it easier for people to become substitute teachers. Over 70 National Guard members have volunteered to step into classrooms across the state.

Along with Socorro High School, there is a National Guard member filling in at Magdalena Municipal Schools and one at Parkview Elementary School.

Staff Sergeant Rainah Myers-Garcia went from teaching the youngest children at Parkview Elementary last week, 3 and 4-year-old pre-k students, to the oldest on Monday, when she stepped in to teach a fifth-grade classroom.

She’s substitute teaching at the elementary school for a month, or “as long as they need me,” she said.

Myers-Garcia dropped her own classes for the semester to substitute teach in New Mexico schools. She’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nutrition and dietetics at UCCS, although she already holds three degrees. Before she could step into the classroom, Myers-Garcia had to pass a background check, get fingerprinting done, take an in-person class and an online course and apply for her substitute teaching license.

Myers-Garcia lives in Colorado Springs and volunteered to be placed anywhere in the state of New Mexico. She went to elementary and middle school in Rio Rancho and by chance has a direct Socorro connection—her mom lives in the city.

“When she came in, our mouths just hung open,” said Parkview Principal Laurie Ocampo. “This lady in fatigues just came to our school and she said, ‘Hello, I’m here from the National Guard, what would you like me to do?’ and we just stood there thinking, they really did send somebody from the National Guard.”

With the omicron variant spreading through the state, the need for substitute teachers increased dramatically in January, said Ocampo. The school had between nine and 15 staff members out each day the last week of January. Some staff positions, like secretaries who handle a lot of confidential student information, cannot be filled with substitutes. Often the school also has to pull educational assistants from their duties to fill in for teachers who are out. With staff absences, keeping the right ratio of adults to children in classrooms, during lunches and at recess is “like a game of chess every morning.”

COVID has taken teachers – who are never absent – out of classrooms, said Ocampo.

“It’s hard for them to be absent because these are their kids, and they want to make sure their kids are learning what they need to learn.”

In upper grade levels, student leaders are helping make the job of substitute easier, said Ocampo. One student leader in Myers-Garcia’s classroom jumped up to make sure she passed out papers before their spelling test Monday morning.

A photo of Myers-Garcia walking a pre-k student who had bumped his head to the nurse’s office was shared broadly on social media last week.

“It’s just a sweet, innocent, plain little picture, but it’s a picture that says a thousand words. She was so willing to work with kids and even with kids that may have disabilities. She was willing to work with any children and she just wanted to be here for us,” said Ocampo.

For Myers-Garcia, the whole experience has been pretty great.

“One little girl keeps telling me she loves me. She keeps coming up and hugging me,” she said.

Peguero encourages anyone in the community interested in substitute teaching to apply for a substitute teaching license.

“We’d love to have them. Our students are really deserving of that.”

“Sometimes these students, as much as we try to have lessons in place for them and assignments in their google classroom, sometimes it’s difficult and so I hate for a student to be sitting without anything to do. A substitute coming in just makes that so much easier.”