ALAMOGORDO, NEW MEXICO (AP) – On past deployments Army National Guard Spc Michael Stockwell surveilled a desolate section of the United States (US)-Mexico border during a migrant surge, and guarded a ring of checkpoints and fences around New Mexico’s state Capitol after the January 2021 insurrection in Washington.
On his current mission, Stockwell helps students with assignments as a substitute science teacher at Alamogordo High School.
“You can’t act Army with these kids. You can’t speak the same way you would with another soldier with these kids. You can’t treat them the same way. You have to be careful with corrective actions,” he said with a laugh.
Dozens of National Guard Army and Air Force troops in New Mexico have been stepping in for an emergency unlike others they have responded to before: the shortage of teachers and school staff members that has tested the ability of schools nationwide to continue operating during the coronavirus pandemic.
While many other states and school districts issued pleas for substitute teachers amid Omicron-driven surges in infections, New Mexico has been alone in calling out its National Guard members. In 36 of the state’s 89 school districts, guard members have traded in mission briefs for lesson plans to work for school systems.
When Stockwell first walked into the freshman science class, wearing camouflage fatigues and combat boots, some students thought he was just visiting, like a recruiter. Then he took a seat in the teacher’s chair. “When he started taking attendance, I was like, ‘whoa’,” said Lilli Terrazas, 15, of Alamogordo. “I was kind of nervous because, like, you know – a man in a uniform. But it was cool. He helped me.”
Roughly 80 service members have volunteered to work in schools. The troops have gone through background checks and taken brief courses required for substitute teachers. As substitutes, they don’t have to learn much about curriculum, but they need to be attentive to students.
Stockwell has been filling in since late January when his students’ teacher moved to an administrative role in another school. One recent day, he shuffled through the rows of school desks, kneeling to meet students eye-to-eye as he helped them with assignments calculating the depth of the earth’s crust, and other layers of the planet.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, called out the guard to help with the acute shortages in a state that like several others has struggled to find enough educators. At least 100 schools had reported closing down for at least one day this school year. New Mexico saw a surge of teacher retirements last fall, and there are currently around 1,000 open teaching positions in a state with about 20,000 teachers. Grisham stressed the guard deployment is a temporary measure and state officials are working to bolster the teaching force and school staff through increased pay and other strategies.
In Alamogordo, the teacher shortage peaked on January 13, when 30 teachers, about a third of the teaching staff, were out due to illness, professional training, or family emergencies.
“Everybody was enjoying their holiday and things like that, and then they came back and were sick,” said Raeh Burns, one of two Alamogordo High School secretaries tasked with filling teaching slots each morning. “I know I’m going to have Mr Stockwell every morning and that he’s okay to go where I need him to go.”
In some communities, there have been concerns raised about soldiers going in classrooms.
In Santa Fe, the school district was asked if soldiers would wear uniforms and carry guns, school district spokesperson Cody Dynarski said. Guns were always out of the question.
The district decided that soldiers would wear civilian clothing.