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    New Mexico National Guardsmen bring their best to the classroom

    New Mexico National Guardsmen bring their best to the classroom

    Photo By Iain Jaramillo | Lt. Col. Susana Corona plays a math game called Around the World with students at...... read more read more

    ALBUQUERQUE, NM, UNITED STATES

    02.24.2022

    Story by Iain Jaramillo 

    Joint Force Headquarters - New Mexico National Guard

    ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The first bell rings as the students of Parkview Elementary School in Socorro, N.M., hurry to their classroom. Staff Sgt. Rainah Myers-Garcia takes a long sip of her energy drink, squares her uniform away, and greets her rowdy group of fifth-graders.

    "Good morning, students," says Myers-Garcia, "I'm going to be your substitute teacher today! Please take your seats so I can take attendance."

    All service members expect the unexpected. They anticipate long hours and challenging tasks. For members of the National Guard, a chance to serve can arise at any time.

    This chance usually comes as an activation in support of an overseas deployment, a natural disaster, or—recently—a historic response to a global pandemic. For the first time in U.S. history, National Guard members like Myers-Garcia are serving as substitute teachers in the classroom.

    There are currently 63 Soldiers and Airmen on state active duty orders across New Mexico acting as substitute teachers in support of Task Force Supporting Teachers and Families, an initiative announced by Michelle Lujan Grisham, the governor of New Mexico, on January 19, 2022, in response to severe school staffing shortages.

    Many schools have adapted to these shortages by introducing a blend of online schooling to their curriculum. Necessary procedures like these have had a profound impact on the mental wellbeing of students across the nation.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among adolescents increased by 31% between 2019 and 2020. Early last year, emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts were 50.6% higher among girls aged 12-17 years than during the same period in 2019.

    Many Guard members have experienced the effect of these staffing shortages first hand.

    Brig. Gen. Jamison Herrera, the NMNG director of the Joint Staff and a former teacher, watched his son graduate high school from behind a steering wheel.

    "The online piece was tough," Herrera said. "We received his diploma in the parking lot. I also have a college student, and I saw his struggles as well. It was apparent that online classes were not an optimal solution."

    Herrera, who taught every age from kindergarten to young adults during his time as an educator, has been involved from the beginning in the planning of TF STAF.

    "To remain open and conduct in-person classes was imperative," said Herrera. "We began looking for volunteers as soon as our governor announced this initiative. As that was happening, we were also planning with the Public Education Department and the Department of Public Safety to ensure that we met all of the criteria of any other citizen who would become a substitute teacher."

    All substitute teaching volunteers are subject to background checks from the DPS and must complete substitute teaching training provided by the PED. Once complete, the volunteers receive state substitute teaching certificates.

    "We did a lot of training, like scenario-based walkthroughs for classroom management," Herrera said. "After they go through that, a lot of Guardsmen realize that they are already teachers. They've already taught their squads or facilitated the instruction of fellow service members."

    From general education classes to vocational welding, Guard members have applied their formal military training to their substitute classrooms. These skills have been vital to many of the rural places where substitutes can be few and far between.

    Having the ability to serve in the same communities where they live sets National Guard members apart from their active duty counterparts. Many members of TF STAF have a unique opportunity to serve close to home.

    Myers-Garcia, who currently lives with her family in Colorado Springs, spends time with her mother in Socorro when she is not in the classroom.

    Lt. Col. Susana Corona, an intelligence officer in Joint Forces Headquarters-New Mexico, commutes about an hour through the East Mountains to serve her rural community.

    Spc. Mario Meraz, from the 613th Forward Support Company, has been assigned to Las Cruces Public Schools, where he has lived since the fourth grade.

    Airman 1st Class Amariah Jiron has even substituted for the same teachers she once had at Los Lunas High School. She graduated in 2015.

    "I enlisted because I wanted to make a difference," said Meraz. "I was already working with the Department of Health on the COVID mission when somebody I was working with told me about this mission. I thought it would be a good way to give back to my community."

    Meraz, who has been helping teach elementary school students, believes in the power of positive role models.

    "Students have mostly been having trouble with numbers," Meraz said. "They've basically been held back a year by COVID, so I try different approaches to help them understand. That's the most satisfying part, seeing them finally get it. I was teaching third graders long division, and I was glad that I got to help them learn something new."

    According to a press release by the PED, over 1,000 New Mexicans have volunteered to become substitutes since the initiative was announced.

    "If Soldiers can help, then others can too," said Meraz. "It gives the community the confidence to help. We're role models for the community. We're all just doing our best to help our state and to help our students learn."

    Students across New Mexico face many challenges independent of the pandemic, and time away from the classroom doesn't help. According to a study conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality, students spend approximately two-thirds of a school year with substitute teachers between kindergarten and the 12th grade.

    "Torrance County as a whole has a high percentage of problems in the household," said Dr. Cindy Sims, the superintendent of Estancia Municipal School District. "COVID didn't help that. Being locked in the house all day didn't help that. Loss of income and jobs didn't help that."

    "School is a safe place and a happy place for our kids," Sims said. "My teachers, my administrators, my custodians, my secretaries, my educational assistants, my cafeteria workers—we are the keepers of hope. It's what our kids need. They're here and we make sure that they're learning, they're engaged, they're happy, and they find joy in their classrooms because they don't have that at home in many cases."

    A single substitute teacher can make a big difference in small communities like Estancia.

    "Susana has been such a blessing for our school," Sims said of Lt. Col. Susana Corona. "She is such a natural with the kids. They love having her."

    Corona has found a new respect for full-time teachers since taking on a substitute role.

    "It's a lot like being a flight commander," Corona said. "It's nonstop all day, every day. The students have one block of instruction after another, after another, and their teachers have to keep all of it organized and flowing year-long."

    "I'm so happy that my teachers leave such detailed lesson plans for me to follow," Corona said. It gives me a chance to catch up with what they know and make sure they don't miss anything. But the teachers are the real experts. Our kids need them."

    Corona also saw the impact that distance learning has on kids. Her own fourth grader spent a considerable amount of time behind the screen during the height of the pandemic.

    "It's so hard on them," Corona said. "They have so much energy and need time away from home. These teachers are superheroes for keeping everything on track."

    The transition from service member to substitute isn't an easy one, but it's a challenge that New Mexico National Guard members have met.

    "In their defense, they have a Soldier for a teacher," Myers-Garcia said of her rambunctious fifth-grade classroom. "A lot of them have family who serves, but they probably haven't really seen somebody in uniform. But it's okay; I don't mind being called Miss Soldier."

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    NEWS INFO

    Date Taken: 02.24.2022
    Date Posted: 02.24.2022 15:33
    Story ID: 415250
    Location: ALBUQUERQUE, NM, US 

    Web Views: 314
    Downloads: 0

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