Second Lt. Dayton Harris, an infantry officer and platoon leader in the 1st Battalion, 200th Infantry Regiment of the New Mexico Army National Guard, is currently shouldering a lesson plan instead of a rifle.
A substitute teacher at the Albuquerque Institute of Math and Science, Harris heard the call to arms when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asked the Guard to help counter the rise of COVID-19 cases and patch the unraveling fabric of school staff throughout New Mexico.
With guidance from the New Mexico Department of Education, guardsmen added another role to their collective resumes – substitute teaching.
Brig. Gen. Jamison Herrera, director of the Joint Staff for the New Mexico National Guard, said while teaching was a new challenge for the Guard, they implemented solutions from basic templates of emergency response plans. Then slightly modified them to fit the uniqueness of the pandemic.
Herrera met with state agencies and Guard personnel to draw up and implement plans to recruit a chalkboard brigade ready to step into the state school system.
“Its never a good time to meet your peers in an emergency,” Herrera said.
Yet as difficult a task the New Mexico National Guard was handed, the decision to put their collective shoulders to the wheel required little debate among soldiers and airmen in the Land of Enchantment.
“That’s who we are. That’s what we do,” Herrera said. “We transform into whatever is needed for our state. These are our neighbors.”
Hard hit by the pandemic, many New Mexico schools were contending with shifting classes to online learning. Many child care facilities were forced to close temporarily when staff tested positive for COVID-19 and required a five-day isolation period.
And for anyone who had contact with someone testing positive, there came a domino-like isolation protocol for everyone down the line of contact. Not only were teachers affected, but it quickly trickled out to administrators and school staff.
The state sent out word to Air and Army Guard personnel for volunteers. Requirements for volunteers were nothing new or special – they followed those already in place for substitutes by the New Mexico Department of Education guidelines. Herrera and his planners plugged that into their plans and deployed their strategy.
As a result, the Public Education Department has received 988 substitute teacher license applications and issued 473 new licenses since Jan. 19. By comparison, the department received 89 substitute applications in about the same period of 2021.
For Guard personnel like Harris, the opportunity has brought about “a great experience” and one that has given him a direction for a new calling as a high school teacher.
Harris said he has gained a new appreciation for what teachers do. While he had no real formal teaching experience, he said he often teaches aspects of soldiering to his platoon members. In another example of how military experience can translate to civilian employment and needs, Harris said that at the end of each duty day of teaching, he meets online with eight other Guard members he oversees who are assigned to rural areas. He described the meeting as their daily after-action report to discuss progress and address any obstacles anyone might be encountering.
The school, according to Harris, has been extremely welcoming and assisting him in working toward the chance of getting hired on a full-time basis. He said the students ask a lot of questions about being a soldier and Guard life – and seem keenly interested in Guard life.
” I volunteered not only for the financial benefits, but also because of my future interest in being a high school teacher once I return from basic officer leadership class,” he said. “The school welcomed me with open arms. It has a good support system and this gave me a chance to dip my toes in the water.”
Mary Parr-Sanchez, president of the New Mexico National Education Association, said overall she hasn’t heard or seen anything negative about guardsmen stepping into the school system.
She said that even before the pandemic, there was a staff shortage throughout schools. The pandemic just created more layers of shortage among staff and teachers, as people not only had to do their jobs but part of someone else’s.
“From what I’m hearing, said Parr-Sanchez, “Our kids feel special that someone cares enough to come into our schools and help.”