National Guard Soldiers Help Schools with Teacher Shortage

21 February 2022

In some parts of the United States, many teachers or their family members have tested positive for COVID-19. They must stay home from work. As a result, there are not enough fill-ins to take their place.

The fill-in teachers are called substitutes.

Early this year, in one part of Texas, the schools needed 455 substitutes in a single day. They usually need only 185.

Substitute teacher and New Mexico Army National Guard specialist Michael Stockwell substitute holds up a geology assignment while teaching students at Alamogordo High School.
Substitute teacher and New Mexico Army National Guard specialist Michael Stockwell substitute holds up a geology assignment while teaching students at Alamogordo High School.

To help with the lack of teachers, leaders in California, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are asking retired teachers to come back to work for a short time. In the states of Oklahoma and Utah, government workers are being asked to step in at schools.

This helps schools stay open, which experts say is better for children than staying at home as they did earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, in the southwestern state of New Mexico, some students are being welcomed in their classrooms by soldiers from the Army National Guard.

Michael Stockwell is one of those soldiers. During past military jobs, he watched part of the U.S. border with Mexico and worked to keep the New Mexico state Capitol safe.

Now, he is wearing his military uniform as he works with students as a substitute science teacher at Alamogordo High School.

When he works with teenagers, Stockwell said, he cannot "act Army." He said he needs to be careful with how he speaks with them.

Due to the teacher shortage in New Mexico, many members of the National Guard are now working in schools. In 36 of the state's 89 school zones, or districts, Guard members are working.

Stockwell said when he first arrived in his classroom wearing his military clothing, students thought he was only visiting. Then he sat down in the teacher's chair.

Lilli Terrazas is 15. She is in Stockwell's class.

"When he started taking attendance, I was like ‘whoa,'" she said. "But it was cool. He helped me."

About 80 soldiers are working in schools throughout the state. They all must pass security checks and take classes that all substitutes must take.

Most of the teachers do not have to be experts in their subjects, but they need to be willing to work with the students.

Stockwell started in late January.

New Mexico is dealing with a teacher shortage for two reasons: the coronavirus health crisis and recent teacher retirements. The state usually has about 20,000 teachers. There are currently 1,000 openings.

The state's governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the use of the soldiers is only for a short time, and she is working to find new teachers. The state is offering better pay to find more teachers.

The problem reached its height at Alamogordo High School on January 13. About 30 percent of the teaching staff was out.

Raeh Burns works at the high school. One of her jobs is to make sure there are enough teachers each day. She said she knows Stockwell is "OK to go where I need him to go," each morning.

In some parts of the state, parents worried about having soldiers in the school. Parents in Santa Fe wondered if the soldiers would wear their uniforms and carry guns. A school spokesman said they never planned to carry guns and decided to have them wear regular clothing.

Some of the soldiers, however, choose to wear their military clothes because they are quite young. Cassandra Sierra is a guardswoman. She is 22. She said without her uniform, "I think I look like an 18-year-old."

When she is not working for the National Guard, Sierra works with students at a school where students live away from home. She said the experience helps during her work as a substitute. "Kids just need patience," she said. "I think I just have a lot of patience."

Another school in Alamogordo is on an Air Force base. Students there are used to seeing people in uniforms. However, they are not usually their teachers. Andrew George is 12. He said it was "awkward" at first. However, once he learned more about his teacher, who once led a group of soldiers overseas, he changed his mind. He said he thought: "oh yeah, this is going to be fun."

Amanda Zollo is the teacher. She helped the students learn about computer security.

The school's principal, Whitney Anderson, said Zollo's arrival meant she did not have to teach the class herself.

I'm Dan Friedell.

Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based a report by the Associated Press.

What would you say if you walked into a classroom and found a soldier as a substitute teacher? Write to us in the Comments Section and visit 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

positive – adj. showing the presence of a germ or condition

whoa – expression. used to show surprise

cool - adj. fashionable, stylish or appealing

uniform n. a special kind of clothing worn by all members of a group such as an army or a team

patience n. the ability to remain calm and not get upset when dealing with problems

awkward adj. not easy to deal with