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The National Guard answered the plea of New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham to volunteer as substitute teachers in New Mexico schools. New Mexico experienced an intense shortage of teachers during the omicron wave, and, like many schools, were looking at Zoom classes again. Members of the National Guard strongly felt that they should not have to go back online.
Seeing the National Guard being called to teach students is rough for all of us to hear, maybe more so for those about to become substitute teachers. Fourth-year David Elithorpe, a history student and my romantic partner, wants to teach social studies for middle school and/or high school. This is his last semester at Whittier; he will likely start subbing in the fall. In regards to his opinion on the National Guard being called to volunteer as substitute teachers, he said he was honestly glad someone was doing it. “It brings to question where the teaching profession is going,” he said. “[Based on] my observations and experiences I’ve had in the classroom, more subs are going to be needed to fulfill those positions. [Subs] most likely will run out [ . . . ] it’s a crisis.”
He continued, “I look at it as both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a bad thing because we have so many absentee teachers. [ . . . ] But, on the flip side, having someone in the classroom, whether it is a substitute teacher, or a tenured teacher, or somebody who’s there to fill that spot, I still believe is better than not having a teacher, not having a role model.”
Elithorpe is an AVID tutor at East Whittier Middle School, where he said he sees “more subs floating around the school as opposed to tenured teachers.” Substitute teachers are frequent at EWMS, and are in such demand that they have ‘Roaming Subs.’ “A roaming sub,” he explained, “is a sub that’s hired by the district. Instead of subbing for one teacher throughout the day, for all six periods, because there’s so many vacancies, as well as absentee teachers, subs are actually roamed around to more than one class period for more than one teacher. It would be not uncommon for a substitute teacher to sub for two or more teachers within a day, for more than one period.”
I asked, “Is it discouraging to see so many substitute teachers?”
“Yes and no,” he started, “There’s such a great need to educate the students. [ . . . ] Having the roaming subs allows them to have a leading figure in the classroom; however, not having a permanent teacher strains the learning environment in such a way because of the inconsistency.”
Students’ expectations of the learning environment change with every sub. Also, students aren’t able to bond with their teachers when it’s someone different every few days. Every sub has a different background, varying levels of experience, and an array of opinions. The teacher-pupil relationship isn’t able to develop; therefore, students aren’t able to develop respect for their instructor, or have their individual circumstances be understood and accommodated.
Teachers are leaving the profession faster than they are entering, which is why there are so many substitutes right now. Elithorpe pointed out that “teachers were demanded to buy their own equipment, demanded to use their own money to create opportunities for students. [ . . . It is] discouraging for teachers to have to mold and change with the times; it really does cause a challenge.”
For a country that prides itself on providing opportunity, it really doesn’t value its population of professional educators. The average income of teachers in the U.S. is just $63,645; teachers in California made an average of $84,659. Take into consideration that, in Los Angeles County, a low income for a family of four is $94,500. That means, if a teacher was the sole breadwinner for the family, even though they are a government employee, they would be considered low income. Furthermore, educators averaged $55,800 in loans due to low salaries and high interest rates. Those amounts vary depending on age and race. If you decide to become a teacher, part of that is accepting that you will be swimming in debt and barely making a living.
No wonder schools don’t have enough substitutes, omicron or not.
There is some incentive for people to become teachers — teachers can get up to $17,500 in loan relief. “There’s so many teachers going into the profession with loan forgiveness options. [ . . . ] It sounds good on paper to have those loans forgiven, but, within those five years, teachers are leaving the profession,” said Elithorpe.
When teachers go to work in underserved communities, they are usually unfamiliar with the culture of said community. These teachers also don’t have a lot of experience, so they may not know how to gain control over the class, or may not know how to help different learning styles. Elithorpe said, “The challenge is [ . . . ] some of the realistic expectations from the students that they’re serving. Students [of underserved populations] usually have lower reading levels, are placed in math support — that becomes more of a challenge for teachers. [ . . . ] I don’t believe those things are taught in teaching credential programs — how to best serve students from [different] socio-economic statuses.”
The point is, someone is there. Someone is facilitating these kids’ access to free education. “What I do worry about is how their education is affected by the inconsistency of retaining qualified teachers. I hope the National Guard is exposed to the importance of curriculum, lesson planning, and being positive role models for students who don’t have a stable home or school life,” Elithorpe said. “I read a quote from an article that the National Guard occupying schools ‘may be detrimental to the youth due to the fact it can be used as a method to militarize and police young people further.’ But, I don’t agree with that statement entirely.”
Something Elithorpe and I talk about a lot is what it takes to be a teacher. Education is a calling for both of us; it’s something we are both passionate about. It’s not a job people typically do for the money, or the benefits; it’s a job that is energized by the goodness of one’s heart. If you’re going to do such a thankless job, I believe you have to understand it relies on unpaid overtime — that, every year, you’ll fall in love with a new set of bright, young minds, and, every year, you will have to say goodbye to your time together. It’s emotionally demanding.
“Understand that it’s going to be demanding of patience [ . . . ] to be motivated for yourself and the students,” Elithorpe said. “Teaching is a profession that requires you to look beyond yourself. Anybody who wants to become a teacher — really consider the challenges that are ahead, not only with academics, but learning to look beyond yourself, reconsider and challenge your notions.”
The future of teaching looks pretty bleak (I mean, everything looks bleak right now — but, I digress). Despite all this, Elithorpe believes tomorrow will be another great day at East Whittier Middle School. He commits himself to the students’ understanding of the material, no matter the learner. There’s hope when you have someone with so much heart entering the minefield that is the future of education.
Featured Image: Sage Amdahl / Quaker Campus