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SANTA FE – For at least a few hours Wednesday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham traded budget spreadsheets and political headaches for paintbrushes and picture books.
After urging state employees and National Guard members to volunteer at schools amid New Mexico’s latest surge of COVID-19 cases, the Democratic governor got a substitute teaching license and spent the afternoon teaching a class of kindergarten students at Salazar Elementary School in Santa Fe.
She told reporters the experience was one of the best days of her career, but said it also gave her insights into what teachers deal with on a daily basis.
“I loved every second of it, but it is tough,” Lujan Grisham said, adding that she tried to follow a lesson plan provided by the regular teacher, but ended up spending less time on math and more on an arts project than planned.
“We really do have a crisis in the classroom,” the governor added, citing large class sizes and other factors. “If we don’t do more to alleviate the pressures in the classroom, with or without a pandemic, we’re shortchanging our students.”
Dozens of schools across New Mexico have moved to remote instruction, at least temporarily, since winter break and districts have reported demand for about 900 substitute teachers.
With that backdrop, Lujan Grisham announced last week the voluntary staffing program – known officially as the Supporting Teachers and Families Initiative – that waives licensing fees for substitute teaching.
She also said she decided to participate herself, saying, “I believe you lead by example” and citing her past experience going undercover to investigate conditions at a senior living facility while she was secretary of the state’s aging department.
In all, a Lujan Grisham spokeswoman said the state had received 108 applications and issued 64 substitute teaching licenses as of Wednesday. Of that number, 50 are National Guard members.
The Governor’s Office also said the fill-ins would be deployed to 21 school districts around New Mexico this week.
But not all New Mexicans were thrilled by the governor’s substitute teaching stint, with state Republicans blasting it as a publicity stunt.
“The lack of teachers is a blatant result of the governor and Democratic-led Legislature refusing to address our education crisis head on,” state GOP Executive Director Kim Skaggs said in a statement. “The governor has jeopardized our children’s future by allowing this teacher shortage to happen and not taking the appropriate actions to fix our education problems.”
‘She was super busy’
New Mexico schools have been hit hard by the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 in recent weeks.
High infection rates among students, teachers and other school staffers have prompted roughly 60 school districts and charter schools around the state to temporarily return to remote learning since winter break.
While Santa Fe and other districts recently returned to in-person learning, all schools in Springer, Mora, Pecos, Mountainair and Clovis were closed for at least some school days this week, according to Public Education Department data.
Jule’ Skoglund, principal at Salazar Elementary, said having non-licensed teachers in the school’s classrooms is not ideal, but described the availability of willing professionals to step in as substitute teachers as a welcome development.
“There have been days when we have three or four teachers out and, on those days, it’s been impossible to get a substitute,” said Skoglund, who added she’s helped to fill in on such occasions.
She said teachers and administrators at the Santa Fe school were excited to have Lujan Grisham on campus Wednesday, but described it as a “regular school day” for the most part.
“She was super busy and the kids were really engaged,” said Skoglund, who said she spoke with Lujan Grisham after children were dismissed at the end of the school day, but forgot her son’s advice to take a selfie with the governor.
Teresa Casados, the governor’s chief operating officer, spent the morning teaching the kindergarten class, while the governor took over in the afternoon, a spokeswoman said.
Easier than a Cabinet meeting
During her afternoon as a kindergarten teacher, Lujan Grisham said she drilled a classroom of about 16 students, many of whom are bilingual, on math, syllables and reading – or at least tried to.
“I could barely read an entire page without half the class wanting to talk about what it meant,” said Lujan Grisham, whose late sister, Kimberly, attended Salazar Elementary School for part of her childhood.
The governor joked the experience was easier than managing a Cabinet meeting or dealing with legislators, but turned serious when discussing New Mexico’s public school system that has for years been ranked among the nation’s lowest in terms of educational outcomes.
“I’m clearer than ever before that experienced substitute teachers and volunteers are critical to the success of the public school system,” she said.
New Mexico was dealing with a teacher shortage even before the recent spike in COVID-19 infections, as educator retirements jumped by 40% last year.
Some schools have struggled to find replacements, and the Lujan Grisham administration and a leading legislative committee have proposed 7% salary increases for teachers for the budget year that starts in July in hopes of attracting new teachers and retaining those still working.
The governor also referred Wednesday to a legislative proposal to allow retired teachers to more easily return to work.
Looking ahead, Lujan Grisham will have her hands full with a 30-day legislative session that began last week, but said she’s ready for additional substitute teaching assignments should the need arise.
“I hope that I’m able to take what I learned and what I struggled with, and apply it to the next class I’m assigned to,” she said.