Connie Clark got to experience her first day of school four separate times this month.
It was Ground Hog day all over again for Clark, a first-year teacher at Murray Elementary School in Hobbs.
“Are you a little bit nervous to be at school?” Clark asked Kiondre Morgan as he carefully walked into her second-grade classroom on his first day of school and Clark’s third first day. “Don’t be,” she reassured the 7-year-old. “We’re going to figure it out.”
Morgan was one of three students who arrived for class on Sept. 3 as part of the 5:1 learning model established by HMS in response to the Public Education Department’s Covid-19 social distancing mandates. By Thursday of that week, Clark had met Monday and Tuesday’s students and was eager to make face-to-face contact with two more groups that would fill out her class of 18 students.
On this morning, Clark helped pass out breakfasts (“Can we take our masks off,” Morgan wanted to know while trying to drink from a milk carton), explained class rules, then asked the trio to sign a pledge to respect one another.
“Even if you are having a bad day — maybe you didn’t sleep well and sometimes you are grouchy. It’s hard to be kind on days like that,” Clark assured her class. “But we still need to respect each other. Because how you act and treat others is a choice.”
Only a year before, Clark never imagined herself standing masked in front of a classroom.
Newly married and new to Hobbs, she was a 41-year-old homemaker with bachelor’s degrees in history and communications. Through her stepdaughter’s teacher and friends at church, Clark heard about an innovative Hobbs Municipal Schools program which gives college graduates a chance to instruct with an alternate teaching license. So Clark signed up for New Mexico Junior College classes and launched herself on a path to earn teaching credentials.
Then came the March Covid crisis that grounded Clark, her 7-year-old stepdaughter and the rest of the country.
“I really honestly thought that when the shutdown happened, it would be for two weeks and that would be it,” she said.
Clark occupied herself during those months by completing her own NMJC classes and helping her stepdaughter — a Stone Elementary student — navigate school Zoom meetings. As Covid cases increased and eliminated in-person school for the semester, Clark applied for and was offered a teaching position at Murray for the 2020-21 school year. “I remember grinning and being excited when (the principal called),” she said. “I asked for one day to pray about it and called them the next day to accept.”
That’s when the roller coaster ride — as Clark calls it — began.
The new school year was at first scheduled to begin in mid-August. But that date got bumped up when HMS announced it would begin instruction on a hybrid schedule, then learned that in-person instruction would be delayed — by Public Education Department mandates — until after Labor Day.
Clark stayed busy attending new teacher workshops and, like the rest of the HMS teaching staff, spent days familiarizing herself with the technical aspects of virtual learning. HMS Supt. TJ Parks called for as much professional development as possible as the district transformed itself from a teaching platform that was 385 years in the making to a 100 percent on-line model crafted over a period of months.
Although she’d earned her bachelor’s degrees by taking a few online classes, the shift to new software and a virtual learning environment was “like being taught to swim with cinderblocks weighing down each of my arms,” she said.
And sorting through elementary curriculum was particularly daunting.
“That was the only time when I cried,” Clark said. “(The Saxon program) looked like a huge box of just loose papers and you need to file them according to lessons. Before you understand it, it doesn’t make sense and it’s overwhelming.”
Enter mentor teacher Stephanie Snead, Clark’s next-room neighbor at Murray and a veteran teacher with eight years of experience. “She’s been phenomenal and never made me feel like a nuisance,” Clark said of her fellow second-grade teacher. “She helped me immensely with the computers, and understanding Path-blazer (another elementary curriculum). Everybody has been very open to help. They want me to succeed.”
After weeks of professional development and preparation, it was finally time for Clark to experience “the flip side of things.” The school year began with small-group orientations which allowed the new teacher the opportunity to meet her students and their families. (Clark is proud that she was able to memorize names of all of her students and even their siblings during meet and greets.) The gear-up to in-person learning continued with zoom classes and more online introductions. Finally came that first week of four face-to-face first-days.
The phase-in to teaching frustrated many students, parents and veteran teachers but in other ways, it was a perfect training scenario for new instructors.
“I’m getting eased into teaching,” Clark said during her first week. “I’m a first-year teacher who is getting the opportunity to practice the same lesson every day for a week rather than moving on to a new lesson every day.”
Even better, Clark said she can provide her students the sort of personalized instruction that can be important at pivotal grade levels like second.
“In small groups, you get to know your students. You have time to ask them their favorite colors, their favorite foods. It’s much easier to manage the classroom and have those get-to-know-you moments with three instead of 18.”
Indeed, as Clark launched into a phonics lesson on her third teaching day, she was able to carefully observe each student’s pronunciation and help correct them by listening to the three voices, heard clearly despite the masks. The same was true as the rookie teacher continued her teaching day with a math skills review and reading lesson.
“She’s doing amazing,” Snead said of her protege during a recess break. “She’s got a lot of patience and insight. She has a lot of great ideas to help kids out.”
Still, Clark’s first year of teaching is not perfect.
“Having school like this is hard on our students. I know they just want normal school, the ability to sit near one of their friends from last year and just do things the old way,” Clark said. “And for me, I love the kids. My biggest challenge is wanting to love on the kids But you just can’t do that.”
That drawback, it turns out, is one the newbie teacher shares with veterans teachers.