It was the middle of October, and my first day of teaching seventh grade science at Pojoaque Valley Middle School, about 15 miles north of Santa Fe. I had only been hired three days before. As I walked into the classroom, the substitute who had been there since the start of the 2021 school year introduced me and then turned over the class to me. I looked out at what seemed a sea of young masked faces, took a deep breath — and plunged in.
The kids were doing a lesson review from their science textbook, so I took over, leading them through the questions. While the substitute teacher stayed with me for the first period, at the beginning of the second, she turned to me and said, “You got this?” I nodded, stunned, and she left. That day, six teachers had called in sick, and she was needed to teach another class.
Thus began my first year of teaching in New Mexico, a job I took at perhaps one of the most challenging times in recent history. The pandemic was still raging, kids were suddenly back in the classroom, and in addition to the academic backsliding they’d experienced, many of them were struggling with social skills. What used to be pro forma now felt alien — and they felt overwhelmed by the close proximity to other students.
Pojoaque Valley School District serves a number of northern New Mexico communities and the Pueblos of Tesuque, Nambé, San Ildefonso, Pojoaque, Santa Clara and Ohkay Owingeh. The district has about 2,000 students, the majority of them Hispanic (85 percent) and Native (10 percent). The other 5 percent is white (or “other”), which describes me. The Sixth Grade Academy and the middle school, where I teach, share a campus and have a total of about 440 students.
I teach three to four 90-minute classes per day from Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, all six classes meet for 55 minutes. My classes range in size from 20 students to 27; all told, I’ve memorized 140 names. My afternoons have the biggest classes, and they also present some of the biggest issues with classroom management.
These are the basic facts, but they don’t even begin to tell the real story. Mostly what I’ve discovered is a tight-knit community where many students have known each other since kindergarten. Their brothers, sisters and cousins all attend Pojoaque Valley schools. Many of our teachers themselves attended Pojoaque, as have many parents. I have been warmly welcomed into the school community, and my principal and assistant principal are beyond supportive. I have an amazing mentor who’s taught at PVMS for 25 years, and many other teachers have offered help and support. Parents have been incredibly responsive, as well.
But amid all this support, the school is coping with a new reality: behavior problems. Teachers and administrators say unruly behaviors are more pronounced and widespread than anything they’ve seen before. This is not unique to Pojoaque: It’s something that schools around the state and the nation are experiencing.
It’s been difficult, but nothing compared to the hardships these kids have endured throughout the pandemic. Many of our students have lost loved ones to COVID-19 — parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. When they returned to school in August, it was the first time they had been in a classroom since they were fifth-graders. Many have fallen behind after so many months of remote learning, and of my 140 students, more than 20 have IEPs or 504s, meaning they have emotional, physical or academic deficits and require accommodations or special attention. Many struggle with reading, writing and/or math.
They act out, defy authority, refuse to follow directions and are often just tuned out in class. On most days I have to call security to escort a kid to the office. The week before our winter break, we had three fights on the playground, and the anger and threats between the kids still continue. This spring I broke up a fight in my classroom between two boys, and it wasn’t the first time. Girls have had fights as well.
For me, it has been especially challenging. While I have taught writing and journalism at colleges and privately for many years — and while I love science and nature — teaching science was entirely new. Teaching science to hormone-fueled 12- and 13-year-olds was beyond my imagining. It has been a steep learning curve, and incredibly fulfilling.
In the third week, we were studying the human body — cells, organs, body systems — and I had to teach the reproductive system, among others. You can imagine what we talked about for the rest of the week and subsequent weeks: sex. Honestly, I had a lot of fun explaining sperm and egg, implantation into the uterus, and various body parts. Many students had no idea about reproduction and sex, which surprised me, although perhaps it shouldn’t have.
One day, one of my students stood up and announced that she had realized she was gay. The other students applauded her, and I reveled in the knowledge that such a thing would probably never have happened even 10 or 15 years ago. I was proud of her.
We’re still talking about sex. The kids have finally gotten used to hearing correct anatomical terms, so they don’t all scream and laugh as they did before. Now they ask things like, “What is masturbation?” “Can a girl get another girl pregnant?” and “How do you put on a condom?” For that last one, I referred them to the school nurse.
Yes, they are sex crazy, which of course matches their developmental stage. Our principal held an assembly recently to address what seemed to be an explosion of hand-holding and kissing in class and on the playground. Physical expressions are prohibited at school, and he explained that at this age, they aren’t “dating,” but “exploring friendship.” They are like colts and fillies in a field of clover.
Of course, they pass notes and fly paper airplanes in class, and throw pencils at each other when I’m not looking. And we’ve seen our share of TikTok challenges, including one in which they sawed through the backs of classroom chairs with (believe it or not) strings from face masks.
But sadness, depression and emotional struggles have also been widespread. My heart breaks for some of these kids, who come from every walk of life and socioeconomic level. Many live in poverty, thus our district receives federal aid and provides both breakfast and lunch for every student every day.
We have also been lucky in recent weeks to have a National Guardsman for a substitute teacher, and the kids all seem to love him. One day he did pull-ups on the basketball court with the boys, and the girls swooned over him. Another time he took three boys who had acted out into the hall and made them do 30 push-ups. It’s been a blessing to have him because, like all school districts, Pojoaque barely has enough teachers and support staff.
The kids are smart and fun and so charming I sometimes can’t keep a stern face when they misbehave. Two of my students asked me to be their valentine, and a number brought me gifts and candy before Christmas break. With the mask mandate lifted, I am having to relearn many of their faces sans masks. They look really different!
There are a handful whom I haven’t been able to reach, despite my best efforts, so I slowed the march through the textbook and decided to have all my students do a science fair project instead. It’s an eight-week endeavor that requires them to choose a topic to research, write a two-page report, and create a visual or digital presentation. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that this assignment elicited howls of protest and outright foot-stomping. But … they’re doing it. Last week they began presenting their projects, and I have been very impressed with their posters, tri-fold boards, models and Google Slides slideshows.
Not only have I learned the students’ names, but I’m discovering more and more about them. I know who needs extra help with reading and who needs to answer quiz questions with drawings or verbal responses. Some of the most closed-up students are beginning to open up a bit, which gives me so much hope.
Every day I leave exhausted and, yes, happy. The kids are showing me that they are learning, not just about science, but about being inquisitive and — inch by inch — respectful teenagers.