Family business: As teacher shortage continues, Farmington family touts life in classroom

Alternative licensure program offers flexible pathway to education career

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Rick, Daniel, Heather and Ben Burns are members of the same family and teach at Farmington schools.
  • Three members of the clan are products of the alternative licensure program at San Juan College.
  • The program has taken on increased importance in recent years as New Mexico's teacher shortage becomes more severe.

FARMINGTON — When the members of the Burns family of Farmington get together for holiday dinners, there isn't much doubt about what they'll discuss when they sit down at the table and dig into their food.

"We've tried to talk about other stuff, but it's just a lot easier to talk about school," said Ben Burns.

The Apache Elementary School teacher is one of several active educators in his family. His father, Rick Burns, teaches at Piedra Vista High School, as does his brother, Daniel Burns, and his sister-in-law, Heather Burns, who is Daniel Burns' wife.

Ben is the only member of that group who zeroed in on teaching as a career while he was still in college. The others pursued different paths before enrolling in the alternative licensure program (ALP) at San Juan College, which allowed them to begin their teaching careers while simultaneously taking the classes that will allow them to meet the state's requirements for teacher licensure.

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Ben Burns

The program has taken on increased importance in recent years as New Mexico's teacher shortage becomes more severe. The need for action was epitomized last month with a move by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to initiate the Supporting Teachers and Families (STAF) initiative, which encourages National Guard personnel to volunteer to become licensed substitute teachers and child care workers.

In some parts of the state, officials are having trouble keeping the doors to their schools open because of illnesses or teachers quitting due to the COVID-19 pandemic. STAF is intended to address that situation on a short-term basis.

Kari Deswood, the coordinator of teacher education and an assistant professor at San Juan College, said the alternative licensure program is designed to provide a long-term answer. It targets people who already have a bachelor's degree outside education who want to immediately begin a new career in the classroom.

"We're always looking for people," she said. "The last couple of years since the pandemic, our enrollment has declined, and I think COVID is the big reason. Teachers have a lot on their plate and are asked to do so much these days."

Kari Deswood

Deswood said the alternative licensure program allows highly motivated people to balance full-time work with the coursework they need to become accredited as classroom instructors. She said the program has a high degree of flexibility and doesn't require participants to take a year or two off from earning a living while they finish their schooling.

Alternative licensure can be a good option for any college-educated person who is looking for a new, meaningful, secure career, she said, and it can play a big role in addressing teacher shortages wherever they may occur.

"That's not only something we experience here in the Four Corners, but on a statewide level and national level," she said.

The Burns family business

Rick Burns is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who runs a nonprofit organization that works with displaced women and children in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he was deployed three times during his career in the service.

He likes to joke that he came to the "family business" of teaching late in life. He now finds himself in the middle of the alternative licensure program at San Juan College, but by day, he teaches world history and government at PV.

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Rick Burns

"I had always intended somehow or other to end up in education," he said. "This was a nice opportunity to dive right in and teach. … It's been a very good experience."

It also allows him to remain close to the rest of his family in Farmington. His son Daniel began his teaching career at Mesa View Middle School here while enrolled in the ALP before transferring to PV, where he has coached the boys soccer team for the last three years in addition to teaching.

Daniel's wife, Heather, was a medical assistant in a doctor's office before enrolling in the ALP and becoming a science and chemistry teacher. She is now a member of the faculty at PV and is taking her last ALP class.

Daniel said the pandemic has made the last two years a challenge for him, especially as he adjusted to the demands of virtual instruction. But he said he is convinced he made the right decision by enrolling in the ALP at the urging of a friend and neighbor who already had completed the program.

"It's been a blast. I love education, although coaching is what got me into it," he said. "I've been coaching on and off throughout my career, but I love teaching."

He said teaching and coaching are the perfect fit for his personality.

Daniel Burns

"It's hard to beat it — you hang out with kids all day and keep your childish side alive," he said. "You can be as goofy as you want to be, and nobody cares."

Having two months off during the summer is a bonus, he said.

"It knocks both of them out of the park," Daniel said, referring to his desire to work with young people and having so much free time during the summer. "For anybody changing jobs, you can't beat it. And with ALP, you'll learn as you do it. I think learning hands on is the best way to learn."

His wife Heather said her entire career as a teacher has come during the pandemic, so she hasn't experienced what it's like to work in a live classroom setting for a full school year yet. Teaching virtually for much of her first two years in the field has given her time to get her feet under her, she said, and build her confidence.

Like her husband, she said she's been nothing but pleased with her decision, even though she experienced the added stress of having a baby while beginning her career and going through the ALP.

Heather Burns

"I didn't always want to be a teacher, but as I've done it, I've loved it," she said.

But she said she regrets the fact that the switch to virtual learning has forced her students to miss so many hands-on classroom opportunities that come with the subject she teaches.

"I feel like that's the saddest thing about this," she said. "The redeeming factor of chemistry is you get to do cool things in the lab, and last year, we couldn't do it."

Rick joked that things seem to be back to normal in the chemistry department at PV these days, as he said he recently received an email from the school's administration warning him not to be alarmed if he heard small explosions from that area of the school.

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His other son, Ben, began his teaching career at Esperanza Elementary School in Farmington before transferring to Apache. He's the only member of the group not to have gone the ALP route, having earned his education degree from Utah Valley University.

He said his biggest challenge was adjusting to the different classroom techniques and procedures used in New Mexico as opposed to what he had grown used to in Utah. But he seems to have responded well to the demands of teaching during the pandemic.

"I think it's helped me to tighten up my teaching. What would normally have taken 20 minutes to teach in the classroom takes 40 minutes during virtual teaching," he said, explaining that he has learned by necessity to streamline his classroom presentations. "That's something I wouldn't have learned otherwise."

Ben said he's been so impressed by the increased use of technology as a teaching tool during the pandemic that he plans to pursue a master's degree in that field.

"It's here to stay, and we might as well use it," he said.

Deswood said she enjoys hearing about success stories like the ones the members of the Burns family tell because she finds them affirming.

"We tend to hear in the news about the negative sides of teaching," she said. "It's so great to hear about the positive things."

She hopes that stories like those persuade others who may be considering a career change to take advantage of what the ALP offers, especially in a time of so much job uncertainty in other fields.

"The field (of teaching) is sustainable," she said. "Once you're in the profession, you'll always have a job. You may want to take a break from it, but you can always come back — and you can do that in pretty much any community across the United States."

To learn more about the San Juan College ALP, visit sanjuancollege.edu or call 505-566-3044.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.