- Associated Press - Saturday, August 22, 2020

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - Freddie Abeyta’s first day as a teacher will not come close to what he envisioned.

The rookie English teacher at Santa Fe High School pictured his students walking into his classroom and seeing the hours of work he put into decorating it.

“I’d have a classroom setup that shows who I am and that we can have fun learning, that it’s not a drag to sit in my classroom for an hour out of the day,” said Abeyta, a 2015 graduate of the school.

The coronavirus pandemic had other plans. Abeyta’s first day in his chosen field will be spent in the living room of his Santa Fe home, getting to know the dozens of names and faces by way of virtual learning. It will be at least nine weeks before he and his students get a chance to meet in person.

Abeyta, 23, hasn’t even visited his classroom because he has to schedule a time to do that as Santa Fe Public Schools adheres to the state’s stay-at-home orders. Still, Abeyta tells the Santa Fe New Mexican that will not dampen the excitement for the start of school.

“There are going to be butterflies and it’s nerve-wracking,” Abeyta said. “You’re thinking, ‘How am I going to get them to learn and be engaged while sitting at home?’ I’m just eager for them to get back to some form of learning and see familiar faces and learn new friends and teachers.”

It’s one thing to be a new teacher. It’s another to be a new teacher amid a pandemic, which adds another layer of uncertainty and learning for first-year instructors.

Teachers and staff began work Aug. 13, mainly to help them get acclimated to the virtual-learning environment Santa Fe Public Schools will embark on to start the school year. Superintendent Veronica García said it was important to help all of them adjust to their new surroundings with as much professional development as possible before the actual teaching began.

García said she understands how many first-year teachers feel, but she can’t imagine what they are going through given the pandemic.

“You’re excited, but you’re also scared to death,” García said. “In this format, it would be doubly challenging to be a first-year teacher. My hats are off to them. I wish I could give them an apple, like I did for them last year. I really wish I could do that in person this year.”

Abeyta, though, believes he has an advantage in teaching at his alma mater. The campus is mostly unchanged from his time at the school, and he can count on relationships with teachers he built as a student to help him transition into his new position. He can count on fellow English teacher Barbara Gerber and his former football coach, Ray Holladay, who is Santa Fe High’s test coordinator and oversees the in-school suspension program, as mentors while he grows into his profession.

“It’s very humbling to know that you made an impact on people as a student,” Abeyta said. “It kinda reemphasizes your goal, which at the end of the day is not just about teaching a kid how to write a paper or read a book. It’s teaching them how to be better people.”

Holladay said Abeyta will be a welcome addition to the staff because of his even-keel temperament.

“I think Freddie’s going to do a great job,” Holladay said. “I think he can be a lifelong educator because he enjoys being around kids.”

The impersonal nature of distance learning, though, will provide some challenges for Abeyta and other first-year instructors. Abeyta said that makes it harder to develop relationships with students, but he believes it can give them better access to their teachers.

Abeyta added that the weekly schedule includes a day - Wednesday, in this case - for individual or small-group sessions with students to help them with any issues they might have with schoolwork and to help foster the student-teacher relationship.

Abeyta’s own experience with online classes during college could be a benefit because he’s familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of the platform.

“There are benefits here and there,” Abeyta said. “Wednesdays give me that opportunity to meet with them, whether it’s individually or as a small group, and get them any help they need. In a personal setting, it can be a bit hectic with a teacher dealing with 25 or 30 kids all at once asking for help.”

An issue that inexperienced teachers might have this year is learning how to deal with all of the unexpected problems they will encounter, especially with the virtual instruction model they will have to deal with to start the school year. While Abeyta has a few mentors he can turn to, García said Santa Fe Public Schools also offers instructional and digital coaches to help new instructors navigate those rough waters.

“We want to focus on the least experienced and provide them as much support as we can,” García said.

Much of that will start online, but Abeyta finds himself yearning for a personal touch to his development - much like students are when it comes to their own education. Abeyta said he enjoyed last week’s personal development training, but he knows there will come a time when he will need to sit down and talk with someone face to face.

“You get that connection,” Abeyta said. “It’s hard to sit and watch the (computer) screen for three or four hours at a time.”

That’s life in the COVID-19 world, where dreams never quite match up with reality.

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