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Call of duty: Army colonel steps up to help as substitute teacher

by TERESA BYRD
Hungry Horse News | January 23, 2021 12:00 AM

When Columbia Falls schools closed late last March and transitioned to remote learning for the remainder of the school year, Kelly Smith, father of two energetic teenage sons, gained real-time clarity on the value of an in-person education.

In an effort to keep that valuable resource smoothly operational, Smith has made a personal commitment to spend his spare time as a substitute teacher for District 6.

Smith’s recent commitment came after watching his high school sons miss out on traditional athletic and social opportunities last spring as the district moved to virtual classrooms in an attempt to navigate the pitfalls of education during a pandemic.

Smith’s sons, both avid runners, missed track season as well as tennis, a sport his younger son, then a freshman, had hoped to try out his first year of high school.

Smith noticed that online education also took a toll on his sons academically, even though both are honor-roll level students.

“They learn better with that one-on-one contact with the teachers,” Smith said. “Even with the best help from parents, their ability to have enough discipline to keep up on things when it’s remote — you just don’t have that kind of team pressure.”

As summer progressed, Smith and his family intently followed the district’s plans to reopen schools, and were grateful to hear that in-person learning was an option.

“For our boys in particular we felt that the best choice for them was to be back in school... just because of their personalities and the way they like to learn,” said Smith. “It’s obviously an individual choice but, for our family, we were comfortable with what was being laid out by the school district. So we were eager to get the kids back in school. And [the kids] were too.”

The value of a face-to-face education was only confirmed for Smith when his sons were quarantined a couple of times this fall, and Smith could see his academically astute kids slipping behind before his eyes.

IT WASN"T until mid-November that Smith really became aware of the tenuous nature of the in-person system when the entire junior high reverted to online learning after 10 staff members were impacted by the coronavirus.

Smith recognized a full substitute roster as being one of the district’s best defenses against such closures in the future, and within two weeks Smith had begun the process of becoming a certified substitute teacher.

His service could not have come at a better time for the Columbia Falls school system, whose substitute staff is down by 20% this year compared to last, according to school officials.

Currently, more than half of the staff vacancies on any given day go unfilled, said Karla Milholllen, substitute coordinator for Columbia Falls. This leaves schools scrambling to fill the positions and often juggling multiple staff to cover just one empty time slot.

This year’s dip, most likely a result of concerns about COVID-19, exacerbates an ongoing substitute shortage for the district, even after the school board approved a pay increase for substitutes at the beginning of the year in an attempt to stay competitive with other districts.

The shortage may be inherent for a position that, with no benefits, lower pay and inconsistent hours better lends itself to those who are either retired or who are looking for more supplemental rather than regular income.

As a semi-retired Army colonel, Smith fits that niche nicely, stating that the flexibility in his schedule left him able and willing to contribute his time to what he views as a very worthy cause for not only his own kids, but also for most of the community’s children as well.

“I would feel bad if I were sitting at home, otherwise available, with my kids, and the only reason my kids were home was because there weren’t enough people to sub,” said Smith.

Having subbed since the beginning of January, Smith said that so far it’s been a really positive experience.

“The teacher’s preparation for substitutes, in my limited experience, so far has been quite good,” Smith said. “There was never any question when I was in the classroom that I was equipped by the regular teacher to have a successful day. And the same with the administrative staff.”

“And you know, you see the children of your friends in town, and it’s a good experience,” he added.

If interested in becoming a substitute, visit http://cfmtschools.net/substitutes/ or contact Karla Milhollen at (406) 892-6550.