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The vastly changing world of substitute teachers

The vastly changing world of substitute teachers
CORBIS

If he’d become a substitute teacher a generation ago, Peter Scholtes could easily have spent his days showing movies to bored middle-schoolers or making up busy work for younger pupils. So long as no one got hurt before the last bell rang, his day would be a success.

He might write the names of any miscreants the teacher needed to contend with on return on the chalkboard, but that would be the most that would be expected of him, or of his temporary charges, in terms of accountability.

Now though, the one-two punch of rising academic expectations and plummeting budgets has changed the job. Never mind that they may interact with a student for just a few hours, today’s subs are under pressure to get them to perform. Temporary teachers who don’t stick to the lesson plan may not be asked back.

It’s a mixed blessing, then, that the many layoffs in recent years have left Twin Cities area school districts with large pools of veteran teachers who stand a chance of delivering on the higher demands.

“One class, I had to assess the performance of every student every hour, whether they were on task,” said Scholtes. “Once, I had a student cry when I took a point off of something.”

Uncertainty often goes with the territory
A sub in Minneapolis and Robbinsdale public schools, Scholtes doesn’t have any idea from one day to another where he will be teaching — or what subject or age group. He doesn’t know whether teachers he’s replacing will have left a lesson plan, and if they have, whether he’ll have time to review it. He won’t know the names of his pupils, much less which ones have special needs.

For about a seven-hour workday, he takes home $80 a day after taxes, gets no benefits and has no guarantee each day won’t be his last. Weeping kids notwithstanding, Scholtes loves his work so much that after two years of subbing, he’s taking education classes online in Bemidji State University’s “fast-track” teacher certification program. When he graduates, he will be licensed to teach social studies in grades 5 through 12.

“I don’t think anybody who goes into substitute teaching stays for the wrong reasons,” said Scholtes. “It’s too hard.”

In the not-too-distant past, subs were in short supply. Schools counted on retired teachers and education students like Scholtes, a former music critic at City Pages (full disclosure: a colleague of mine during my time there) to fill their substitute teacher pools.

That’s still frequently the case in outstate districts, but metro area administrators say that hasn’t been true for their schools for several years. The massive layoffs of recent years mean the subs working in metro area classrooms are likely to be seasoned teachers.

There’s no central clearinghouse that tracks how many substitute teachers are registered with Minnesota school districts and charter and private schools. In an effort to assure a variety of possible assignments, subs often register with more than one district.

Licenses, qualifications for ‘sub’ teachers
The Minnesota Department of Education issues several different substitute teacher licenses.

The minimum qualification for a “short-call” sub, one who can replace an individual teacher for up to 15 consecutive days, is a bachelor’s degree and a statement from the school district where they want to teach affirming that it has had difficulties finding substitute teachers. Teachers who will sub for longer stretches must hold the appropriate license — social studies, math, etc. — for the job they’re seeking to fill.

Each district conducts background checks on applicants and then decides whether to train or evaluate them. Applicants typically aren’t interviewed. There is usually some training on district expectations. When Scholtes applied to be part of Robbinsdale’s substitute pool, for example, he attended a workshop.

In an effort to assure a steady flow of work, most subs register with multiple districts, as well as charter and private schools. As a result, no one knows how many individuals are on the sub rolls in Minnesota. Districts know only whether they have enough.

With 40,000 students, the state’s largest district, Anoka-Hennepin, needs 200 subs on any given day. Since large-scale layoffs began in 2001, its substitute pool has swollen to 750.

Last fall, when large numbers of kids went home sick with H1N1, Bloomington school officials briefly worried they might be left without enough subs. They’ve had more than enough all year, however. “We’ve had an increase in requests to be put on the substitute call list,” said Rick Kaufman, executive director of Community Relations for Bloomington Public Schools.

Increased expectations
The most obvious change the bigger pool has enabled is an increase in expectations in some schools. Whereas principals and subs rarely met in the past, many districts now subject subs to the same evaluation as other teachers.

At Morris Bye Elementary School in Coon Rapids, for example, Principal Alice Shea drops in to observe subs in the classroom. Those who impress her will be asked back, while the names of those who don’t make the grade may find themselves ineligible for future assignments in her district, Anoka-Hennepin.

“Are all your subs wonderful? No,” Shea noted. The most common problem she observes is substitutes who don’t report abusive behavior from kids. “They may be more apprehensive to do that because they want you to know they can handle the class,” she explained. “Sometimes people want to be the kids’ pal for the day and that’s nice, but the students have their pals: their peers. You are a professional, and you are expected to teach.”

Shea said it’s also “important to let the subs know that they’re welcome in your building, that you appreciate what they’re doing, and that you expect them to teach the curriculum that’s planned for that day.”
 
The increased pressure on subs comes at a time when education policy in general is placing greater emphasis on teacher accountability. “As we move forward, as we hold kids to higher standards, it’s important that we have high standards for the teachers who are there,” said Tom Dooher, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union.

Membership in Education Minnesota is open to substitute teachers, but few join until they take permanent positions, he said. “We talk about being part of a larger organization that gives them a voice.”

Unions tackle ‘sub’ issues, too
When member unions negotiate with district administrators, they usually address conditions for substitute teachers in addenda to their master contracts, Dooher explained. For instance in Robbinsdale, where he is a teacher, during the last round of contract talks, union leaders asked for more pay for subs who replace the same teacher for 30 or more consecutive days. “We laid out all of the things that subs are required to do that they weren’t used to be and included them in an addendum to the contract,” he said.

The union was also instrumental in instituting the classroom-management training that Robbinsdale requires all subs to take. The class is only three hours long, but Scholtes described it as invaluable.

Going forward, Education Minnesota would like to address what Dooher called “the lag between compensation for subs and the rise of expectations and standards,” but the reality is that most school districts are scrambling to deal with fresh budget shortfalls.

School administrators, however, can do other things to brighten subs’ working conditions.

Anoka-Hennepin is one of many districts that have invested in an online assignment-management system that allows subs to browse upcoming openings to see what best meets their interests. When a teacher’s absence is planned, this increases the odds they will be replaced by someone who has similar expertise. When a teacher who has called in sick, however, administrators still will call potential subs at dawn.

Subs often “try on” a new school by subbing in it, or develop a long-term relationship with a principal or classroom teacher that allows them to return to the same group of students again and again. There’s no doubt this makes subs more effective, administrators say.

Also a teacher, Dooher’s wife, Denise, likes to call on the same sub when she can. “The kids know that if Mrs. Dooher is going to be gone, Mrs. Anderson hopefully will be there,” said Tom Dooher.
 
Substitute teachers used to be relegated to waiting till the last minute to learn whether they’d be needed each day — and short-call subs still are awoken by dawn phone calls, but online postings give schools an incentive to pay attention to subs’ needs.

At Morris Bye, Principal Shea requires each teacher to prepare a sub folder about his or her classrooms, and those files are kept in the office. Every packet has a seating chart, a room key in case of lockdown, a daily schedule, and so on. When new subs arrive, permanent teachers greet them, show them where the lounge is and make plans to have lunch together.

“We want good subs to want to come back. We want our students to have a beneficial day,” said Shea. “At Morris Bye, we’re lucky to have teachers vying to take openings.”

According to a substitute teacher’s first-person account recently published in the New York Times, more than 5 percent of teachers are absent on any given day. “This means that children have substitute teachers for nearly a year of their kindergarten-through-12th-grade education,” wrote Carolyn Bucior, who teaches in Wisconsin. “Taxpayers shell out $4 billion a year for subs.”

This makes it especially crucial that education policymakers find ways to help subs make the most of every hour they’re in a classroom, Dooher and others agreed. Until then, students with absent teachers will continue to face potluck: Will they end up with an unemployed veteran who will keep them on track or with someone who is figuring it out on the fly?

On his first day as a substitute teacher, Scholtes taught three high school math classes to three unruly batches of teens: “They won one, and I won two,” he recalled.

The one he lost was an hour of chaos. During the other two, the students still talked nonstop, but Scholtes didn’t let it stop him. “I just walked around and got everybody on task, one at a time,” he said. “And of course they got back off track after that, but they at least got a few problems done.”

“This is the toughest job in the world,” said Scholtes, “and I’m slugging it out in the trenches.”

Beth Hawkins writes about education and other topics.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 01/25/2010 - 10:17 am.

    I am so glad you wrote this article. I have a senior friend who substitutes a lot and I hear and learn many things. I wish he’d write in but he won’t but thanks a bit for giving some voice to this subject. Hope you get many comments from subs. You made my day.

  2. Submitted by dan buechler on 01/25/2010 - 03:20 pm.

    Well speaking for my friend he has many challenges which he actually enjoys. Not only teaching/maintaining the classroom and curriculum. But also knowing a bit about the teacher’s style or communication. Dealing with new and or different students. Knowing the physical layout of the building and who the other resources and staff there are. A lot of subtle and quick learning with wide variety and doing this on the fly sorta for much less$$ than the regular teacher who for many of these challenges they are rote. Whew!

  3. Submitted by Pete Scholtes on 02/02/2010 - 07:29 pm.

    Just to clarify, that closing quote is something I said subs tell ourselves to romanticize the job a bit, when the truth is that there’s a learning curve to all teaching–it’s not something I actually believe.

    What I would love to see, as a student of teaching, is an experienced and excellent reserve teacher in action with a class he/she’s never seen before that is known to be difficult. That would be an elaborate practicum experience to set up as part of the training process, but I think it would be worth it.

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