Monday, September 14, 2020

Time To Deal With The Substitute Shortage

This is not the biggest issue facing schools right now-- but it's not nothing. And in some districts, it's about to become a critical issue.

The state regional education office for our area announced a special opportunity to get quick and easy training to become an emergency certified substitute teacher. And it only costs $25! And that sound you hear is me slapping my forehead hard enough to push my hairline back another inch. "We are desperate for your help, but we're going to charge you money to provider it to us."

Why didn't the regular teacher leave this guy a guide?
The substitute teacher shortage is not new, just as the teacher shortage is itself not new. It's just that right now, it's critical, as a wave of teachers decide that right now would be a good time to go sit at home and avoid catching a major disease. School districts are trying a variety of responses, from actually raising the pay of subs, to relaxing requirements so that more warm-bodied humans are eligible, to outsourcing the problem (which has a lousy track record), to "expressing concern," to just doing nothing in particular and hoping that something magical will solve the problem.

The problems are many. Substitute teaching is often a go-to area for trimming costs, so that the pay is just not great. As a retired teacher, I'm qualified to sub (I'd have to get a waiver from the pension system to do it, but that's not impossible), but I've done the math, and with two small children to take care of, I would basically be subbing for free. Also, like much of the substitute pool, I'm in a high risk age group, so that's a factor to consider as well.

There was a time when the sub pool included retirees, homemakers pulling in a little extra cash, and fresh-out-the-wrapper teachers hoping to get a foot in the door. But in many districts pay has stagnated, aka been going backwards in real dollars. When I entered the field, I could live--barely-- on sub pay, which meant I could be available all the time, which meant I could work more, which meant I could treat subbing as an audition and hope to have a shot at openings that appeared--which is how things worked out for me. Nowadays a starting hope-to-be-a-teacher needs another job to make ends meet.

Districts that are serious about subbing issues hire full-time substitutes. Give them a real salary, real benefits, and just assign them wherever they're needed every day. But too many districts balk at the cost; let's not employ the cow if we can get the milk at cut-rate prices.

A good sub is worth her weight in gold-- to the regularly employed teachers. Raise your hand if you have avoided taking a day off because you knew in your heart that it would take three days of extra work to fix what happened with the sub the one day you were out. Not all subs are great; some are only just enough to fulfill the district's legal requirement for a human adult in the room. But for too many administrations, the bare minimum is plenty. In too many districts, while teachers may not get the respect they deserve as education professionals, subs are disrespected a hundredfold worse.

Subs are not invited to in-service sessions. They're not given any training in the policies and procedures of the district. They are treated like easily-fungible meat widgets. In some schools, they're barely given the info necessary for the day ("Oh, yeah-- there's an assembly that period. Guess we should have told you something.") In districts where administration communicates poorly with regular staff, subs are left completely in the dark.

In short, in many districts, there is literally nothing about substitute teaching that could make it appealing to anyone (with possible exception that you don't have to do anything to prepare and when you walk out the door at day's end, you are done). And yet as the pandemic whittles down the staff in schools across the country, you'll hear choruses of whining and the cricket-like whir of wringing hands, as if the solution was some sort of mystery, as if substitute teachers are delivered magically on unicorns fed by heavenly manna.

It's a job. If the job isn't attractive enough under the conditions that you have currently set, you have to improve those conditions (both financial and otherwise).

There are many many issues in education that the pandemess is providing an opportunity--even a requirement--to address. The problem of substitute teaching belongs on the list. Certainly not at the top of the list--but definitely on it.

1 comment:

  1. I'm Vice President of the Seattle Substitutes Association, a department of the Seattle Education Association (affiliate of the Washington EA and the NEA). In Seattle almost all of the substitute teachers are certificated. We get paid a living wage, we get some PD, if we are in a long-term position we get paid the same as contracted teachers, and we are treated seriously as fellow educators (most of the time). We have asserted ourselves to the point that the district doesn't implement policies without involving us, and the full union has our back.
    The rest of the state of Washington ... not so much.