A good substitute is worth his or her weight in plutonium
Apparently, some school districts have wised up to the fact that teachers DO sometimes get sick, and there needs to be more than just a warm body to put into the classroom.
As students prepare to head back to classes, school districts facing staff shortages are offering even bigger incentives -- from gift certificates to job training -- to lure substitutes.
With stiff competition among districts, officials know they must try harder to make spitball-dodging subs feel appreciated in what's often a thankless job.
"We're locked by four or five school districts around us and subs have a choice of where to go," said Dave Kuschel, spokesman for the Maplewood (Mo.) Richmond Heights School District near St. Louis, where subs get a free movie pass after 15 days of work, a $20 book store gift certificate after 20 days and a $100 bonus after 50 days. That's on top of a daily rate of $80 to $147, depending on experience.
"We hope that incentives will steer them in our direction," Kuschel said.
Every school day, about 5 million children in 274,000 classrooms have substitute teachers, said Geoffrey Smith, director of the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University. And all indications are that the need is growing.
Seventy-three percent of U.S. districts had an "immediate, urgent need" for subs that was "likely to grow to a crisis level within the next 10 years," according to a 2003 bill that would have established a grant program to help alleviate the substitute shortage. The bill died in a U.S. House of Representatives education subcommittee.
Some districts have chronic substitute shortages that worsen during the holidays or flu season, while others are just trying to keep up with exploding enrollment.
In Illinois, the number of new teacher certificates has increased 6 percent per year since 2001, but the number of substitute certificates has only risen 2 percent a year, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
The situation is so bad in two districts north of Chicago -- Waukegan School District 60 and North Chicago Community Unit School District 187 -- that officials there want lawmakers to lift a 90-day limit on hiring the same sub.
Not all districts have trouble finding subs. Some, like Chicago Public Schools, have more than they need. But others have to come up with new ways to lure the highest-quality substitutes.
So, what do most substitutes want?
Respect from teachers and principals and the sense they're appreciated, Smith said.
"When we train administration, they always think the reason subs leave is pay," Smith said. "The bottom line is they want a good working environment."
Marcus Wolfe has been a substitute teacher in six northern Illinois districts and last year he worked about 165 of the school year's 180 days. He said the best incentive is a sub-friendly environment, including substitute handbooks, an expectation that teachers will provide lesson plans for subs and frequent interaction with administration and other faculty.
I was a sub twice in my life-- in college, and between teaching jobs. I learned very quickly which schools to avoid, and which schools deserved my loyalty. The places that treated subs right began with expecting and enforcing the appropriate behavior from students. That was the most vital piece of the puzzle-- even above pay, which was pretty standard all across the area in which I lived. If kids were able to behave like poo-flinging monkeys with impunity, that was not a place I wanted to be-- no matter what they paid me.
There was one middle school I was called to in a chi-chi suburban area where a teacher had gotten sick in the middle of the day. I walked into the building, and there were kids roaming the halls at will. When I got to the classroom, it was a bit better, but I knew if the kids didn't have to obey the regular staff, they weren't going to obey me, either. The lesson plans took ten minutes to complete, with 45 minutes left and nothing for the students to do. At lunch, all the teachers were in gripe groups in the lounge, and I was forced off onto a grubby side-table while being surreptitiously and suspiciously ogled by the others. The piece de resistance was when the principal called an enormous and emotionally disturbed student from the last class of the day to the office, informed him he was suspended for ten days, and then sent him BACK to my class for the last twenty minutes of the day. He paced back and forth in the room, enraged, and I managed not to let him hurt anybody, which I considered a huge moral victory. I made it through the day, and decided never to return. Later in the same year, I was offered a job in that building, and was glad I had the knowledge to be able to avoid that trap.
So what advice would I give districts regarding their substitute teaching needs? Here's what I looked for:
1. Lesson plans with enough activities to fill the instructional period and seating charts with student' names, and pronunciation hints. I even had one teacher who had pictures of the kids on the seating chart-- that was incredible.
2. Administrators who make it clear through their actions that student misbehavior for substitutes will not be tolerated.
3. It was really nice when neighboring teachers would come into the room as soon as I got there to offer their assistance and make me feel welcome.
4. The kids are friendly and helpful.
5. Finally, if you have some great subs, consider hiring them when full-time openings occur.
I was once told in one district-- I swear-- that I was too valuable as a sub for them to hire me as a teacher, because they knew they could plug me into anything from an orchestra class to an International Baccalaureate class and I could actually teach the students instead of just babysitting (and for the bargain price of fifty bucks a day with no need to pay benefits.) The woman speaking to me was serious.
And so was I when I told her thanks, and that unfortunately I would be unable to sub for her district any more.
The woman speaking to me looked stunned and said, "But I was paying you a compliment!"
To which I replied: "Compliments don't pay the bills or provide job security."
I always try to make my subs feel welcome, leaving them drinks in the fridge and change in the desk drawer for snacks. as well as inflicting severe consequences upon any student who doesn't toe the line.
Subbing is one of the hardest gigs on the planet. They deserve our thanks and our help. God bless 'em, every one.