Sub story

Substitutes get no respect — and sometimes no lesson plan, writes Carolyn Bucior in the New York Times.

“Maggie,” a teacher in a Milwaukee public school, was talking about the difficulty of her job, which is something the teachers I know do quite a lot. Then she complained that her sub hadn’t completed the lesson plan she’d been given.

“So, what you’re saying is that a teacher’s job is so hard, anyone should be able to do it for a day,” I said.

This time, it was the teacher who went quiet.

Substitute teachers must step in with no information about students’ medical issues and no guidance on handling behavior problems, Bucior writes. Often they have no training on how to teach.

In 28 states, I told her, a principal can hire as a sub anyone with a high-school diploma or a general-equivalency diploma. In many places the person can be as young as 18.

Lessons plans can range from fanatically comprehensive to nonexistent.

“10 a.m. — math-measurements. 2 — science lab: see lesson plan.”

I combed the teacher’s messy desk for the “lesson plan,” to no avail. Perhaps it awaited me in the science lab? But when we arrived, we found only piles of rocks. I instructed the students to wash and sort them. For 45 minutes.

Schools should hire an extra teacher with all-around skills to serve as the in-house substitute, suggests Dave Saba on EdBiz. If two teachers are absent, send in an administrator.

Update: Mrs. Mimi and Mildly Melancholy give the teachers’ point of view.

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Comments

  1. Andrew Bell says:

    Many districts do hire some rotating substitutes, but this is more costly than temp workers, and isn’t feasible for small districts.

    There are still days when everyone gets the flu, and you can’t get enough subs no matter what.

  2. two teachers are absent, send in an administrator.

    Because there are only two teachers absent in any given day? In my experience, teachers are absent a lot.

  3. When I taught school, we were encouraged to create an all all-day or most-of-the-day learning experience that was intentionally in alignment with the curriculum, but not a “step” in the curiculum(s). This was first grade. Then, if the sub did a great job of implementing the activity, wonderful. But if she did not, at least we could proceed with the regular subject matter instruction as if the intervening day did not exist. Of course, this only worked for one-day absences, so we also had to have week-long outlines for subs to use if the absence was due to serious illness, etc. And of course you can only do this a couple of times a year. But it was a wonderful feeling of security to have that special activity planned, and know that if you were gone for a day you wouldn’t be confused about how well the sub had taught the regular curriculum (if at all).

  4. I was a substitute for a year before taking my own classroom so I’ve been on both sides.

    As a substitute, there were several times when I wasn’t left any lesson plans and had to wing it.

    As a teacher, there have been several times that I stepped into my own classroom on days that I had a sub to find the substitute reading a newspaper, doing art projects I hadn’t planned for, or yelling at my students. There are as many good and bad substitutes as there are regular classroom teachers.

  5. My stock comment: “What works?” is an empirical question which only an experiment (a competitive market in goods and services) can answer. Markets create incentives proportionate to the problem to be solved.

    In this instance, the obvious (absent the State-monopoly structure of the US education industry) solution is to train teachers on the job. Schools could hire apprentice teachers (anyone with knowledge of the subject matter), employ them as graders, teachers’ aides, and department gofers for a couple of years, and assess them in real time. This policy would offer large advantages over the current system. For one, subs would be known to students and staff. For another, it would eliminate the cost to taxpayers of maintaining Colleges of Education.

  6. The generalist teacher that was proposed probably wouldn’t work so well in high school–the topics are too specific. As a math teacher with a strong science/engineering background I could sub for a period in physics, say, and not cause too much damage, but I’d be next to useless in a biology class.

    We math teachers often have a hard time finding a substitute who can teach our courses.

  7. Darren,

    a) “The generalist teacher that was proposed probably wouldn’t work so well in high school–the topics are too specific.”

    Passive voice. Did this refer to me? If individual departments in a school hire their in-house sub/apprentice teachers, you won’t have the cross-discipline issue, at least, not to a great degree. Obviously, if you have one Latin teacher, one Spanish teacher, one German teacher, one Japanese teacher, one Cantonese teacher, and one Urdu teacher, one “Foreign Language Department” sub would have to have enormous talent. Donno how to adderss that issue.

    b) “We math teachers often have a hard time finding a substitute who can teach our courses.”
    Here’s a solution to your problem: make a lesson plan and tell the sub to let one of the more capable students teach the lesson. I told my students at the beginning of the year that that’s how I would operate. They appreciated the trust. Obviously it won’t work in K-5 classes, but for low-level Math you don’t have the problem and for Math at Alg. I and above, it will work.

    I realize I’m making large assumptions about student conduct here.

  8. I like the idea of a qualified, well-trained in-house sub in theory, but it doesn’t work in reality for a number of reasons:

    1) As others noted, where are these schools where no more than 2 teachers are absent? In many schools, that’s often a minimum number of teacher absences.
    2) It’s hard enough to get administrators when you need them because they’re meeting with students, parents, other admins, district officials, etc, and now we’d be making them unavailable for the entire day. Who’s going to take care of discipline issues (among others) in schools where that admin can barely keep up as it is?
    3) I can see it now: teachers arguing and pulling political maneuvers to make sure they get the in-house sub instead of a traditional sub. As if they don’t have enough petty things to argue about!
    4) School districts won’t be willing to pay the in-house sub the kind of salary that position would require–not when they can pay next to nothing to subs under the current system.

  9. Obviously, private schools must have need for subs and apparently find them. I do know that, at least in some areas, they keep information on possible “emergency” teachers; in case someone unexpectedly leaves or is fired. I was told this by the headmaster of a highly-rated HS in an affluent suburb. His reponse to recently received information about a local public school teacher was that he’d call his possibles and those from other headmasters/mistresses. As soon as he had a replacement, that teacher would be gone.

  10. Mark Roulo says:

    The generalist teacher that was proposed probably wouldn’t work so well in high school–the topics are too specific.

    I think California public schooling runs about 180 days per year. For high school classes, would it be reasonable to plan on 175 of those days being “scheduled” with the full-time teacher in the front of the class and the other 5 being used for some sort of video? I’m thinking stuff like Shakespeare (Olivier, maybe, doing Hamlet) for English, History Channel stuff for history class, etc.

    The idea here is that the full-time teacher doesn’t have to count on the sub being able to teach the lesson, but we don’t turn the sub-taught classes into useless babysitting.

    Would this work?

    -Mark Roulo

  11. Mark Roulo says:

    Obviously, private schools must have need for subs and apparently find them.

    For high school, please don’t make that assumption.

    I went to a Jesuit run high school, and on the rare occasions when a teacher was out sick, we usually just didn’t have that class that day.

    Since the dean of students had the ability to kill (or maim … his call) any student at any time, we didn’t have problems with the kids from the cancelled class wandering the halls causing trouble.

    -Mark Roulo

  12. When I first read this article, I was amazed to discover that almost anyone could work as a sub in many states. Here in Nova Scotia all subs must be licensed teachers. Often they are retired teachers who have previously taught in the school and already know the students. The only time I have seen a shortage of available substitutes was during the H1N1 outbreak and at that time resource teachers stepped in to fill the gaps.

  13. I have subbed in various districts for a total of three years and in my experience getting a lesson plan that involved more than just monitoring seat work is rare. It was also rare to get assigned a class in my specialty and I didn’t mind as, contrary to the myth, there is no big need for substitutes. I rarely got called more than 3 days a week and so I took what I could get. In schools with well-behaved students teachers felt more inclined to give more complex lessons that involved teaching. In broken, inner-city schools it was not uncommon to be left with absolutely nothing and have to resort to making it a “study-hour”.

  14. When I complain the sub didn’t follow my lesson plan, I mean the sub didn’t hand out the work for my kids to do and let socialize instead of complete the work I left. This only happens once. When I get back I tell my students I don’t care what the sub said, they know that when I assign something, it is not busy work — and they all get a zero.

    Sometimes you just need to put the responsibility where it belongs.

    If I have to be out more than a day, I arrange my sub well ahead of time and get someone I know can run a simple lesson plan (usually a retired colleague). This year I’ve lucked out and have an out-of-work former AP teacher in the wings. FWIW, I’m almost never out sick — it’s always some sort of district work.

    We do have perm subs, but they don’t cover the whole building.

  15. I know some suburbs have substitutes (retired teachers, former teachers, mostly-at-home moms or moms with older kids) who choose to work only at a handful of schools, or maybe just one, and in only certain grades/subjects. These tend to be where they are known, there is good in-school rapport and where teachers typically plan ahead for both scheduled and unscheduled absences. In return, the subs are prepared to make the day(s) productive. That situation is valued by both sides as a win. Of course, those neighborhoods are safe and the demographic is mostly highly educated and affluent, so they are pleasant places to be and the kids are generally prepared and cooperative. (with the usual caveats about inclusion etc., but that’s where good rapport with the school helps)

  16. We math teachers often have a hard time finding a substitute who can teach our courses.

    I’m a math teacher, and I have yet to miss a math class because ultimately it’s a lost day. The only times I’ve had to be absent (due to a required training activity), I scheduled it during prep and my one Humanities class, which is much easier to let a sub work.

  17. Maybe if the woman is unqualified to be a sub she should get another job. And why is she throwing erasers at kids???

  18. (Tom): “1)As others noted, where are these schools where no more than 2 teachers are absent? In many schools, that’s often a minimum number of teacher absences.
    Then hire as many in-house teachers’ aides as you need. Sounds to me like you’re saying it would be a regular gig. That’s kinda the idea.
    (Tom): “2)It’s hard enough to get administrators when you need them because they’re meeting with students, parents, other admins, district officials, etc, and now we’d be making them unavailable for the entire day. Who’s going to take care of discipline issues (among others) in schools where that admin can barely keep up as it is?
    I expect that discipline problems woul;d decline as students became familiar with subs and knew they would be around the next day to bear witness.

    (Tom): “3)I can see it now: teachers arguing and pulling political maneuvers to make sure they get the in-house sub instead of a traditional sub. As if they don’t have enough petty things to argue about!
    You mean, it’s a bad idea because it’s such a good idea?

    (Tom): “4) School districts won’t be willing to pay the in-house sub the kind of salary that position would require–not when they can pay next to nothing to subs under the current system.
    Huh? The State currently pays for Colleges of Education and Ed majors pay tuition. In-house subs are a better deal all around, except for Professors of Education.

  19. I once taught at a school that had a full-time sub on staff. He was very attentive to the teacher’s needs, and would leave helpful feedback. He always did his best to complete the lesson plans, and because he was a member of the staff the students responded to him as an insider, not an outsider. It was at a high school, so of course he could not be knowledgeable in every subject, and would often leave detailed explanations of where he was deficient and ask for more resources. I found this incredibly helpful in planning for absences. He was not a college graduate, nor an ex-teacher, but he took his position very seriously and worked with teachers in a very business-like and comradely manner.

    Except for two instances of subs I felt compelled to complain about, I’ve always been lucky. My students tend to complain that they were made to do the work and behave themselves, rarely that the sub sat behind the desk and read the newspaper. And my subs have run the gamut from retired teachers to part-time wage-seeking retirees, to college kids making some cash.

  20. One of the reasons I hate to be absent is that it takes me two hours to write a solid set of plans for my sub — which is exactly what I don’t want to be doing when I’m sick (but what I do anyway because I am a professional). I include notes about kids who need one or another kind of special attention, pronunciations of names, “guidance on handling behavior problems”, and detailed lesson plans that respect the fact that a sub may or may not have same background I have. I often include a few options, so the sub can have a backup plan if he or she runs into an unanticipated roadblock. A productive day with a sub might be 50% of a productive day with the regular teacher, but that’s not fatal.

    I’ve been a sub, had many good subs, had some bad subs. The key, I’ve realized, is that the professional educator has to be thoroughly mindful of what info and instruction he or she provides to the sub, to try to maximize that sub’s chance of success. So, Carolyn Bucior, your smug rejoinder to Maggie misses the point. Not only can a teacher do more than a sub, but he or she spends time developing a sub plan that tries to deconstruct and reconstruct a classroom day to the level where it can be implemented adequately by someone else, someone of unknown skill and knowledge. Not easy.

    Bucior’s sarcasm really shouldn’t have thrown the teacher, though; that it did suggests (at least based on Bucior’s interpretation of the scene) that Maggie should in fact have done a better job judging what to leave for her sub.

    Hey, live and learn. We all adjust with our kids, we adjust with our colleagues, we can adjust with our subs. (If this keeps happening, though, Maggie, maybe your sub just isn’t competent. It happens!)

  21. Bill Leonard says:

    Interesting comments here.

    My wife, a former teacher, worked as a sub for several years but as others have suggested, as a relative insider. That is, she essentially subbed for the same five or six teachers who were friends or former colleagues, and who would specifically ask for her if any of them was either ill or otherwise needed to be absent. Since my wife was also teaching a gifted student program part-time at a local school, she was only available to sub a day or two per week.

    That schedule worked well for the schools involved, and reasonably well for her — for awhile. Since she was paid less than regular full-time teachers, and received no fringe benefits whatsoever, she made a career change into a far more lucrative field that elementary education.

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