Friday, March 25, 2011

How Substitute Teaching Should Work: Part 1

I've barely been a sub for two months and there's this seedling of an idea growing in my mind.  Substitute teaching should be a full-time job and a truly integral part of education.  It should be done by those with the skills to actually contribute to a variety of curricula, and those who sub should be compensated more like non-substitute teachers.

I'm not just bitter that I get paid per diem and don't have any benefits or security to speak of, and the last thing that I'm doing is diminishing the value of classroom teachers (that's how I'll refer to the full-time teachers of the current system).  I'm convinced, perhaps naïvely, that there is a better way to use subs.

First, a glance at the current system: substitute teachers are like freelancers.  We get hired by as many school districts as we choose to (and that choose us, of course) and then accept or deny jobs as they are offered to us (by phone or online).  We get paid a predetermined amount for each day (or half) that we work and receive no benefits or contract of any kind.  In the state in which I work, substitute teachers must meet the same "highly qualified educator" status as classroom teachers — we must be certified.  There is also a system for "guest teachers" here that allows non-certified individuals to sub if there is such a need.

Letters from superintendents insist that we are "an integral part of education," but we are not.  A typical day for a sub goes like this: A sub will arrive at a school, sign in, and find their classroom.  They will search for lesson plans on the teacher's desk and usually find something that tells them what classes they will teach, where rosters can be found, and what movie to play or worksheet to complete for each class.  They will welcome the students, go through attendance, and babysit them while they do a worksheet or watch a movie.  They will read a book whenever they can and between classes.  They will either sit uncomfortably in the faculty room during lunch or avoid others and eat in their room.  They will write down any disciplinary issues or deviations from the lesson plans for the teacher, sign out at the office, and go home to search for another job.

I fear that this paragraph will sound haughty, but I think I do good work and am willing to compare myself in this way to other subs.  This is how a typical day goes for me: I sign in, find lesson plans, find emergency materials and forms, find rosters, and identify the books that the students are working from.  I'll read the lesson plans multiple times, then learn what I can about the material being studied, and think hard about what I could do with each class if they run out of work.  I welcome the students, go through attendance, and then do what the lesson plans ask.  I will go through the worksheets myself to make sure I understand the material, watch the movie with the students, and learn the relevant rubric for a class project.  I will seek out opportunities to help students and get to know them to some degree (which I also find helps immensely to keep them focused).  In my spare time, I'll read from their textbook or other materials so that I can be even more helpful as the day progresses.  I will briefly lecture on material that students are having difficulty with.  I will take detailed notes about questions I couldn't answer, disappointing or laudable behavior, any lecturing I did, and deviations from plans.  I clean and organize what I can in the room without disrupting anything too much (some teachers like a messy desk, I won't change that but I'll make sure everything ends where it began), say "hi" to any students that I see that I've taught before on the way out, offer to the office to do anything else they need, and sign out (to, of course, go home and search for another job).

There are many other subs who go this extra mile, as well, but it is surely not the standard expectation of classroom teachers or administrators.  I'm convinced that with some changes, the effort and care that those like me put into this role could be taken advantage of and used to significantly contribute to students' educations.

I propose a system in which substitute teaching is a full-time job on par with being a classroom teacher.  Details to come in Part 2...


  1. I subbed for a year and plan to return to subbing soon. It's incredibly dull if they don't let you teach. Only a few teachers left real lesson plans. Those few teachers who left good plans and expected me to teach said, "I was a sub, so I know what it's like." Those who never subbed left me 1) blank videocassettes (I now own DVDs with lesson plans for almost any subject); 2) no lesson plans for a choir class, so the second of three days, I made them learn rounds; 3) no clear plan for what a day should be like, or when I could eat lunch or even if I had lunch duty (I created a sub manual to try to deal with those problems for one school); 4) no information on the school's discipline plan. Subbing is a difficult job. Schools get desperate and let people who are poor classroom managers be subs, at least in my state. If you have a license, you can sub, and you can get a one-year license even if you didn't graduate from college. The worst days were the babysitting days. If teachers at least had an idea of a substitute's skills and knowledge, they could use subs more effectively. For example, subs could fill out a form that said, "I want to teach" or "I prefer to babysit." That might affect the lesson plans.

  2. Thanks for the input! The range of lesson plans from worthless babysitting to actual lecturing is amazing.

  3. Ah, memories. I subbed a whole year in Hawaii before going to get my MA, and you're absolutely right. It's the rare substitute that "goes the extra mile," and, similarly, the rare teacher that actually gives a real lesson plan. A self-fulfilling prophecy. For my part, I tried to put together a bag of life lessons to dispense to students on particularly dull days. I don't know that it was always successful, but sometimes you've got that stretch of 30 minutes and everyone has already finished the worksheet...

    As I'm sure you know, independent schools frequently do hire "full time subs." Punahou - where both my wife and I have subbed in the past (and where she is now employed as a half-time Chemistry teacher, half-time sub in a variety of other subjects) - usually has a few people in such a position, and often then hires those people to full teaching positions when they open up.

    Public schools usually can't afford that luxury (though maybe some do have full time subs and I don't know about it?), or at least they think they can't. As you point out, the mercenary situation that exists presently is extremely inefficient for both schools and substitute teachers. One imagines that the cost of retaining a full time sub or two would more than offset the headaches of trying to find someone last minute.

  4. My time-filler is a collection of critical thinking puzzles. They've been quite a hit.

    I actually was not aware about independent schools' full time subs. I searched only briefly and without result for anything like what I've been imagining, it's good to know it's being done in some places. I'll have to add that to my job-searching criteria.

    Yes, the biggest hurdle I've envisioned to such a system is the cost, but I do think there are some districts that could afford such a thing.

    Thanks for the comment, it will help me in my preparation of Part 2.

  5. I know exactly what you mean. I completely feel that way too. The only good thing about going that extra mile is when the teacher you subbed for puts you on their "preferred" list. Which even when you are on the preferred list that still doesn't mean you will get the job that they put on the system. I found the only way that you are certain to get a job is if the teacher calls you directly to tell you that they are posting a position so you have the advanced warning.

    One day hopefully going the extra mile will pay off.