Substitute Teachers Can’t Substitute For The Real Thing

Filed in Delaware, National by on January 3, 2010

The New York Times has an interesting Op-Ed concerning substitute teachers, which, I admit, is something I had never really thought about before.  And I probably should have since it seems at least one of my two children have a substitute teacher almost every week.   In fact, the words I hear most from my kids, after complaining about homework, is “Oh, we had a sub today.”  And it never even registered to me.

As much as I became frustrated by the lack of training and support, I was most angered by how many days teachers were out of their classrooms. Nationwide, 5.2 percent of teachers are absent on any given day, a rate three times as high as that of professionals outside teaching and more than one and a half times as high as that of teachers in Britain. Teachers in America are most likely to be absent on Fridays, followed by Mondays.

This means that children have substitute teachers for nearly a year of their kindergarten-through-12th-grade education. Taxpayers shell out $4 billion a year for subs.

5.2 percent?  Houston, we have a problem.  Actually, we have two problems.  Too many teachers absent, and too many untrained substitutes.  Both issues must be addressed.  First, why are so many teachers absent?  Some, like my daughter’s Language Arts teacher have good reason.  This teacher was diagnosed with cancer and had to have emergency surgery.  And, I’d guess that a good many teachers have valid excuses (and a good many are rarely absent).  But not all, given the fact that teachers in America are most likely to be absent on Fridays, followed by Mondays.

And, yes, I’m bracing myself for the teacher attack, even though I’ve been careful not to lump all teachers together.  For some reason it’s almost impossible to criticize certain teachers’ behavior without offending the entire profession.  I don’t really understand this since we have no problem separating the good apples from the bad in other professions.  So, yeah, I’m ready to duck.

As far as substitutes… I can’t think of a more harrowing job.  That said, given the amount of days we rely on them, there really needs to be standards.  Again, I’m certain there are some excellent substitutes, but it can’t be easy to receive a call at 6 am and be ready to step into an unknown classroom by 7:15.  But a lot of substitutes aren’t qualified, and either we have to up the standards required to substitute teach, or we have to reduce the number of days teachers are absent.

Sometimes it seems that the only people we hold accountable, and who face consequences, are the kids.

Administration plays a big role as well.  It seems some (again, not all) administrators feel that once they call in a substitute their job is done.  This couldn’t be further from the truth.  They should be monitoring and helping the substitute teacher every step of the way.

Overall, I have been thrilled with 90% of my children’s teachers.  The remaining 10% need to find another line of work.  And I’d bet that if you complied a list of those 5.2% absent the majority would be repeat offenders.


About the Author ()

A stay-at-home mom with an obsession for National politics.

Comments (21)

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  1. Mike Matthews says:

    I’m a teacher and I’m not offended at all by what you’ve posted here. Thanks for getting this conversation going, pandora!

    Just some background. Teachers in my district (and, I’m guessing, most others) get 10 days off per school year. From what I understand (this was never really explained to me by anyone), three of those days are “personal days” to be used whenever you want, but requiring prior approval by the principal. The other seven days are sick days and do not require prior approval. There are many teachers who do use their full ten days per year. Then you have teachers who’ve been around 30 years who go to retire and they’ve got 200 sick days, of which they’re allowed to cash out a percentage.

    And just my own personal story, of those ten days, I’ve been out for half-a-day so far this year. And that was to catch a flight to LA. I’ve shown up to school half-dead because it’s really the biggest pain in the ass planning for a substitute. Not to mention that I’m really not interested in giving up control of my students — even if it’s only for one day!

  2. pandora says:

    Hmmm… is it possible to offend you, Mike? 😉

  3. anonone says:

    How many other professionals are exposed to 10’s to 100’s of coughing, sneezing, drooling, and non-hand-washing germ factories each day?

    A few extra sick days above average for teachers doesn’t surprise me.

    I salute you, Mike.

  4. Brooke says:

    Well, we should expect, at minimum, 40% of teacher absences on Friday and Monday, combined. So tell me the number so much higher than that.

    As for substitute qualifications, I’m sure it will surprise no-one to hear that I would not be concerned with that, at all. Private schools hire teachers who are ‘unqualified’ and have demonstrably better outcomes than public schools, so I look on this “certification’ business with nothing but suspicion.

    I’d rather have teachers taking the occasional mental health day than chopping off little girls braids in front of the classroom, any day.

  5. xstryker says:

    Every profession in America is absent more often on Fridays and Mondays. And they’re entitled to a few personal days.

    What I think would be beneficial would be assigning substitutes to a specific group of teachers, and to be presented with their lesson plans, test scores, and report cards throughout the year. Perhaps they could also spend an hour per semester in each class while the teacher is in to see the students and teacher in action.

  6. Brooke says:

    lol If we’re already paying $4 billion a year to hire substitutes (mostly because we don’t have to pay them properly) why should we be paying them more days to apprentice? Many of them already have.

  7. Private schools generally get better results because they are able to pick and choose their students. Public schools have to take everyone – that includes children with behavioral problems, learning disabilities and chaotic home lives. When scores are compared between the same types of students, private schools fare no better than public schools.

  8. Brooke says:

    Well, I disagree about that, too. What private schools can do is be flexible for the students and hire teachers who want to work in private schools. You, for example, probably can’t teach in a public school, but you might be able to pick up some hours in a private one. I know a lot of public school teachers who get tired of their re-upping their credentials.

    The only “secret” to good education is basic nutrition and skilled teaching. Skilled teaching isn’t guaranteed by our certification process. It should be.

  9. pandora says:

    Being “flexible” depends a lot of who you accept into your school, so I’m with UI on this.

    We’ve done both private and public schools. The strongest thing private schools have going for them, imo, is discipline, but that’s mainly because they can kick out who they want. (Which sorta brings us full circle)

  10. I could teach in a public school if I pass a certification test. That’s all I need to do, and I could become a substitute right away.

  11. Brooke says:

    Really, UI? My husband would take a substantial pay cut, and I’m talking about being a full-time public school teacher, since the topic is how substitutes aren’t as good. To become a full-time teacher in our public schools, you need “teaching credentials”
    3 Praxis tests, professional development courses, and in some jurisdictions (not sure about Delaware) you have to pay for your background check.

    See, you think knowing your subject would be helpful. However, the state government doesn’t see that the same way.

  12. To become a substitute you need to pass at least 2 exams as far as I know (a former colleague just did this). He said the exams were not difficult. You can also begin a full-time job without full credentials (you have to pass the tests) as long as you pursue them within a certain amount of time (5 yrs. I think).

    I don’t know, perhaps they give more leeway for math/science I don’t know.

  13. Nope…in Delaware, to become a substitute you need to only pass a tuberculosis test and a background check. You then are placed into one of three classes:

    Class A: College degree WITH a teaching certificate (highest paid — about $105/day for most school districts)
    Class B: Bachelor’s Degree in anything (about $85 a day)
    Class C: High School diploma ($about $65 a day)

    There are no exams to prove competency. I wonder, is your friend in another state, UI? I know certain states require certain general competency tests to be passed.

  14. Brooke says:

    But we’re not talking about becoming a sub. The point of this article (and much of the commentary) is that “un-credentialed teachers” aren’t as good as credentialed ones. I say they are. In support of my point, I say private schools hire them. I also say that UI, with her background, couldn’t become a ‘credentialed’ teacher (with, say, the kinds of benefits that progressives used to fight for) until she jumped through a bunch of hoops that are UNPROVEN (that’s a science-type term) as being related to teaching competence. Which might be the point of hiring teachers, at all.

    So, of reasons to be concerned about teacher absenteeism, I rank “replacement with un-credentialed teachers” as a minor item.

    Is this more clear?

  15. My friend is teaching in Delaware right now. I know he took exams to get his teaching credentials. How many tests do you need to take for that? He’s actually teaching at one of the private schools right now (he’s a Ph.D. chemist).

    I also think smart does not necessarily mean one is a good teacher. There are certain skills that are needed, which is what I assume the teaching credentials are supposed to do.

  16. Ahh…he got his teaching credentials. Yes, you need to take two tests for that. Praxis I is basic (VERY basic) reading comprehension, writing, and math which EVERY teacher in Delaware must pass. Praxis II is in a particular subject (math, science, language, etc.). I took the Praxis II in general content knowledge because I’m teaching elementary. It was embarrassingly simple. I’m looking to take the Praxis in English, History, and Government to get certified in those subjects, too. They’re really more my area of expertise.

  17. Brooke says:

    So the Praxis tests are subject tests, rather than pedagogical tests. Your friend the PhD chemist needed to take basic skills tests, but still has no teaching skills, except what he has by nature. To maintain his credential he will need to take continuing ed. The structure therefore IMPLIES that he has more skills walking in than he will learn on the job.

    Some system.

  18. M. McKain says:

    I’ve learned more from experience than any “teacher education” program taught me based on “experts” and “research.” There’s nothing like the real thing.

    And as for sick days, we’re exposed to hundreds of kids a day and were not even eligble in the first dose of H1N1 vaccines. I was out with flu-like symptoms for 5 days because I didn’t want to infect the rest of the population “just in case.” I’ve seen teachers who run out of days drag themselves to school without a voice, shivering while trying to “teach.” I’m not arguing that 10 isn’t enough, but fewer would be detrimental to the health and safety of everyone at the school. Do you really want a teacher doped up on cold medicine supervising your 6 year old in a class with 25 other students and no other adults?

  19. M. McKain says:

    And the Praxis test system is nothing more than a money-making scheme for ETS, like so many other standardized tests. The subject tests are easily passible if you study what the tests want you to know, but that in no way makes you truly qualified to teach that particular subject. As a social studies teacher, I could take the Chemistry Praxis II and, if I passed it, become a highly qualified Chemistry teacher, giving students access to dangerous chemicals that I only know about on paper. Not an effective system.

    As for substitutes, there are good ones and bad ones. Even the teachers know it. The problem is, even if we request NOT to have the bad ones, they get called in anyway because there is a sub shortage. $65-$105 a day isn’t a lot of money to be ignored and verbally abused for a whole day.

  20. Cristine Day says:

    I don’t know about any other states, but in Washington you have to be a certified teacher to substitute. I have 6 years of college and a certification under my belt. I do not feel unqualified to walk into any classroom and I do not feel my time (or my students’ time) is wasted. Maybe it is the attitude towards substitutes that really needs to change! We are not idiots. I am a professional, college graduate who chose to sub so that I can spend more time with my family and less time grading and in the classroom.

    Secondly, what other profession would deny an educated professional medical benefits and regular work? If subs did not exist than school could not continue to run smoothly. How about giving substitute teachers their due?

  21. ZZ says:

    As “Unstable Isotope” said above –

    “Private schools generally get better results because they are able to pick and choose their students. Public schools have to take everyone”

    To some extent that’s probably true.

    And yes, it’s also true that it “includes children with behavioral problems, learning disabilities and chaotic home lives.”

    But the schools “have to” take these kids because the schools don’t protest loudly … or at all. One would think this would be something that administration and teachers would agree on.

    Yet —Can you remember a single time – that’s right, A SINGLE TIME in your entire teaching career when thousands of teachers and administrators marched on the state capitol demanding “A SCHOOL’S RIGHT TO EXCLUDE ALL STUDENTS WHO WERE UNWILLING TO ABIDE BY SIMPLE RULES OF BEHAVIOR??”

    I doubt it.

    What intrigues me is how the disruptive students, the ones who mouth off to the teachers, administrators and fellow students alike
    seem to have absolutely no problem with following the rules to refrain from getting hit when crossing the street.

    What’s the difference? Well, a car or truck is VERY unforgiving when it hits the fleshy body of a human being. It’s an absolute, so to speak. While schools bend over backward to accommodate little johnny or susie for practically any reason whatsoever. A car doesn’t care if you cause behavioral problems, have learning disabilities, or come from a chaotic home.

    Imagine if students were NOT automatically allowed back in school each year. Imagine if schools required students to apply for admission like a college. And NO! I’m not talking about good grades getting them in. I’m talking The Student’s Behavior Record: Did the student use profanity? Get into Fights? Was he or she disruptive?

    I’m talking very minimal standards here.