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What the Shortage of Substitute Teachers Says About Public Education

Article in the Detroit Free Press: Wanted: Substitute Teachers for Michigan Classrooms.

The piece is accompanied by a photo of one of 40 highway billboards across the state screaming SUBSTITUTE TEACHERS NEEDED, illustrated with a dozen (diverse and photogenic, naturally) kiddos pointing fingers straight out: You. Yes, you! You could be a substitute in my classroom!

Because goodness knows that school districts are desperate to fill these low-paid, low-skill, must-have positions. There aren't enough actual teachers to fill real full-time jobs, and the meager, unenthusiastic substitute workforce, right now, is an early warning signal for worse things to come.

There was a time when the sub pool was made up of trained and certified teachers—novices hoping to get a full-time job, retired teachers, and the occasional mom looking to return to part-time work in a classroom. Not any more. Substitute teachers are now almost exclusively hired by third-party educational service companies, which take a cut out of limited monies to rid schools of the headache of finding daily replacements, once the worst possible early-morning task of school secretaries.  

Substitute teaching is now low-level contract work that doesn't require a college degree or any experience in the classroom. How do I know this? I recently signed on to substitute teach in a local district and went through the enrollment and training. I can testify that the process is time-consuming, highly impersonal, really boring, has nothing to do with classroom skills or knowledge, and costs money because you have to be fingerprinted.

Do I want the people working in our classrooms to be law-abiding and apprised of proper procedures if there's a bodily fluid spill? Do I want students protected from predators or breach of confidential information? Yes, I do. That's why I cheerfully sat through four excruciating videos-cum-tests that were clearly designed by a non-teacher and filled out 37 pages of forms. (Seriously.)

But here's what I also want: Classrooms staffed—every day—by real teachers, folks who like children and represent role models for what it means to be an educated citizen. I want kind adults who will try to answer questions, will try to learn kids' names, and will try to give them something—a discussion, a story, a learning task or question—to take home.

The fact that these people are not readily available has a lot to do with the pay structure: about $10/hour in the school where I chose to sub. But it also says something about what we're looking for in our public education workforce. We're willing to hire guest teachers with "some college" as long as they have no criminal record. We're advertising for them on billboards, with no personal interview or expectation that they will bring pedagogical skills or knowledge, or even engage in productive relationships with students.

What, precisely, is their function? We ask more of babysitters, playground monitors and burger flippers than substitute teachers—more qualifications, more on-the-job training, more care in selecting and retaining the right person for the job. If you start with the bar for admission and reward extremely low, you're making a statement about the work, as well as the people willing to do it.

A few years back, I wrote a passionate blog about re-thinking the concept of substitute teaching. I thought we could better use the talents of teachers who were not yet employed or between jobs. It seemed to me that hiring a versatile pool of educators to rotate through temporary jobs in a building or district might mean that an entire school year could pass without students having a blow-off sub day.

There was a lot of resistance—mostly around the perceived expense, which didn't make sense to me. If you have to hire a bunch of people every day for a measly $75 per diem, wouldn't it be better to seek continuity and loyalty, by appreciating and getting to know those underpaid employees? There's plenty of evidence that a privatized, temp-based workforce is often not cheaper and delivers inferior service and results.

The shift to privatized sub-finder systems says: Teaching is something anyone can do. We don't value this work. It's another glaring symptom of the de-professionalizing of teaching.

So why was I subbing, two days before the holiday break, in a middle school band classroom, with 50+ students (all holding noisemakers) in my classes? Because it was fun, mostly—a chance to make music with kids and teach some basics. And because it's a good, well-run public school, and it's healthy to remind ourselves that most American children attend good, well-run public schools (though you wouldn't know it if you read the newspapers).

I stopped by the office to turn in my "guest teacher" badge on the way out, and a group of teachers were hanging out--getting coffee, checking their mailboxes. One turned to me and asked how things went in Ms. H's class today. I told her the kids were great, and it was the truth. This is a building with good leadership, she said. It makes all the difference. 

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