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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are Substitute Teachers Qualified To Be In the Classroom?

By Peter DeWitt — June 22, 2013 5 min read
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Substitute teaching can be a thankless job...especially if the “sub” isn’t very good at it. “Subbing” is one of the areas that sets education apart from other professions because they are required to be there when a teacher is out sick. They’re there to follow the plans left by the teacher and make sure students continue their learning. Unfortunately, not all of them are qualified to be in the classroom.

Some districts belong to a consortium that provides substitutes from a list of certified teachers. Other schools may have a person on staff who fills the requests. No matter which service is used, there seem to be substitutes who do not care about making a good impression in the building.

Substitutes are called in the morning or late at night and assigned to a building and classroom. They walk into a situation where they may not have all of the necessary lesson plans. Some may not have plans at all, and there is really no good excuse for that. However, in these days of increased accountability, more and more teachers are concerned about who fills their shoes when they’re out sick.

I have worked with substitutes who are a part of our school family and go above and beyond when they enter the building. It’s almost as if they are on a level between substitute and permanent staff. Unfortunately, I have seen some who show up with the students, have minimal engagement with students, and have ignored discipline issues when they are happening in front of them because it would require too much effort.

Part of the issue, is that not all substitutes are certified teachers.

Recently, in Marion County Florida the school district is contemplating laying off over 160 teachers and replacing them with full-time substitutes (Callahan). If this happens, not only is it a slap in the face for the teachers losing their jobs, it puts high quality instruction at risk.

Sick Days
Contrary to popular belief, most teachers don’t call in sick so they can sit home and watch television. Very dedicated teachers will tell you that it’s easier to go to school sick because it is frustrating to leave lesson plans that are not always followed. What’s more challenging is if teachers have a tough class for the year, they most likely feel worse about leaving their class with a stranger.

School leaders have a stake in this as well because their discipline issues rise when a lackluster substitute enters into the equation. It doesn’t matter how good the plans may be, if the substitute has weak classroom management skills and doesn’t follow the plans at all, the students in the class will take full advantage of the situation.

Even the best students “come out of their shell” when they find a substitute where their classroom teacher should be, and some substitute teachers are not proactive to do anything about it. Unfortunately, what the substitute may be missing is that a day of subbing can act as a job interview. Principals can watch the potential hire in action.

If they flounder in a class that normally works well, they will most likely not find themselves with an interview.

The Other Side of the Story
In a 2010 NY Times article called The Replacements, Carolyn Bucior wrote,
77 percent of American school districts give substitute teachers no training?” I would argue that a substitute should have pre-service training which should help them negotiate their way through following someone else’s plans. I understand the article was written when schools were beginning to get hit with budget cuts, but few schools have the money to provide training to substitutes.

However, Bucior raised many good points that are still of concern today. She wrote, “56 percent of districts hire subs without conducting face-to-face interviews?” Most districts that belong to a consortium do not get a chance to meet the substitutes that are coming into their schools on a daily basis. By the time principals see a problem, the sub has already been allowed in the classroom for at least a day. What’s worse, is that some school districts that are a part of a consortium do not share whether a sub is bad. They just put them on the “Don’t call” list, and the sub ends up on the list for another school.

Bucior went on to write that, “In 28 states 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. Not a single state requires that substitutes hold a teaching degree. In some places, a substitute teacher’s daily pay is less than the school janitor’s. And in my two years of subbing, I told Maggie, a principal visited my class only three times.”

Depending on the state, schools may now have a plethora of substitutes with a bachelor’s degree, and in some cases, a master’s degree. However, it is unlikely that a principal will spend much time in the classroom observing because they have other duties such as observing their professional staff.

In the End
Some substitutes are just really good at following other people’s plans. When they apply for jobs and get passed over, it may be due to the fact that they didn’t show a principal what they can do with children. They just showed they can follow what someone else wants them to do.

Subbing in schools can be a deadly trap. Day by day they enter a building and follow lesson plans and day after day they lose sight of why they wanted to enter the profession. It’s important to understand that, although substitute teaching can be very difficult, they need to do a little extra to stand out among all the other substitutes who enter the building.

Long ago when I was fresh out of college I substitute taught for a few months. One of the times was in a shop class. At the end of the day I cleaned the tables and put the stools up when I left for the day. I was called back to the school every day after that because I cleaned the room and did a little extra. It taught me a lesson I never forgot.

If you’re a substitute:
• Arrive a little early and stay a little late to tidy up.
• Be visible and try to meet at least one staff member from the school.
• Be kind to the secretary, teacher’s aides and custodians. If you’re not, the principal will hear about it.

If you’re a principal:
• Don’t be oblivious to substitute teachers. Reach out and welcome them.
• If subs aren’t doing their job, follow up with them because they may just be at your school doorstep again.

If you’re a teacher:
• Leave good plans.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.