Education Opinion

Let’s Get Rid of Subs

By Nancy Flanagan — July 21, 2012 4 min read
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If there were ever an outmoded, past-its-prime practice in education--something that deserves the dustbin--it’s “covering” classes of absent teachers with substitutes. Doesn’t matter what you call them (in my building, it was “guest teacher,” as if students were politely entertaining distinguished visitors)--the stereotypical substitute teacher suffers from a lack of authority, relevance and dignity. (Please note: stereotypical.)

I spent three years of my working life substitute teaching (two with certification and one without), so I have enormous empathy with those who make their livelihoods subbing. I am not one of those teachers who perceives subs as second-class educators. Nor did I overlook bad behavior on the part of my students when a substitute was present, including the time a sub fell asleep while showing a film that wasn’t even in the lesson plans. When you’re subbing, you do what you gotta do. I get that.

It’s our rigid American egg-crate system that feeds the problem with the stand-in concept embedded in the name: substitute. The system assumes:

1) Students must be carefully “supervised” at all times
2) Someone must deliver content/assignments to students daily; deliverers are interchangeable
3) There is no learning or forward progress unless there is a monitor in the room
4) The one teacher/one classroom system is optimal and probably eternal

When students arrive at their classroom and the “real” teacher is gone, class time is considered wasted--or underused, if the plans include “sub-proof” activities (and I admit to using those, occasionally). The substitute has little authority, little knowledge about the students, and (sometimes) little content expertise--a poorly paid stranger in a strange land, doing a job that is undervalued in a large, complicated system.

The sad thing? Many substitute teachers have considerable expertise. They’re just not in a position to use it. Some ways we could re-think subbing--call it maximizing human capital-- in a variety of contexts:

Wouldn’t it be cost-effective to offer willing temps hybrid positions, making them part of a staff or district for a term or semester? I don’t know many people (aside from retired teachers, another underutilized resource) who want to be a replacement as long-term career, but working in the same building every day would make for better-informed floating teachers and more satisfied stationary teachers.

What if we clustered teachers in pairs, triads or pods, with revolving teachers in the pool always acting as lead? If one teacher in the group is missing, the others fill in--but no child in the pod ever has a teacher who doesn’t know him or what he’s studying right now.

Or how about flipping the existing concept of substitute teaching entirely, with the most experienced and highly-skilled teachers floating, responsible for a department or cluster of grades? Like a charge nurse distributes available personnel to best manage patient needs, perhaps the most respected teachers should juggle staff to meet daily learning needs, and fill in where they can do the most good.

Suppose--better yet-- we decided students beyond a certain age were independent learners, and set our schools up with flexible spaces for independent work. If a teacher was absent or called away, her students would pursue the work they’re doing in that subject, perhaps in a media center or commons area. This was the way it worked at my daughter’s high school--the presumption was that the students were responsible enough to carry on and that there were plenty of productive things to do.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Students won’t work unless there’s an adult monitoring their progress. First--I don’t believe that’s true, even with students who aren’t laser-focused on the almighty A. Second--students often do nothing very creatively, with teachers hanging over their shoulders. The key here is student engagement, of course-- learning through research, discussion, well-designed projects, creating real reports and products. While those things require advice and counsel, they don’t demand daily content delivery and scrutiny. To carry that off entails a committed culture of learning everywhere in the building, common spaces and access to technology--but aren’t those more important than a teacher in every room?

From a piece at Education Week:

In a weak economy, many districts do not have to scramble to find substitutes. But while ...."training is the most important thing a sub can receive prior to entering," many districts do not train their substitutes. According to NCTQ, only 24 percent of districts in a sample of more than 100 surveyed by the organization require substitutes to have a teaching or substitute-teaching certificate. Most districts do not require evaluation of substitutes.

I’m not sure what the difference is between training a teacher and training a substitute. Or how, precisely, we would evaluate sub work, which is heavily dependent on the plans left by the teacher and the work those teachers have done to build a learning community. Just because there’s an excess of fully prepared teachers doesn’t mean we should treat them like foreclosure homes: high quality goods ready to snatch up at fire sale prices.

Let’s dispense with “filling in"-- putting a variable-quality surrogate in when the teacher must be gone. Everyone who teaches a child should be considered a real teacher and bring real, vetted skills to the table.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.