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Education Opinion

Substitute Teacher Churn Shortchanges Students

By Walt Gardner — December 09, 2015 1 min read
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Recruiting qualified teachers to join the staff of public schools serving low-income students is an on-going challenge that has received widespread media coverage. But it’s arguably as difficult, if not more so, to find qualified substitute teachers (“High-poverty schools often staffed by rotating cast of substitutes,” The Washington Post, Dec. 4).

The sheer number of full-time public-school teachers means that the potential for the need of fully qualified substitutes is daunting. Perhaps that’s the reason only 27 states require substitutes to be certified. If full certification were the law, schools would be in a quandary. But there’s also the recognition that substitutes are never accorded the same respect by students. When coupled with the middling pay, it’s a wonder anyone would take the assignment.

Certain fields create even a bigger problem. Trying to find qualified substitutes in science, math and special education in low-income schools is a Sisyphean task. Even if they are willing to fill in for a few days, they are highly unlikely to stay for an extended period. I doubt that even doubling the typical substitute’s daily pay would be enough to make a significant difference.

When I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, full-time teachers received 10 paid days off for a list of specified reasons. The days that were not used were factored into the teacher’s pension upon retirement. That policy has since been changed. Now the days not used are lost. It’s a counterproductive move because it provides incentives fo teachers to use the days even though they are not needed.

According to federal data collected in 2012, about 28 percent of full-time teachers are absent more than 10 days a year. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they taught in low-income schools. The stress experienced by teachers having to deal on a daily basis with non-instructional matters eventually exacts a price. Sometimes it takes the form of what is called “compassion fatigue.” But whatever its manifestation, it’s a reminder that teaching in public schools is much harder than self-styled experts understand. I bet they would use up all their sick days in one semester, assuming they lasted that long.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.