Substitute Teaching: A Better Policy for Better

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One of the basic requirements of both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force is that commanders of flying units stay current as pilots. This policy increases the chance that the commander has kept up enough with changes in flying and flight equipment for his decisions to make sense to those who will have to carry them out.

By contrast, most public-school principals and superintendents rarely, or never, teach a class. For many of them, it has been years since they last visited a classroom while teaching was taking place.

Much of what is wrong with public-school education stems from the fact that the younger a future educational leader was when he or she left the classroom, the more time there was for climbing the ladder to become a superintendent or a commissioner of education. (Because male elementary-school teachers usually became principals at a younger age than their counterparts in high schools, a disproportionate number of today's top school administrators and spokesmen have taught only in elementary and junior high schools.)

The result is that superintendents with few years of teaching or classroom experience--but with lots of practice at making up bus schedules and budgets--are considered as somehow having become expert in the matter of how to teach. They are the people who set policies that bind men and women with many times their experience in the tasks of teaching.

In the same way, most of today's professors of education left the public schools after a brief experience because they decided they would be happier on a college campus.

Ever since I left flying to enter teaching 20 years ago, I've tried to help principals and superintendents realize that because of the rapid swings in the attitudes of young people, and because of technological and other changes taking place even in education, they are considered by many teachers to be out of touch with the realities of the classroom.

Now I'd like to promote the idea that principals, superintendents, and other education officials should take advantage of the frequent need for substitute teachers as an excellent way to stay in touch with what is involved in spending a working day teaching in a public school.

As to the automatic excuse that such officials can't be spared from their desks, my retort is "Nonsense!" School keeps, even when they are sick at home or away at a convention.

In addition to what school officials would learn by such weekly or biweekly classroom experience, it would be wonderful if school board members and such policy-making persons as federal district-court judges also took over as substitutes. Even better, they should substitute outside the districts in which they work so that they wouldn't receive special treatment from students or staff.

That this can be done is not mere theory. For two successive Fridays I've varied my usual college mathematics teaching routine in order to substitute for the head of the mathematics department at Hillsboro-Deering High School near my home.

They were an interesting two days. I learned a lot about the ways that a small New Hampshire high school in 1982 differs from Boston's English High School of the past 10 years, and even from what I remember of another New Hampshire high school where I was principal in 1970-1971. (For the record: I was very favorably impressed, and I'm looking forward to other such experiences.)

That there is a need for substitutes with previous or useful experience is certainly obvious. As one young student said to me at the end of the class: "It was good to have a substitute who knows something about geometry. Usually they just sit there, and we don't do anything."

The pay, though, won't be much of an attraction. By the time Social Security was deducted, the check for a full teaching day read $27.99.

Vol. 01, Issue 32, Page 19

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