School & District Management Q&A

Serving as Substitute Teacher, Superintendent Gets Fresh View of Schools’ COVID Struggles

By Evie Blad — December 20, 2021 8 min read
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Georgeanne Warnock knows what it’s like to be a teacher but, until recently, she didn’t know what it was like to be a teacher working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Terrell, Texas, superintendent, a former English teacher, recently added herself to her district’s pool of substitute teachers, and she’s taken to TikTok to share the challenges, frustrations, and fresh ideas she’s encountered.

Like school systems around the country, the 5,000-student Terrell district has faced staffing challenges, creating an all-hands-on-deck scenario when classrooms need to be covered.

The experience has given Warnock a fresh view of what teachers and students face, she said.

Warnock’s TikTok account called “The Subbing Superintendent,” has amassed more than 19,000 followers since she posted her first video in November. There, teachers around the country comment on struggles with issues like standardized testing, burnout, and supporting students after interruptions to in-person learning.

Warnock spoke to Education Week about stepping into the classroom, supporting staff morale, and her decision to share her experiences on the internet.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you end up substitute teaching in your district?

Last year as we started to have a sub shortage, as our teachers were quarantining or out with COVID, we set up a substitute bank of all of our central office personnel. I was on the list, and what I found was that no one ever called me. I guess the assumption was that I’m too busy. So this year as we’ve continued with sub shortages, I just said, “OK, if I’m not gonna get called, then I’m just coming.” So I started at our middle and high schools where we had our two greatest needs.

The discourse I'm hearing from our teachers is that, even if we can't make it better overnight, having us step into the trenches and witness the struggle firsthand has made a morale difference.

We’d been doing things to just really trying to love on our teachers. One day in September, we took Sonic drinks out to every campus. One of the teachers told me, “You know, Dr. Warnock, that was awesome, but I would have loved it if you would’ve just come and taken over the class.” You know, it was great that everybody got drinks, but she had given up her conference period to cover for a colleague that was out that day.

Districts around the country have struggled with adequate staffing this year. What has it been like for your school system?

It’s a really big deal. We have a labor shortage, even though we’ve increased our substitute pay, we’re offering retention incentives for substitutes, and we’re offering attendance incentives for teachers to try to address the issue. We have several hard-to-staff positions that we have not been able to fill, so we have long-term subs in those positions.

One day last week, we had 12 substitutes needed at the high school and only six [positions] that were filled. So that’s 48 class periods then that have to be covered by somebody. So then someone gets pulled out of their formal responsibility or central office role to cover classes.

I subbed in a class at the middle school last week where they had two 7th grade science classes brought in [to the same classroom to be covered by one teacher]. We have coverage in the classrooms then, but we don’t have the best learning environment for students when that’s happening.

Are there things about the COVID-19 crisis and recovery that you understand better after spending more time in the classroom? Things you had to see to understand?

I think COVID has highlighted and exaggerated some [student] behaviors that we were already seeing. I think that kids mimic the behavior that they see adults model. We are in the midst of a pretty vitriolic atmosphere with not a lot of moderation or consensus and a pretty disrespectful public discourse. I think kids pick up on that. They talk the way they see adults talk.

It’s not all kids, it’s a small percentage, just like some of the vitriol [from adults] is a small percentage of loud voices. But it makes it hard on a teacher who’s weary, where there are learning gaps for students that they’re trying to close. And we’ve come back as states with the same demands of tests, and rigor [as schools have in a typical school year] and “We’re gonna hold you accountable.” I think all of that is contributing to kind of a powder keg for teachers right now.

In your TikTok videos, you share even small things that you notice from being in the classroom, like how substitute teachers don’t have access to dry erase markers in locked supply cabinets.

Teachers, subs, school staff, administrators have to make a million decisions on the fly every minute in the classroom, so it’s a problem to not have the things you need.

I’ve noticed the littlest things, like the pencil sharpeners weren’t working in the middle school, or I was really thirsty and wanted to go get ice water and the ice machine was broken in the teachers’ lounge. Kids say they don’t have a pencil or paper [to do a classroom assignment], which could be because they actually don’t have one or it could be an avoidance tactic.

So I’ve said, “If this doesn’t work, we need to fix that.” We’re creating little substitute bags for our offices to have, and we’re gonna replenish those with things like a pack of sharpened pencils, paper, Band-Aids, and [dry erase] markers, so they can write on the board.

The discourse I’m hearing from our teachers is that, even if we can’t make it better overnight, having us step into the trenches and witness the struggle firsthand has made a morale difference. Our general counsel is not a teacher, he’s an attorney. And when he’s out subbing now every week in the classroom, he’s sharing his experience and coming back understanding HR challenges. He’s actually putting on the teacher’s shoes, and there’s a lot of value in that.

What made you decide to share your experience on TikTok?

I have teenage and college-age children, so I joined TikTok really to troll them. I had been an avid follower on TikTok who had never created content. I got deep into the teacher TikTok world and heard their concerns, struggles, challenges, and thoughts about where leadership is struggling for them or failing them. So I just wanted to offer a perspective and say, “Hey, I see you. Let’s try to figure this out together.”

I’ll get some supportive comments and then some people will say, “Well, you aren’t doing X, Y or Z,” or “Have you thought about this?” It’s great learning for me.

Sometimes being a superintendent can be like being the emperor with no clothes on in your own district. As much as I want to cultivate an open door and approachability, sometimes people are afraid of that or don’t trust that. But a teacher from Montana can tell me exactly what they think without any kind of repercussion. That gives me an open door to ask some of my staff like, “Hey, somebody made this comment. What do you think? Is that a problem here? What can we do to solve it?”

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You’re doing this at a time when there are some strained connections between parents and schools in some school districts. I noticed you did a video in response to a commenter who said, “I don’t care what you’re learning. I care what the kids are learning.” Is it vulnerable to share your experiences in this way?

Yeah. You know, I got my first superintendent job here in a new community in January of 2020, and then in March of ‘20, the world stopped turning.

I have really worked in our community. We have a very active Facebook presence with parents and community here, and I’ve worked to leverage that as a tool to engage. We’ve done Facebook live, question-and-answer posts, and weekly updates with our community. I think that has really been a trust builder.

I think sometimes we miss the boat in leadership when we don’t just lean into our authentic selves. And I think it’s valuable to just share what I’m thinking. When I do our Facebook Lives with our community, I don’t ever work from a script. I think that having some authenticity and being willing to be vulnerable and open up some is trust building, not trust breaking.

Have you learned anything about the student or family experience by being in the classroom in this way?

I always believe that when there’s something going on, when there is a behavior concern or you’re connecting with a kid, there’s always a story there. There’s not a person we wouldn’t love if we could read their story.

In one class where I substituted, the teacher had left a quick writing prompt for students to respond to as they were coming in: “If you had three wishes, what would you wish for?” And I was walking around reading over their shoulders, most of the kids were wishing to bring back someone who they had lost in the past year. Just seeing that really written on the page gives some insight into the statistics we see on the news every day.

In one video, you discuss a viral scene from the TV show “Schitt’s Creek” where one character is reading a recipe to another. She keeps telling him to fold in the cheese and it’s clear neither of them knows what that means, so she keeps insistently saying “fold it in” as if that will make it clearer. Can you think of some things leaders have said to teachers that maybe don’t make sense on the ground?

Oh, I think we have a lot of fold-it-in moments. We say, “Well, we’re just gonna have to differentiate to close the gap,” or “We’re gonna use the data to see where we need to backfill the learning.” Well, how exactly do we do that? Schools have had a lot of discussion that we can’t remediate because we can’t lose 18 months of time, so we’re gonna have to “accelerate the learning.” That’s some of the verbiage that I hear that, collectively educators are asking, “What does that mean? You show me exactly how we do that.”

Do you plan to keep substitute teaching when the pandemic is over?

One hundred percent. I think I would really like to take on one class period, like to teach language arts class at the high school, with the same group of kids all year. If not that, then definitely I will continue substituting, even after COVID, because it has been just really eye-opening for me.

It’s helped me to build relationships with teachers in some different ways. You know, our work is all about relationships. Observing and being visible on campuses is not the same as taking on the teacher’s role.

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