Opinion
College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

Don’t Hire Substitute Teachers in High School

By John Fitzsimons — August 21, 2012 5 min read

When teachers are absent, most high schools hire substitutes to cover their classes. Asked to explain why, the administrative response is typically reflexive: “We’ve always hired substitutes.” And, when pushed further for their expectations of substitutes, who frequently have no formal training or in-depth understanding of the subjects they may teach, the response again is often rote: “Absent teachers are required to provide their substitutes with lesson plans.”

Well, the time for rote responses is past. The practice of providing a substitute teacher for a short-term absence of a day or two from high school classes, not a long-term absence in which a qualified and certified substitute would be required, is a questionable practice and should be eliminated.

With the exception of planned absences such as professional-development and personal days, teachers do not know when they will miss school. For this reason, “substitute plans” generally have little instructional value and are usually designed to keep students engaged and well behaved for the length of a class. Most often, they include reading assignments or film viewings that may—or may not—be timely in terms of the scope and sequence of the curriculum.

Further, hiring substitutes can be an administrative nightmare. Most school districts contract with substitute services that experience frequent turnover. Often, first-time subs arrive late or not at all, and the administration scrambles to find a free teacher to supervise the class. When no one is available, an administrator must “cover” the class.

Teacher-absenteeism rates generally run as high as 5 percent a year. Knowing that untrained subs will provide little instructional continuity for the students, why do high schools hire them, and why do they incur an expense that may run in the tens of thousands of dollars, or for a school or district employing 100 teachers may surpass $100,000 each year?

In sum, why continue a practice that is of little or no instructional benefit, very expensive, and an administrative nightmare? Generally, the justifications are as follows:

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Lack of trust. “Adolescents make poor choices and need to be closely supervised.” Yet these are the same students who frequently baby-sit for neighbors and friends and are left alone to supervise and protect our children, homes, and valuable possessions. Is there a mixed message here?

Legal consequences. “Teachers and administrators have a legal obligation to supervise students. If we leave them unsupervised, we will be sued for gross negligence.” However, these students are housed in a school staffed with teachers, administrators, clerks, secretaries, custodians, and security personnel. In my experience, the adult-to-student ratio in most high schools approaches or exceeds one adult to every 10 students. Do we really lack adequate supervision?

Lack of creativity. “We have no options other than to have students supervised by a substitute teacher.” If you shift the focus from a custodial function to learning opportunities, many viable options will emerge. Can we offer better educational choices to our students than a substitute-led class?

What can we do with high school students when they arrive for class and there isn’t a teacher to be found? We can provide them with sound educational options, rather than allow them to be baby-sat by a substitute who knows little about the subject and less about the students.

First, administrators must challenge current practices by forming a problem-solving committee of faculty, students, and parents that would: (1) define the educational problem before them; (2) brainstorm options; (3) list possible solutions; (4) evaluate and choose the best solutions; (5) implement solutions; (6) evaluate and refine the solutions after several months of operation; and (7) keep the board of education apprised on the progress of their efforts from start to finish.

These steps, while time-consuming, allow those directly affected by the proposed changes to become involved in and take ownership of the decisionmaking process. To avoid grudging compliance and resistance from some teachers, parents, and school board members, do not issue an autocratic directive to eliminate substitutes.

Here are some steps that proved to be successful in the school districts of Tenafly, N.J., and Lawrence, N.Y., where I served as superintendent of schools. Far in advance of being absent, teachers met with their classes and discussed the options students could exercise should an absence occur.

Can we offer better educational choices to our students than a substitute-led class?"

For example, many teachers organized their students into study groups that could meet in the cafeteria, library, or auditorium. These locations were designated as supervised areas for students not in class. Some teachers arranged for students to audit other classes, work on art projects, practice music, or engage in club activities with the prior approval of appropriate colleagues. Tenafly and Lawrence also operated with open campuses that allowed students to leave campus with parental approval.

Allowing students opportunities to manage their time affords them a real understanding of the consequences of good and poor time management. Many students will continue their education beyond high school. When a college instructor or professor is absent, it is highly unlikely that the college will provide a substitute teacher. Students can choose to go back to bed or to the library to study. The decision is theirs to make.

Spotlight on classroom management

For those who directly enter the world of work or the armed forces, good time management is a prerequisite for success and required for continued employment. It is a responsibility that comes with growing up. What better time to begin learning this valuable skill than while in high school?

Approximately 40 percent of the students who enter college fail to graduate within six years. Rather, they leave with no degree and staggering debt. As superintendents and boards of education, we do a disservice to our high school students if we do not provide them with opportunities to make choices and learn to manage their time. Let’s begin by doing away with the practice of hiring short-term substitute teachers.

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Don’t Hire Substitute Teachers in High School

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