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Teacher Preparation Opinion

Quick to Criticize, Slow to Train

By Geoffrey G. Smith — January 30, 2002 4 min read
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Training substitute teachers makes sense from a financial as well as a quality standpoint.

As I work with school district personnel, principals, and teachers on issues related to substitute teaching, I hear frequent complaints about the inadequate performance of substitutes. Ironically, however, more than 90 percent of the districts these people represent offer little, if any, training to their substitute teachers. What other group of well-trained professionals allows untrained individuals to replace them? Nurses? Police officers? Pilots?

Too many are quick to complain about poor performance, but slow to provide skills training for these teachers. Few apparently realize that as much as one full year of a child’s K-12 education will be taught by substitute teachers.

Research estimates illustrate a national teacher-absenteeism rate of from 8 percent to 10 percent. When permanent teachers are out of the classroom, the only option consistently applied is the use of substitute teachers. On any given day in the United States, more than 270,000 classes are taught by substitutes. Too often, administrators feel helpless in ensuring that these classes are productive.

Formal training of substitute teachers improves the quality of education, lowers school district liability, reduces the number of student and faculty complaints, and eliminates procedural uncertainty. Yet, it is not uncommon for districts to spend millions of dollars a year on substitute-teacher pay while spending nothing on training these teachers.

Administrators in Fulton County, Ga., offer one example of an increasing trend toward putting substitute-teacher training to the test. Two years ago, Fulton County was like hundreds of other districts that were spending an unnecessary amount of money to recruit substitute teachers. Finding and retaining quality substitutes proved to be more of a challenge than officials originally bargained.

After implementing a districtwide training program to enhance the skills of substitute teachers and make permanent teachers more “sub friendly,” retention rates soared. Fulton County substitutes entered classes assured of their ability to maintain order and educate their students. Administrators and permanent teachers alike now say they have grown confident that their substitute teachers can fill the gap when absences are necessary.

Training substitute teachers makes sense from a financial as well as a quality standpoint. In addition to decreased costs related to the management of substitute teaching, the influence of trained substitutes in the classroom is more than obvious, according to district personnel in Fulton County. They add that the amount of time school officials are forced to spend dealing with complaints about inadequate substitutes has declined dramatically, allowing much more time to focus on the more important aspects of managing substitute teachers.

In another case, such training reduced by 50 percent the administration, faculty, and student complaints registered against substitute teachers the first year, and another 50 percent the second year. In yet another district, where both administrators and substitutes were trained, faculty members began confidently leaving more substantive lesson plans for substitutes to implement.

Less than a year ago, news of substitute-teacher shortages dominated headlines while school districts were scrambling to fill substitute positions. The demand was so high for substitutes in some areas that many districts, just to get a warm body, either reduced the qualifications needed or increased the pay level. Some did both.

What other group of well-trained professionals allows untrained individuals to replace them? Nurses? Police officers? Pilots?

Now, with the country in an economic recession and dealing with the aftermath of Sept. 11, thousands more people are unemployed. Districts around the country are reporting a tremendous increase in the number of substitute-teacher applications. While many officials are attributing this to an influx of career-changers or victims of corporate layoffs seeking temporary employment, others see the increase as a result of improved recruiting efforts that include the promise of better training.

Whatever the reason, there has never been a better time for schools and districts to start formally training their substitute teachers, even at substitute teachers’ expense. If 10 percent of a district’s students are being taught at any given moment by untrained substitute teachers who command minimal on-task behavior from the students, then improving these instructors’ effectiveness by 50 percent would mean a 5 percent overall improvement in student achievement. This is a significant improvement for relatively little money.

No other investment in education will have as great an impact on achievement, not to mention the reduction in management and liability concerns. It’s time for administrators to take advantage of this opportunity to offer substitute teachers more than a seat to fill.

Geoffrey G. Smith is the director of the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University in Logan, Utah, and the publisher of SubJournal, a research-based publication focusing on the best practices in the management and implementation of substitute teaching. He can be reached at gsmit@subed.usu.edu.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2002 edition of Education Week as Quick to Criticize, Slow to Train

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