Teaching Profession

Substitute Teachers Lay Foundation To Improve Their Lot

By Jeff Archer — August 02, 2000 7 min read

At the time, substitute teacher Millie McBee thought little of the incident. A 6th grader in the class she was assigned to in Florida’s Orange County schools was standing by the window, playing with the venetian blinds, and not paying attention. So she took the boy by the arm and told him to sit down.

The action almost cost her the assignment. After the boy and his parents complained about the physical contact, a school official told her she would be removed from the middle school’s list of potential substitutes, she says. But Ms. McBee, recently retired after nearly 30 years as a full-time teacher in Florida, refused to go quietly.

“I explained to them that unless I could have a meeting with the parents and the administrators, it would be the first time they ever got a lawsuit over that kind of thing,” she said. The school, she said, dropped the matter.

The apparent lack of due process—a right she could take for granted in her days as a permanent teacher—helped prompt Ms. McBee to form the Orange County Substitute Teachers Association. In three years, the group has started a newsletter, put on training sessions, and grown from 14 to 251 members. Now she’s helping to organize a state-wide meeting of substitutes set for this October.

The Orange County group represents one of the multiplying pockets of activism by substitute teachers across the country. From California to Massachusetts, new associations have formed to demand better pay, benefits, grievance procedures, and professional development for instructors who pinch-hit for regular teachers.

And while the overall movement remains small, it got a big push last month from what was billed as the first national conference of substitute teachers. Held in the basement of the main branch of Washington’s public library, the gathering here of about 60 people established a new organization—the National Substitute Teachers Alliance—elected officers, and adopted a “Substitute Teachers Bill of Rights.” A major aim is to help substitutes throughout the country become advocates for themselves.

“This is the first time that we’ve stemmed the tide of isolation among us,” said Shirley Kirsten, the president of the Fresno (Calif.) Area Substitute Teachers Association, who was elected president of the national group. “Once you have this many people together sharing and getting more visibility, there may be a chance for real change.”

‘Revolving Door’

Substitute teachers’ complaints of low salaries and lack of district support are nothing new, but the current job market has put them in a better position to demand improvements. With many other forms of temporary work paying as much as, or more than, the $65-a-day average that substitutes earn, many districts are finding it harder to maintain a large enough pool of people to fill in for absent teachers.

A recent national survey by the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University in Logan found that 56 percent of district officials considered substitute availability to be “a serious problem.”

But the paucity hasn’t eliminated many of the indignities substitutes face. Attendees at last month’s meeting complained of “revolving door” practices in which they’re pulled from assignments just before accumulating enough days to qualify for certain benefits. Some school systems, while offering higher pay to those who work at least a specified number of days, will revoke the additional compensation if a substitute calls in sick just once.

“They are the most exploited group of education employees that we have,” said Leon Lieberman, who has helped organize substitute teachers under New York State United Teachers, or NYSUT, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate. “They’re exploited by the students, they’re exploited by the administration, and in many cases, they’re exploited by other teachers.”

But substitutes in some areas have scored victories in recent years. In 1997, the Oregon Substitute Teachers Association successfully lobbied state lawmakers to enact legislation requiring districts to make substitutes’ daily pay equal at least 85 percent of beginning teachers'—for a minimum now of $120.40. A year later, the Boston Teachers Union won a district commitment to pay 75 percent to 90 percent of the cost of health insurance for substitutes who regularly work three or more days a week.

Varying Alliances

But the movement to organize substitutes still faces significant obstacles. Some state public-employee-relations boards— which protect the rights of teachers’ unions in states that permit collective bargaining—have deemed substitutes to be “casual workers,” and resisted giving them the same protections. In some cases, substitutes have even gotten the cold shoulder from their local teachers’ unions.

That’s what happened in Springfield, Mass., where substitutes sought to organize as part of the local National Education Association affiliate, says Jonathan C. Tetherly, a co- founder of the Massachusetts Project Organizing Substitute Teachers.

“They didn’t return my phone calls,” he said. “Then they said they didn’t think we were eligible to be organized.”

Officials with the Springfield Education Association say the local’s bylaws only allow for organizing teachers who work at least 90 days a year. Said SEA President Timothy Collins: “Personally, I have my hands full with 2,600 teachers.”

Instead, the substitutes in Mr. Tetherly’s district joined a local of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which last year negotiated the group’s first contract, including a pay raise from $50 a day to $70. The Fresno association, similarly rebuffed at first by its local NEA affiliate, became part of the Service Employees International Union last year. Both national teachers’ unions sent representatives from their headquarters to last month’s conference here.

Mr. Lieberman, from NYSUT, agreed that if some locals are hesitant to accept substitutes, it probably has more to do with fatigue than with fear that substitutes will compete for money that could go toward full-time teachers’ salaries.

“Most local teachers’ union presidents are full-time teachers,” he said. “They have so much to do with teaching and running a union that they’re exhausted, and they are reluctant to take on additional problems and additional members.”

In districts where its local affiliates won’t work with substitutes, NYSUT has often arranged to represent them directly. For instance, the state union negotiates contracts for substitutes in 14 New York districts that together make up the Southern Adirondack Substitute Teachers Alliance. Some NEA affiliates, including the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Education Association, have also agreed to represent substitutes at the bargaining table.

“For every anecdote where we’ve dropped the ball, there are dozens of others where we didn’t, and where we took up the challenge,” said Lou Nayman, one of the AFT’s directors of organization and special projects. “It’s on our plate, and what a forum like this [national conference] does is add additional emphasis.”

Despite some grousing, organizers of the national meeting said their preference is to work with the NEA and the AFT rather than other unions. Moreover, they emphasized that their aim isn’t to form a new national union of substitutes, but to create an organization that lobbies policymakers and offers support to local efforts.

“Why should we compete with two very well- established, marvelous teachers’ unions in this country?” said John Thomson, a former Boston substitute teacher. “If you talked to subs, they would say they’d rather have teachers organized by teachers.”

‘A Lot To Do’

Mr. Thomson, who spent more than two years culling contacts with other substitute groups on the Internet, co-organized the national conference with Eleanor Hinton, a former substitute and retired full-time teacher from Petersburg, Va. Ms. Hinton had held several regional conferences in mid-Atlantic and Southern states before calling for a national meeting in 1998.

What the gathering lacked in size, Ms. Hinton said, it made up for in energy. The meeting brought together many of the country’s most active groups, representing 14 states, as well as Toronto. Said Ms. Hinton: “We still have a lot to do to pull in the mass of subs, but these are all powerful people. They’re people who move forward.”

The bill of rights the group approved calls for substitutes to be given “equal access” to employer-provided health benefits and due-process procedures. A mission statement they later adopted says “collective bargaining agreements” are the best way to “advance these gains.” A second annual conference is planned for next summer.

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A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 2000 edition of Education Week as Substitute Teachers Lay Foundation To Improve Their Lot

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