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Separate but Equal: Substitute Teaching Done Right

 Published on June 28, 2016 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Elizabeth Lenaghan and Sean Hackney /  “Admiring the bokeh” by Tjarko Busink; CC BY-NC /  2

K-12 & Higher Ed Dialogue

This article is part of a series focused on creating a dialogue among K-12 and post-secondary pedagogies and pedagogues. The discussion is ongoing — see all articles in this series or the original call for papers that prompted them and consider adding your voice to the conversation.

Every day, students across the country open the doors to their classrooms and see a stranger standing where their regular teacher should be. “Are you our sub?” they demand in a less than polite or thrilled tone. In that first instant, the substitute teacher has already received one strike and the hopes of having a good day diminish. The truth is, schools could not function without substitutes. What would students in elementary and middle school do if a substitute could not come in for the day? Where would high school students go if there was no substitute to cover their third period class? My experiences have been varied, but I have had enough to know that the way substitutes are treated impacts both them and the students. Though most see the substitute’s role as insignificant, some schools have realized the position that substitutes have been put in and made changes that have improved substitutes’ experience.

I have been substitute teaching in Oregon for the past three years. I have substituted in K-8 grade schools with fewer than 100 students and traditional high schools with 1500 students or more. Though schools vary in their attitudes, I have seen many who marginalized substitute teachers and how detrimental this is for the students.

Some may think that there are bigger issues at hand in the world of education. However, treating the role of the substitute this way is marginalizing to a group of people who are pivotal to keeping schools up and running. Close to 50% of responders to a survey done by the Substitute Teaching Institute reported they had a somewhat- or very-severe shortage of substitutes. Not only are districts facing shortages, but they are also struggling to retain the few substitute teachers they have. With regular teachers missing more and more days for professional development along with their own personal days, students are spending an increasing amount of time with substitute teachers. Jaclyn Zubrzycki, contributing writer for Education Week, writes, “The Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality estimates that the average teacher misses between six and 13 days of school per year.” According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education from surveys of 57,000 schools in 2009-2010, students spend over six months of their K-12 education with substitute teachers. The absence of the regular teacher means the continuity of the students’ instruction is broken. For example, if a regular teacher crams two lessons into one either before or after their absence because they would not leave one for the substitute, the students’ education is being compromised. Or if a teacher does not leave adequate instructions or materials, the students are missing out because the substitute cannot teach the lesson in its entirety. Knowing how much time students spend with a substitute over their academic career should make schools more determined to help substitutes be effective teachers.

The schools substitutes choose to sub at are places where they have made positive personal connections. Matches made through personal connections help classroom management issues because the students recognize the substitute, and they make the job more gratifying. Teachers who I regularly sub for make a point of getting to know me. They see me as a fellow teacher. This recognition often leads to them encouraging me to share my own knowledge and experiences with their classes if it relates to the subject. When a substitute shares, the students are exposed to a wider range of experiences that expand their knowledge of a subject. Substitutes with personal connections at schools are remembered by name when they walk in. They are treated like a regular staff member and encouraged to use any and all staff amenities at the school. When these personal connections are made at schools, the substitute feels more comfortable in all aspects and the students benefit.

Alternatively, in instances where personal connections are lacking, I feel unsupported and the classroom teacher has low expectations for me. Because of a few bad substitutes, some teachers play it safe by leaving “dumbed down” lesson plans rather than what the students should be working on. The few bad substitutes do not only impact what is left curriculum-wise, but they also impact the expectations teachers have of substitutes. “If we see substitutes as substandard fill-ins, that is probably what we will get,” explains Marie E. Lassmann, Associate Professor of Education at Texas A&M University. In education, we know that expectations can determine success. If substitutes are viewed as valid staff members with complete reign of the classroom, the results might surprise schools. When I sub, I am teaching next to teachers that hold the exact same credentials that I do. We had to accomplish the same number of credit hours, pass the same tests, and prove our abilities through student teaching just the same. Yet I am constantly looked down upon, and continually fighting to prove myself as a worthy equal. Lisa Weems, Associate Professor of Education at Miami University, writes, “Isn’t it curious that the same kinds of critiques made of substitute teachers by professional teachers are the same kinds of critiques made of professional teachers by the general public?” This critique creates the dreadfulness that is the dark side of substitute teaching. The regular teachers who offer little support or help throughout my day, and turn the staff room into the cafeteria where I am left trying to find a place to sit alone and eat my lunch.

I have set out to pursue a career in education where every day I want to do what is best for the students sitting in front of me. When someone pursues a career in teaching, their passion for doing what is best for the students does not diminish if they decide to sub. Coverdill & Oulevey reiterate as much when they state, “a substantial portion of substitutes express a desire to teach, not babysit, and describe ‘good days’ as ones in which they believe they make an educational contribution, however small.” When a substitute shares, the students are exposed to a wider range of experiences that expand their knowledge of a subject. For others who struggle, they have a chance at a teacher that may explain the same difficult concept in a new way that helps. Substitutes want to teach, and they want to help expand students’ knowledge and experiences. These days when substitutes get to teach are happening at schools where they have made personal connections with teachers or school staff.

With almost all districts in need of subs, I am able to choose the schools and classrooms I wish to sub at. I have made some great connections at schools, and am regularly called by the same teachers as their number one sub. They leave me exactly what they would teach if they were there, and the students respect me because they recognize me and know that I am there to teach not babysit. These circumstances mean the students’ education continues; they do not miss a day of valuable time and instruction when their regular teacher is absent. The schools and classrooms I thoroughly enjoy being at have substituting figured out. If teachers or administrators are struggling to find substitutes, maybe it is time they take a look at how they are treating the ones that walk through their doors.

Schools that substitutes choose to return to over and over again have teachers that believe the substitute is a worthy educator. Believing in the substitute means the teacher leaves the lesson plans that they would have taught. Continuity of the lesson plans help provide the regular structure students are used to which in turn helps with classroom management. Glatfelter states, “the closer they [substitutes] are able to emulate the classroom’s daily routine, and the better they can use the curriculum to keep students engaged, the easier classroom management became.” With fewer management issues, substitutes can focus on what is most important, which is continuing the students’ learning while their teacher is away.

When the last bell rings, most substitutes leave notes on the day’s events. A majority of teachers glance through just enough to see where the substitute made it in the lesson plan and then toss them in the trash. A substitute knows when this neglect is the case because upon returning to that classroom later on in the year the same issues will arise. A feedback loop allows substitutes to know that their experiences are validated. It also allows substitutes to get feedback on areas they need to improve on and on what they did well. If substitutes receive feedback, they can improve their teaching so students have a better teacher the next time their regular teacher is absent. When I leave the names of students that were helpful or who did well that day, I encourage the teacher to give them praise and relay my appreciation for them. I also leave notes on the material we covered and if any issues occurred. I know the teachers who are attentive to my notes because I see their impact when I return to that class later on down the road. The disruptive student is less so because he or she knows me contacting the teacher is not an empty threat. The helpful students are even more helpful the next time I am there. Often times I catch up with teachers I have subbed for when I am at the school subbing for someone else. Their gratitude reassures me that I am doing well.

School administrators can be just as helpful and supportive. When substitutes are not respected by administrators, they feel like their ability to teach is being questioned. Weems writes, “Substitute teachers expressed this marginalization as a function of both invisibility and hypervisibility.” Administrators most often are completely absent from interactions with substitutes, or they hover in the classroom throughout the day due to a lack of trust in the substitute’s abilities. Schools substitutes enjoy going to have administrators that treat them like the professionals they are. At one of my favorite schools, principals will pop their head in the door and ask if I need anything and see how the day is going. They do not come in and hover observing in the back nor do they completely ignore me. They also reassure me that if I have an issue with a student to send them to the office. This support from a principal is a huge weight lifted off a substitute’s shoulders. A substitute has to learn classroom procedures and gain the respect of the students in the first five minutes of class in order to keep the ensuing chaos in check. Therefore, knowing that they have the support to send a disruptive student out of class helps give the substitute confidence. Avoiding one student dragging the whole class down keeps the focus on the lesson. Ultimately, administrators’ support ensures the students are receiving the instruction they deserve.

Throughout a school day substitutes need support from other school staff as well. Such staff members, whether they are librarians or cooks, make their annoyance clear when substitutes arrive and have not followed the usual procedures of which they are completely unaware. For example, students I was substituting for were once scolded when I took them to the library and let them browse for books because I didn’t know that students should first gather to listen to the librarian’s announcements and pick up their library cards. This instance created another hiccup in the students’ days; they were chastised because I was unaware of the normal procedure. Similar issues can arise taking students to the cafeteria or to the gym for PE. Positive interactions with school staff happen when they see there is a substitute, and they step forward to reiterate the necessary procedures that keep the day running smoothly.

Education’s driving force is doing what is best for the students, yet when it comes to the issues surrounding substitute teachers, some schools and districts have been dropping the ball. The more successful the substitute is, the less of an impact the teacher’s absence has on the students’ learning. The days when students have a substitute should not be seen as wasted days. Instead, these days should uphold the educational rigor the regular teacher sets forth. On my best days of subbing I leave with a sense of meaningfulness because I helped students on their path to learning, which is the ultimate goal of all educators — substitutes included.

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2 Responses
  1. Robert S. Sgroi

    The issue is that most districts don’t actually care, we are seen as expendable because they can always get another guest teacher. We have little to no power, but if we dare to complain we just get shunted to the school Black List. As big as the role we play is, we aren’t really seen as a worthy investment. Unless we band together and address this, nothing will change for us.

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