About two weeks ago, I walked into the same third grade class I do twice a week, every week, only this time was different. This time, a substitute teacher was present, only the second or third such time since my beginning to volunteer in this classroom a year and a half ago and the first time the teacher forgot to let me know of her absence. With everything on her plate, reminding me of her absence was probably not on the top of her priority list, and it shouldn’t have been. But I’m nonetheless thankful for that day, because it gave me a new perspective on the future of substitute teachers.
On this day, I walked up to the sub and introduced myself, and she asked me what I was doing in the class. I informed her that on Monday’s I help with reading, and at present I was working with kids on identifying character traits. After about thirty minutes of working with a few students, I went back over to her and asked if I could help her with anything, to which she responded in the negative. She had been reading a magazine and sipping a diet Dr. Pepper for the entirety of my visit.
I have memories of similar substitute teachers, teachers who were at school for a day at a time and who did not even have the opportunity to learn students’ names. I have memories of those who lackadaisically went about their days, going through the motions of lesson plans left by absent teachers and grudgingly pushing students toward the end of the day. However, I also have memories of the opposite, of teachers who may have only come in once in a while, but who devoted themselves to students throughout the entire day.
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According to Hayley Glatter from The Atlantic, “Substitutes are almost always put in sink-or-swim situations.” Glatter goes on to discuss how much innovation is needed in the substitute teaching world. She mentions Parachute Teachers, a company designed to bring in professionals to bring their knowledge directly to students when a teacher is absent, essentially making a day without a classroom teacher a “special career day.” This provides one interesting example of a solution to the problems faced by substitute teaching. Near the conclusion of her article, Gatter states that while there is a constant teacher shortage, there is also a substitute teacher shortage. While Parachute Teachers is doing wonderful work and is a phenomenal start to solving what Gatter calls the “Substitute-Teacher Conundrum,” it is primarily operating in urban communities, and I am left thinking of the future of substitute teachers through a more holistic lens.
Substitute teaching does not look the same everywhere and with everyone, and it certainly cannot be easy for individuals to come in and have to earn the respect of a class within seven hours. We have to do more to raise the level of respect paid toward substitute teachers, which will hopefully incentivize more of the “good” ones I remember fondly to keep doing what they’re doing and impassion the “bad” ones I remember as well to see their short time in classrooms as an opportunity to make a positive difference. Just as we are aiming to do with “regular” teachers, we must elevate the prestige of the position of substitute teacher so that all – from college student to grandmother and retiree – who choose to substitute teach are empowered and respected accordingly.
It seemed as though every time any of my classes would have a substitute teacher come in, our teachers would implore us to “respect them as you respect me.” Shouldn’t that be a given? Is the larger problem that we must be teaching students that respect in schools does not stop with their own teachers, but extends to all adult staff members, visitors, and volunteers? What about custodial staff? I will never forget being told at the end of fifth grade that the first thing I needed to do in middle school was befriend the janitors, and I did, and it made a huge difference. Aside from gaining some new friends, I learned that respect for our elders is universal.
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So, what is the future of substitute teachers? It should be one of mutual respect, of a growth in viable candidates for this extremely difficult position, of excitement. Substitute teaching does not have to equate to glorified babysitting, a myth that has been disproven time and time again by wonderfully motivated subs. Join me in urging students early on in their academic careers to have respect for all, from the janitor to the substitute teacher, because this respect will go a long way in making a positive difference in schools at every level.