I have worked as a substitute teacher in four Utah school districts over the past three years, before and during COVID. The inquisitive journey as a sub drove me to about 200 schools, K-12, all subjects, including special education.
My objective is to advocate for additional resources for Utah’s schools.
Most often substitutes were disrespected by students. What makes it very difficult for subs are inconsistent discipline policies within a district and individual schools. For example, in one classroom cell phones are allowed, another not. Often, it is not noted in the lesson plan what a teacher allows.
A sub is scheduled to arrive about 15 minutes before the first class to master the lesson plans, certainly not enough time. There is a system whereby subs can apply for jobs online and the teacher has a tab to upload lesson plans which would allow the sub to review the subject days in advance. But, in my experience, teachers provide such lesson plans only about 10% of the time.
In some lesson plans I have worked, there has been a full page of warnings about students: Watch Joey who needs to be reminded. Suzie will not respond to… John will try to leave the classroom. Do not let A and B sit together. If other subs are like me, they spend at least 25% of the day on discipline issues.
Pay and conditional policies are unfriendly. Pay ranges $85 to about $130 a day ($11 to $17 an hour). On the same day you could be told not to report, and do not get paid, even though you planned your day around the job for weeks in advance. There are no benefits (sick days, pensions, paid holidays, etc.). Few schools offer a free lunch. Target pays $15 to $24 an hour just to make change at a register!
When onboarding, the substitute must pass online exams about federal and state policy, civil rights, privacy issues, etc. There is no formal classroom management training and certainly no subject training. Classroom management training might even be a waste, as each school and classrooms in a school may have different practices, most often left to individual teachers.
There are courses offered here and there, but subs usually have to pay for them. School administrators often do not orient the substitute regarding the school atmosphere (discipline issues, rewards programs) nor do they orient the class to respect the substitute the day of subbing.
Utah used to be last in pupil expenditures, but the decline of Idaho recently placed us at No. 49.
What’s a sub to do?
It is not our job, but here is a path to improve conditions:
1. Develop an online survey gaining input from classroom teachers, school board members, state legislators, central office and local school administrators, teaching college/university professors, parents and students regarding their current perception of substitutes and what they would recommend to improve the substitute process and curriculum.
2. Form a development team that is geographically and grade level diverse comprised of board members, state legislators, teachers, principals, central office administrators, education associations and two teaching college professors to develop recruitment procedures, training, qualifications, school policies, classroom management procedures, incentives and compensation levels for substitutes;
3. Develop a qualified substitute pool defined by subject matter.
In a 1988 academic paper “Apprehensions of Substitute Teachers,” published in The Clearing House, experts wrote:
“Even the title of substitute denotes a teacher who is somewhat less than a teacher. Students have less respect for subs and regular teachers consider them a necessary evil, admins sometimes ignore them completely. Yet the expectations – to teach a class they are not prepared for, to maintain order and discipline in a room with students they have never seen before, and operate in an environment foreign to them, protect them from harm, are perhaps greater than the expectations for regular teachers.”
Little has changed, but much needs to change, especially as educators are leaving the profession in droves.
Terry Marasco, Salt Lake City, is a community activist, retired businessman and sometime substitute teacher.