03 January 2010

Thoughts on "The Replacements"

Carolyn Bucior wrote a January 2 Op-Ed piece "The Replacements" for the New York Times. In a nutshell, she talks about the lack of respect substitute teachers get (along with the lack of training) and the problems caused by high absenteeism among teachers. I've read this piece several times today and parts of it concern me. I'll take several quotes (indented and italicized) from the article and follow it with my response.
“Maggie,” a teacher in a Milwaukee public school, was talking about the difficulty of her job, which is something the teachers I know do quite a lot. Then she complained that her sub hadn’t completed the lesson plan she’d been given.
“So, what you’re saying is that a teacher’s job is so hard, anyone should be able to do it for a day,” I said.
This time, it was the teacher who went quiet.
I don't know any teacher who thinks that just anyone should be able to replace them for a day. I spent a year and a half substitute teaching before getting my own classroom (and I did it to make a living, not "once a week"). I learned a lot about good sub plans, bad sub plans and what to do when there are no sub plans (I carried a bag with ready made ideas for a variety of grade levels, just in case). As a regular classroom teacher who occasionally needs to be out, I keep my own substitute teaching experience in mind and carefully delineate the steps necessary to complete the day's task. Like most of my colleagues, I never leave the lesson I would have done, but something that is easy for a person to step in to and complete (such as a reading, vocabulary reinforcement activities, and the like).  The lessons continue to move learning forward, but are different from what the regular classroom teacher would do. I think "Maggie" is more of an exception than the rule. Most subs do follow the lesson plans if they are clearly written.
Did she know that 77 percent of American school districts give substitute teachers no training? That 56 percent of districts hire subs without conducting face-to-face interviews?
She did not.
I do agree with for the most part. I never received training and remember a formal interview in only one district (in which I also had to provide a week-long lesson plan). I've substituted in several districts in California and had to provide my emergency credential allowing me to substitute (it includes fingerprinting) and proof that I'd passed the CBEST (California Basic Educational Skills Test) before being hired. The piece later says that some states don't even require a college education to substitute. I teach in a high needs, urban district and am in the vicinity of two others and have never heard of such low standards to be a substitute teacher, but maybe that's just because it's California.
Did she know that subs like me have no idea if any of our students have medical conditions? That we are provided no basic rules for addressing behavioral issues? Or even basic rules for teaching?
She did not.
This is not a problem unique to substitute teachers. I have no idea of my students medical issues unless they, or their parents, tell me. I don't remember ever being notified by my school that I have regular education students with severe asthma, epilepsy or insulin dependent diabetes. I HAVE been notified by special education teachers when I have a special education student with medical problems. I also don't know if there are custody issues or restraining orders either.

I do agree with Bucior that training for substitutes is needed. I was never given a list for addressing behavioral issues or basic rules for teaching. For inexperienced substitutes, this can cause a problem, though one would think a sub would ask if there were any school specific behavioral contracts or programs that they should be aware of.

As much as I became frustrated by the lack of training and support, I was most angered by how many days teachers were out of their classrooms. Nationwide, 5.2 percent of teachers are absent on any given day, a rate three times as high as that of professionals outside teaching and more than one and a half times as high as that of teachers in Britain. Teachers in America are most likely to be absent on Fridays, followed by Mondays.
Bucior gives several examples of where teachers are on the days they are absent. She acknowledges that some are at legitimate teacher trainings while others are at "home shows." Maybe she doesn't know that some teachers, so overwhelmed by large class sizes and grading standards-based work, feel forced to take sick days in order to catch up with their grading.  Maybe Bucior doesn't realize that teachers in some schools also take on the role of parent or counselor to students who don't have stable adults in their lives. Or that some teachers are providing snacks and lunch money to students who have no food in their homes. Perhaps she also doesn't realize that the lack of support and training that TEACHERS get seems to have lead to more and more mental health days.
To minimize the need for substitutes, principals should require that teachers call them personally when they’re ill — calling in to a machine increases absences. They should keep track of all teacher absences. And they should hold in-service training sessions for teachers on weekends or during the summer, rather than on school days, or else conduct them in the classroom with the students.
Principals should also try to arrange for other teachers to use their prep time to fill in for absent colleagues. British secondary schools do this — and pay teachers a stipend for the extra work.
Calling my principal personally just isn't practical. There are nearly 100 teachers at my site (which, on the whole, is relatively small for a secondary school in CA). Some days we have 20 teachers out for inservices or illness. Ms. Bucior mentions that teacher absenteeism is three times higher than that of other professionals, but perhaps she doesn't understand that when other professionals are attending training, they aren't considered absent from their jobs. They are at training. When I'm at training, I'm absent and have to spend at least an extra hour planning my lessons for the substitute.

My teaching colleagues and I don't really want to work six days a week or work 10-12 hours days so training on weekends and after school isn't much of an option. Summer training is an option for some, but with budget cuts and teacher salaries that do not keep up with cost of living, many teachers are forced to take summer jobs or only attending trainings for which they receive a stipend. 
Principals should also try to arrange for other teachers to use their prep time to fill in for absent colleagues. British secondary schools do this — and pay teachers a stipend for the extra work.
We do this in my district when a teacher is without a substitute. Teachers who "period sub" are paid a stipend that works out to about $15 after taxes. My site usually has enough volunteers to take the jobs, but I can be forced to "period sub" by my administration (with the stipend). The key point here is that teachers are using their preparation period to fill in. That means that the teacher will have to use time elsewhere in the day (usually after school or in the evenings) to prep for the next day's lesson, call parents, correct papers and the like. The stipend does not make up for the time I've lost during my work day.

Overall, I find this piece distressing. While I think that Bucior is trying to point out that we need a cadre of trained substitute teachers, it also ends up painting teachers as scofflaws who try to get out of doing their jobs. The Substitute Teaching Improvement Act could help schools and districts find  and retain more qualified individuals, but could also end up being another burdensome task that must be completed in order to qualify for federal No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top funds. Though Ms. Bucior spent time substituting, I'm left with the feeling that she did not leave with an understanding of the daily struggles of teachers and substitutes who work several days a week.