A Letter of Thanks to Substitute Teachers

Dear Colleagues,

In honor of Substitute Educators Day, I write this letter to you, the “guest teachers” who worked in my various classrooms over the years. First grade, second grade, computer lab – you covered them all, ably, at a moment’s notice, and to my eternal gratitude.

The reasons for my absences varied. As a teacher of young kids, I seemed to get knocked out every winter by strep throat and pink eye and bronchitis, and, well, you name it. From the depths of my illnesses, I would try to conjure up lesson plans and leave them for you. Sometimes, though, I couldn’t muster them for each day I was out. Despite that fact, you relied on your own teaching skills and in some cases your prior knowledge of the kids in my class to create your own learning experiences for the class. Sometimes you worked with my colleagues to figure out what should be taught.

And, always, you left me notes so that I knew what had been accomplished, what was left to do, who needed special attention, and who helped you in ways big and small. I’ve never had the chance to tell you, until now, how important those notes were to me. Not so much the academic progress portion, though of course that was good to know, but more so when you revealed your personal connections to the students, either during moments of academic support or when the children coalesced around something you did or said.

Apart from allowing me to take time to recover from colds, flus, and other illnesses, you also gave me a chance to get better as a professional. There were the various professional learning experiences I had in my school, at my district, and in the wider region. You made that possible. I also attended my very first national conference, in San Francisco (at the time I was teaching and living in Massachusetts), because you were available to cover for me the two days I was out of the classroom.

Though it may have seemed to you like an ordinary assignment, for me, it was a watershed moment. I was able to see myself as an educator who was part of a larger network of like-minded teachers. I was exposed to ideas from schools and districts around the country, and I myself was able to share innovative practices from my corner of the world. I saw and heard about a bigger educational picture, firsthand, as opposed to reading about it in newspapers and books. I loved it.

In retrospect, I can draw a straight line from that experience to my now long career working in nationally oriented, educational non-profits.

All because you were able and willing to be a guest teacher in my classroom.

Thank you for bringing your best self to my students and focusing on helping them stay engaged as learners. Thank you for being creative and thinking on your feet when you needed to. Thank you for answering the sub line calls, which often came in the wee hours of the morning. Thank you for making it possible for me to rest at home, and at other moments take flight outside the walls of my classroom.

Thank you for being the best guest teacher you could possibly be.

Sincerely,
Paul Oh

Substituting Your Way to a Permanent Teaching Job

For teachers transitioning between grades, schools, or districts substituting is the perfect vehicle to clarify career priorities. In 2015 I left my teaching job at a private school determined to return to public education. My goal was to find a job in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) for the 2016-17 school year. I spent the 2015-16 school year substituting in SFUSD in order to get to know the district’s schools and decide what grade level I wanted to teach full-time.

Substitute teaching provides opportunities to teach at all grade levels. Jobs are posted daily for elementary, middle and high school positions. It’s possible to figure out the specific grade level of each job either on the posting itself, or by running a quick search on the teacher’s name within the school website. I looked for jobs only in grades and subject areas that were matches for my professional training. The lesson plans teachers left me provided glimpses into the curriculum of these classes. A day in the class brought me time to look at student work, course texts, and curricular wall displays. I got to know the students at each age level and could evaluate how my management style and temperament might be well or mismatched. I frequently used my breaks to look deeper into the textbooks, syllabi, and assignments.

Since I was planning to apply to a large district, I knew that familiarizing myself with school sites would facilitate my job search. I perused the substitute job board looking for schools in different city neighborhoods. This way I could test the commute logistics for a variety of schools. Could I ride my bike? Park my car? What time did the school start and end?

Once on-site, I took notice of the school facility. Updated? Tall ceilings? Wide hallways? Were there plentiful windows? Was the yard inviting? Was there a garden? A play structure? Proud and welcoming bulletin boards? Did the school use bells? How did students play at recess? What happened during lunch? Was there a teacher’s room? Was it convivial?

It was important that I get to know the staff and administrators too. Everyone has a different benchmark for what feels right and inspiring professionally. Taking the time to meet the teachers who work full-time where you are subbing is a great way to gain insight into the tenor of the school community. Collaborative? Serious? Stressed? Optimistic? Tired? Granted I was just taking a day’s sample, but I felt I could get a sense of a school community by initiating conversation with staff and administrators while I was there.

You’ll quickly learn which schools you like best by watching where you return to work and seek to establish a “preferred sub” status. Ask yourself why this is. Convenient to home? Great students? Welcoming feel on campus? Great site resources? Figure out what compels you to return to some schools and not others. Your preferred schools are exhibiting some or all of your professional “must haves” for your new and permanent position.

In the end I accepted a job where I had not worked as a substitute. However, when I was approached to interview for my current school, I could very quickly learn about it based on my prior experience subbing elsewhere in the district. First of all, I had never seen the school listed on the sub board. This means that there is a healthy “preferred sub” list where known subs are offered jobs before the postings reach the public board. Usually this practice indicates a well organized school office and teachers who are committed to planning ahead for their absences whenever possible.

Secondly, I knew what to look for on campus while interviewing. I arrived early to circle the perimeter of the property in order to evaluate the play offerings and size of yard. I looked at the building design, whether there was an auditorium, a garden, etc. When I walked inside I noted the hallway decor. I was lucky to interview in the library so I could see that important resource as well. I asked my teacher interviewers questions I had cultivated after a year of subbing in the district.

Ultimately I selected my new job based on the desire to join a specific school site and team. By comparison, I was flexible about what grade or subjects I would teach. My biggest take away from my substitute year was that I cared less about the grade level assignment and more about the school. Subbing surfaced clear priorities regarding my work environment and commute. Limiting my job search to schools that matched my priorities helped ensure a satisfying first year of full-time work in SFUSD.

Amy Belkora

Amy Belkora

Teacher

Amy holds a BA in English and French Literatures and an MA in Education from Stanford University. Since 1992 Amy has taught kindergarten through post-secondary education. Amy has experience teaching public middle and elementary grades as well as gardening and high school writing at the San Francisco Waldorf School. Amy also held adjunct faculty positions in Stanford University’s Department of Writing and Rhetoric, Foothill College’s Department of Language Arts, and the University of San Francisco’s Department of Rhetoric and Composition. She currently teaches fourth grade at Lawton Alternative School in the San Francisco Unified School District.

Bringing a Little Kindness and Innovation to Teacher Absence

Yesterday’s Washington Post included an eye catching headline: one in four teachers miss 10 or more days of school, earning the label “chronically absent.” Although the article was careful to present a balanced view, the comments section quickly devolved into the predictable argument about valuing vs vilifying teachers. Notably missing from the article—and virtually all conversation of teacher absence and its impact on students—is an examination of how to improve the experience students have when their teacher is out. Life happens and teachers will be absent. In fact, when I think about my son’s teachers, I want and hope that they feel supported as they deal with the curveballs life throws at them—from bouts of mental illness (like the teacher interviewed in the article who was struggling with anxiety) to caring for an ailing family member or having a baby.  

Rather than just focusing on reducing absences, what if we also thought about how to create a supportive experience for students when their teacher is out? Substitute teaching has been largely the same for decades. We know that the current design isn’t working well—the statistics around how much teacher absences impact students demonstrates that time spent with substitutes isn’t cutting it. But what is possible? What if we let go of what we assume substitute teaching has to be and redesigned it from the ground up? Could we create something that supported teachers and actually enhanced students’ learning experiences? Asking this question is more generative and invites more creativity than focusing solely on reducing teacher absence. It’s also something every school and district can work on today.

Intrigued? Here are some ideas about how to get started:

  • Confront Your Assumptions: The mental model for what happens when a teacher is absent has been ingrained in each of us since childhood. Our assumptions can limit our creativity and willingness to experiment with new models. I invite you to spend 10 minutes cataloguing your assumptions, such as “substitute teachers are on call employees.” Set a timer and write everything that comes to mind. If you have 10 more minutes, pick one or two of your assumptions to challenge. Ask yourself, what would happen if this assumption weren’t true? What might be possible? Brainstorm your crazy ideas and see what happens.
  • Pilot Something Different on PD Days: Pick an upcoming PD day and pilot a new model for what happens when the teacher is out of the classroom. Invite your teachers to brainstorm different possibilities and pick a few to pilot. Maybe you could do an inside-out field trip where you bring an expert to school for a day. If the first grade teachers are out, could this be a day for first graders to spend more time with their fourth grade buddies? Challenge your assumptions about what’s possible.
  • Create a Design Challenge with Students: Students are great at questioning assumptions and thinking outside the box. Invite them to bring that creativity and think about what should happen when their teacher is absent. Stanford’s K12 Design Lab has great resources for facilitating design challenges with students.  

We’re starting a national conversation to help redesign the substitute teaching experience. Join us!

Substitute Teaching: A Missing Piece in the Teacher Shortage Debate

puzzled

puzzled by John Potter (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

While discussions about the growing teacher shortage have traditionally emphasized the failings of our teacher pipeline, the Learning Policy Institute’s (LPI) recent reports warn that our best chance at averting our current path toward a significant teacher shortage is to focus on teacher retention through improved “mentoring, induction, working conditions, and career development.” Defining the problem in this way has significant implications for how we might go about avoiding the crisis, and one significant, generally neglected, piece of the puzzle is substitute teachers.

Think about it. Want mentor teachers to guide novices through ongoing coaching and induction programs? You better ask the resource teacher to cover the classroom or find a sub. Interested in following professional development best practices and have your staff visit master teachers in action? Ask the school admin if she can stitch together coverage with teacher prep periods or call in a sub. Your star physics teacher got a grant to attend a conference and bring those best practices back to the school? Dial up a sub. Your third grade teacher wants to maintain some sort of balance and quality of life and go to her brother’s wedding in Alaska? Better log into the substitute management system. These factors critical to improving teacher retention—effective mentoring, induction, professional development, and great work conditions all share a common denominator—the need for a quality substitute teacher.

The US spends $4B a year on subs, and students spend as much as 10% of their total learning time with subs. Subs play a critical role in many of the reforms mentioned as “must haves” in our education system and have a dramatic impact on school climate, yet their role is rarely mentioned. The difference between having someone covering in the classroom who is prepared and supported, who ensures that students feel safe and that learning can continue, and having someone in the classroom who is unequipped to do these things, is the difference between a functioning learning environment and a dysfunctional one. An environment in which professional development is possible, and one in which it’s not. The difference between a place where teachers are able to take care of themselves—being absent when they are sick or have personal matters to attend to—and an environment that accelerates burnout by sending the unspoken message that being absent is tantamount to putting one’s students in harm’s way.

In fact, most districts see substitute teaching as an inevitable and unfixable challenge. Many teachers find subs so disruptive to their classes that they would rather come to school sick than have to deal with the fallout. Most students deem the day “a wash” when they see an unfamiliar sub enter the classroom. And parents complain when their beloved teachers go on maternity leave, entrusting their students to a sub for the next three months.

But what if we dared to dream about this critical resource? What if we actually used that 10% of learning time and money spent with substitute teachers to not only cover classrooms, but to make the whole “school-level human capital machine” work?

Many school districts are pursuing strategies that acknowledge the critical role substitutes play:

  • San Diego Unified School District recruits artists with teaching credentials to provide visual and performing arts instruction while teachers attend district professional development.
  • Oakland Unified School District provides twice annual training for substitute teachers, enhancing content delivery and classroom management skills.
  • Sunnyvale School District in California’s Silicon Valley created consistent, district-wide substitute folders, so that no matter the school, grade level, or teacher, a substitute can expect the same guidance and instructions every day, in every placement, which helps them provide more seamless, regular instruction for students.
  • Central Falls School District in Rhode Island hired a pool of 15 substitute teachers to serve for the full 180-day school year, assigning them each a school building to they can learn the mission and vision of the school and build relationships with faculty and students. They are offered a week of training, mentorship from experienced teachers, and an incentive—a higher salary or health benefits.

What if more districts across the country had access to these kinds of examples or “bright spots,” along with the tools, plans, and support to execute them?

At Substantial, we are working with schools and districts to redesign how they recruit, train, and support substitute teachers, so substitutes are fully leveraged as the assets that they truly are. We are capturing “bright spots”—examples of effective and creative strategies in classrooms, schools, district offices—to inspire others, highlight best practices and build on the great work already happening in schools and districts across the country. We believe substitute teachers are not only critical to students’ lives but teachers’ as well. Maintaining teachers’ happiness and supporting them to develop professionally will help keep them in classrooms for years to come.

How else can substitute teachers help solve some of education’s biggest challenges? We want to hear from you: