Stop the Substitute Shuffle

COVID continues to expose the cracks in our societal structures.  It is completely possible for us to just shuffle from year to year, trudging along within ineffective systems…until something unexpected pops up and demolishes that system, finally spotlighting the strained and sometimes broken processes that we have continued to use (despite their obvious failures) for far too long.

The problematic system in question at this moment?  Substitute teachers.

2018 was my final year in the high school classroom in a large, urban district in Texas.  My campus had been forced to implement a rotating schedule for teachers to cover classes during their conference period for their absent colleagues.  You can imagine what this did to teacher morale and to their already overburdened workloads.  The proverbial buck had finally stopped at the campus level, passed like a scorching hot potato from the superintendent all the way down to classroom teachers.  A district-wide staffing problem gets pushed to individual campuses to solve, forcing teachers to take on even more responsibilities.  Again, this was in 2018.  It was literally the best that a large, urban district could come up with to address a shortage of substitute teachers across dozens of campuses years ago.

Sadly, it is also the same system currently being used to address an even greater shortage of substitutes in the exact same district during a pandemic.  There must be a better way.

The school district of Central Falls in Rhode Island may have figured it out.  Instead of treating substitute teachers as temporary or expendable, they have created a fellowship program.  Substitute staff must have a bachelor’s degree and undergo an interview process.  Upon hiring, they are provided with quality professional development that starts with rigorous orientation training and includes access to all the same PD that teaching staff receives throughout the year.  They also receive benefits and competitive daily pay.  Notably, instead of a gig model where subs can pick up a job or not and ostensibly work as little or as much as they like, subs in Central Falls commit to working every day at the same campus for a full school year.  This allows them to really become a part of the campus and a true member of the staff, building relationships and contributing to the culture of the school.  Furthermore, this fellowship model forges a pathway towards a permanent position.  Some people like the gig economy model for its flexibility, but many don’t.  Lost of subs want to break into teaching and want to use substitute teaching as an opportunity for exploration, growth, and advancement.

At the very least, this model attracts committed, qualified personnel for a challenging job, and it provides full-time, permanent subs to campuses.  But it also showcases a real determination on the part of the district to bravely ditch the status quo, tackling a tough problem and doing so without asking even more of weary teachers.

It’s high time to reimagine many of our processes, especially one that is clearly failing if teachers are consistently losing conference periods already at the beginning of the school year to cope with COVID-related absences that are likely only going to become more rampant as both the pandemic and the school year march on.  Let’s put some of that relief funding to good use by building pools of well-compensated, trained, permanent substitutes who can competently and confidently provide instruction for absent teachers.  The pandemic is going to be around for a while longer, folks.  And the school year has barely started.  We don’t need to lose the very precious teachers that we already have to burnout because they can’t do their own job and that of their colleague down the hall.  Like the pandemic, we need to find ways to effectively reimagine and repair this crisis, not just put a band-aid on it.

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