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November 1, 2001
Vol. 43
No. 7

Succeeding with Substitute Teachers

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Professional development is creeping into school calendars everywhere. In most cases, it is a welcome intrusion. An afternoon here or day there could have limitless value once teachers apply in the classroom what they have learned. But what happens in the classroom while the teacher is gone?

While the Cat's Away . . .

Students spend 5 to 10 percent of the school year under the instructional care of a substitute teacher, experts say. Imagine what would happen if there were no substitutes to cover those 18 to 20 days. Lessons would be compromised and classrooms would be overcrowded to absorb orphan classes. Worse yet, instruction might be suspended completely.
Despite the obvious value of substitute teachers, some parents and schools are not convinced that substitutes can keep the curriculum moving forward in the absence of regular teachers. For Wanda Hurt, a parent from Columbia, Md., and member of the Maryland Parent-Teacher Association (PTA), the drawbacks of taking teachers out of the classroom are clear: "When temporary subs are in the classroom sporadically, no learning takes place. The kids come home and you ask them, ‘What did you learn today?' And they say, ‘Oh, nothing. We had a sub.' There's no homework. Kids need continuous exposure to the curriculum." Pam Brady, vice president of the California PTA, has concerns as well, noting, "Younger and special-needs children, especially, might not adjust as quickly to changes in the classroom."
Maintaining continuity and quality of instruction are two of the biggest concerns in the school community. With substitute teachers, it becomes more complex to maintain these aspects of instruction. Take a population with diverse employment and education backgrounds, combined with assignments that are often given on short notice, and there are bound to be gaps in performance, experts contend. With resources stretched to their seams already, what can schools do?
Hiring permanent substitutes, requiring that substitutes have a background (if not certification) in education, and scheduling all teacher professional development for after school or during the summer are not always realistic options, practitioners agree. Although PTAs, administrators, and substitutes alike say that such scenarios are desirable, tight purse strings and an overbooked school calendar often make such solutions difficult or impossible to attain. Instead, schools must try working within means already available to them.
For starters, administrators should keep professional development scheduling flexible, experts advise. Teacher collaboration is essential, but keep the groups attending professional development at any given time small to minimize negative side effects related to teacher absenteeism. When possible, schools should place substitutes in assignments where the substitutes have experience or training in the content area. Such efforts are "one way to maintain quality of instruction," according to Mark Merrell, assistant principal of McLean High School in McLean, Va. "If you put subs in a subject where they have experience, then they will be more comfortable in that position."
Students will be the first to notice whether a substitute teacher is comfortable with the material he or she is teaching, and they will adjust their behavior (or misbehavior) accordingly, say those interviewed for this article. Administrators can help substitutes set a positive tone for classroom management by being visible—standing in the hallways between periods or stopping by classrooms that have substitutes. Even better, they can provide an on-site liaison or teacher mentor for substitute teachers. "Someone should always be there to greet substitutes—to show them where things are and how to use special equipment. Substitutes look more professional if they know how to work the overhead projector and they know another teacher's name," says Liz Sanders, president of the Michigan Substitute Teacher Alliance and a longtime substitute teacher. Providing a class seating chart with students' names can also help substitute teachers, Sanders adds.
Administrative support is key, but it is insufficient without teacher involvement. Teachers should do their part by preparing their classroom and leaving a clear and detailed lesson plan, those with experience advise. A folder containing the lesson plan, seating chart, and other information—combined with an orderly classroom—is the best tool for ensuring that substitute teachers succeed.

If It's Good for Teachers . . .

Focusing on professional development for permanent teachers raises the question of whether substitutes should receive professional development too. In Eugene, Ore., the same professional development that is available to teachers is also available to substitutes. Such courses give substitute teachers a good overview of the school and district teaching program, and help them align their styles with those of the permanent teachers.
Despite the usefulness of such training, it can be frustrating for substitute teachers. "I sit there listening to all of these great ideas, and I think, ‘How can I use this?' I'm not teaching in the classroom on a regular basis, so how can I implement this? I am a transient teacher, and it's frustrating because I can't think of a way to use the knowledge I've learned. It's hard to maintain skills you can't practice on a regular basis," says Loressa Dunn, a substitute teacher in Eugene.
Other, more material problems exist. In Michigan, substitute teachers who go through training receive $15 more per day than other substitute teachers. Nevertheless, for about a third of the substitutes, this extra pay is apparently not incentive enough to encourage them to seek training. The bottom line, according to Lenawee County, Mich., substitute teacher Lorra Drefke, is that "subs don't seek out professional development because they have to pay for it, and it takes them out of the classroom—taking away a day that they could be making money." Merely calling for training for substitute teachers is not enough, many observers believe. Schools must embrace such training and the unique situation of substitute teachers. Professional development should be accessible, scheduled primarily in the summer or after school hours, and affordable for substitutes.

What Administrators Can Do

In addition to welcoming substitutes and providing them with some professional development opportunities, administrators need to convey to the school community that professional development for teachers is meaningful and beneficial. "There need to be multiple levels of communication, perhaps in the form of a newsletter, a bulletin board, or visits with the PTA. Administrators can't repeat the message too often," says Brady of the California PTA. "In the long run, it will make their jobs easier, and will save them time." Adds Merrell: "Be specific when describing the training teachers will receive. Using a general description isn't always relevant to the questions of concerned parents."
Rosalie Humphrey, principal of Northeast High School in Northeast, Md., communicates with her school community through a print newsletter that also has an online component. The online portion includes links to Web sites that are related to the professional development that teachers receive. Administrators can also use communication vehicles to clarify what qualifications substitutes need, who selects substitutes, and when they will be used in the school district. Such efforts open the door for constructive conversations about the need for teacher training and the role of substitutes.
Administrators can set the tone for relationships among members of the school community and substitute teachers by dispelling negative assumptions that substitutes aren't qualified teachers, experts say. Administrators can also take measures to make school environments more supportive of substitutes by welcoming substitute teachers into schools, identifying high-quality substitutes, and building strong relationships between school communities and substitutes, Merrell insists. "With all the changes, especially in technology, there is a constant need for continued professional development," he adds. "How do you meet those challenges without losing time? All you have to do is invest a little bit of your time nurturing relationships with substitute teachers to save precious instructional time."
Perhaps for substitute teachers and for schools, establishing good communication lines and nurturing a positive climate is where the story begins. "The entire education community needs to look at subs as part of the educational team," says Drefke. "Right now, we're seen as a necessary evil. Schools need to recognize that subs provide a service, that service provides experience, and that experience makes me a valuable employee."

Don't Sink That Sub!: Teacher Tips for Keeping Substitute Teachers Afloat

  • Set clear expectations. Provide a detailed lesson plan, including answer keys and teacher reference materials, class period stop and start times, and classroom management strategies familiar to your students.

  • Create a comfortable teaching environment. Leave a seating chart and note those students who may require extra attention. Identify teacher aides or classroom volunteers and list their responsibilities. Tell the substitute teachers where to find the rest room, teachers' lounge, and supplies. Leave instructions for operating special equipment.

  • Make sure that someone greets the substitute at the beginning of the day and says thanks at the end of the day.

  • Ask an administrator to stop by your classroom and introduce himself or herself to the substitute.

  • Provide feedback. Create a short evaluation form and fill it out after a substitute works in your classroom. Prepare and leave a form for the substitute to fill out at the end of the day to note what went well and what didn't, and what would help next time the substitute works in your classroom.

  • Communicate. If your school has a newsletter, add the addresses from your list of substitute teachers to the mailing roster. Explore using other communication vehicles specific to your school—such as Web sites, electronic mailing lists, or bulletin boards—to relay information to substitutes.

  • Unite your substitutes. If there is a substitute teacher union or association in your area, let your substitutes know. The National Substitute Teacher Alliance (<LINK URL="http://www.nstasubs.org">http://www.nstasubs.org</LINK>) is a good place to find information.

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