Don't blame the substitutes

Before pointing the finger of blame, Floridians should step into the classroom.

Published: Sunday, February 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 31, 2004 at 9:40 p.m.

A Jan. 19 Associated Press article titled "Sub teachers often lacking in education," sounded an ominous tone; portending of students held back and graduations blocked all across Florida. But I think it is a quite a stretch to lay the blame of school failure at the feet of substitute teachers.

The problems facing the public school system do not come from an under-educated substitute teacher pool, but from chronic under-funding, overcrowding and the turning of politics into pedagogy.

The article laments of low pay as a major factor in not attracting sufficient numbers of subs. Lousy pay has always been a problem for teachers - substitute or not. The people who go into education do not do so to line their pockets, but that is no reason to abuse their goodwill and dedication by not paying them what they deserve. But what I would really like to know, is whether there has been an increase in teacher absenteeism or simply a higher rate of attrition among substitute teachers?

The story also suggests that schools in poor neighborhoods have a higher rate of absenteeism. This tells me that recruiting and retaining quality staff in these schools are not the high priority they should be.

There are many teachers who have dedicated their careers to serving these communities. However, for a growing number who work in inadequate, rundown facilities and face a challenging transitory student population with disaffected parents, jumping to a more stable school environment or, in some cases, ending their career prematurely, is a logical choice before they burn out altogether. This leaves these schools in a constant state of flux.

One only has to look as far as the School Board's instructional vacancy Web site over the course of the schools year to see that these school have more vacancies which stay empty longer. Even this far into the school year, there still are positions that need to be filled (

The article further obfuscates the problem by using the terms substitute teacher and temporary teacher interchangeably. A temporary teacher, or what is referred to in Alachua County as a long-term sub, is hired to fill a position that is vacant because a teacher has either quit part way through the school year or has taken a leave of absence. A temporary teacher is often used to fill a permanent position that is hard to fill or keep filled. Some school districts are slow to fill these vacancies permanently because it is cheaper to pay long-term subs without benefits.

While there are benefits in having the University of Florida in Alachua County, the presence of so many recent graduates keeps salaries depressed in related fields. The constant supply of the new teachers is a mixed blessing. As a result, Alachua County hasn't been plagued by a high demand for long term subs as mentioned in the article.

However, this flow of teachers has done little to stem the high rate of turnovers in schools that serve poor neighborhoods. Since there is always an ample number of fresh-faced applicants for any vacancies, retaining teachers in these schools does not receive much attention.

It is not as if this high rate of turnover is not well known by the folks at Kirby-Smith. During my orientation seminar as a first year teacher, I was reminded not once but twice that education is a career that eats its young.

With the promotion of high stake testing, merit pay and other politically charge topics; education policy has morphed into a political football. The ever-increasing mandates and guidelines that seem to flow endlessly have hamstrung many talented and dedicated principals.

Combine this with the need to negotiate with increasingly militant parents whose advocacy for their children often undermine the authority, and therefore the effectiveness, of the classroom teacher. I had one principal confess to me, that he was more a political appointee than the school's administer.

Anyone who has done any substitute teaching knows that the absence of the regular classroom teacher is an open invitation for some students to act out. Substitute teachers feel lucky just to have an adequate lesson plan and a key to the classroom (often that is not even the case). But when it comes to classroom discipline, they are left to their own devises.

Some students can become very belligerent or even aggressive when their daily routine is disrupted. I've had, on more than one occasion, to physically separate two students from going at each other tooth and nail.

If there is any area in which the substitute teacher is inadequately trained it is classroom management and safety. When I sat through two different substitute teaching orientation programs, I learned more about identifying hazardous materials and cleaning up toxic spills, than any effective classroom management or behavior guidelines. Even my training in the University of Florida's, College of Education, Pro-Teach Masters Degree program was woefully lacking in this department.

What occurs on the substitute teacher's watch is merely symptomatic of the over all health of a school. The one size fits all curriculum and mandates that sprout from the state and federal government does not best serve the students who are in our charge. Principals should be freed from the tedium of polices and politics to be more hands on and allowed to craft their own vision that their experience deems best.

If you're a parent who wants to know more about the school, and your child, try subbing there a few times. In fact, I would like to suggest that all taxpayers should try subbing in their neighborhood schools. It will be an educational experience.

Stephen Bottomly has been a substitute teacher in Alachua County for seven years.

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