It was the 28th day of teaching in my first grade classroom, and the inevitable happened- scratchy throat, hacking cough, fever, and body aches. I lasted less than a month with my adorable finger-licking, phlegm-spewing, runny-nosed students. I knew it would happen; it’s been years since teaching primary grades. As I got out of bed with a dizzy head and soaring temperature, I knew I couldn’t brave it out. I had to request a substitute teacher to take my place.
When you get sick in the everyday world, you report your absence and go back to bed to rest and recuperate. Many people don’t understand that when a teacher gets sick, it takes hours of lesson-planning and preparation of materials for an unknown guest teacher. Now, I know what you are thinking, “Well, if you had carefully designed your lesson plans and organized the materials in advance, you wouldn’t have to do this.” Here is another little fact that most people don’t know: the majority of substitute teachers in Arizona are NOT certified teachers. They don’t know how to read lesson plans or understand what the materials are for. Many school districts in Arizona require a substitute teacher to have an Associate in Arts Degree and a Fingerprint Clearance card. They might receive a day-long training in classroom management and lesson implementation. Then these brave souls come into the real classroom to impart knowledge and structure into our children’s lives.
Why is this such a big deal for me?? Well, I was sick for two days. No biggie, once again, right?? Here’s another clue- we have our quarterly district standardized assessments in two weeks. These district assessments have an impact on my teacher evaluation and future job security. Now are you understanding my stress? Giving away my two days of carefully-constructed lesson plans to a guest teacher who might not have the same credentials or experience that I have to offer is scary. It’s not just the fact that this teacher has little knowledge of my students’ learning styles and needs, but also the lack of pedagogical tools I use to create and implement quality learning experiences. This isn’t their fault. (And let me pause to say thank you to all the guest teachers who do brave our classrooms and try their very best to meet our students’ needs.) But the school districts and government need to start looking at this piece of the educational puzzle and find a solution to help teachers have quality replacements when life happens.
If teachers are to be held accountable for their students’ learning, based on the “evidence” of standardized assessments, they also should have highly-trained, competent substitute teachers who can understand and implement rigorous 21st century learning expectations. When teachers (who are human beings, too) have to take extended absences for maternity, medical, or family emergencies, they should be relieved with distinguished, experienced, and well-seasoned guest teachers who can carry on the educational structure of the classroom. It should not be one more responsibility for teachers to burden as they mentor and guide their temporary replacements during their well-deserved time off. Consistency of professionalism by all substitute educators should be firmly established and required by the Department of Education. This professionalism should include intensive training in 21st century learning skills, diversity, poverty, and character education. If teachers are to be held accountable for their students’ learning, why shouldn’t guest teachers as well?
Think about this scenario—you are being wheeled into the operating room, being prepped for a major medical procedure. Suddenly, seconds before you lose consciousness, your nurse whispers to you, “Sorry, your surgeon called in sick. Don’t worry, we found a replacement. He doesn’t have the full medical training but will do his best.” How would you feel?? How do our parents feel when they hear about their children’s education being delivered by someone with less college experience than they have?