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Substitute Teachers: Any Warm Body Will Do?

Jess Ledbetter Uncategorized

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Every teacher knows that a good substitute teacher is like a shiny, gold treasure. These amazing human beings float into our classrooms to take care of our students while we’re absent. Ideally, I want a guest teacher who follows my lesson plans, promotes learning, maintains our classroom culture, and creates positive experiences for my students (And I wouldn’t complain if they had superhero powers, too!) But being realistic these days—I just want a guest teacher—period. Finding a substitute teacher amidst the current sub shortage is like a feat of glory.

About a month ago, I requested a substitute teacher when my daughter was sick. I put in the request about 6pm the night before, went into work that morning to get things organized (since I hadn’t planned to be gone), and looked up the absence to make sure a sub was assigned. I saw those terrible words “unfilled job.” Ugh! There was no sub? This was not the plan. I was supposed to go back home and relieve my husband so he could go to work. My administrator assured me it would be ok if I needed to leave, but the guilt was just too much. I knew my absence would burden staff at my school and create a disturbance for my students. Instead, I called my husband and begged him to stay home since I couldn’t leave. These types of situations are not good for teacher wellness or retention. In fact, I think burdens like these are part of the #REDforED movement. There’s too much pressure, too little pay, and too much responsibility for teachers to keep going year after year in these working conditions.

In the last few years, I have noticed a major shortage of substitute teachers. Some absences go unfilled for the whole day, and staff must split classes or reassign responsibilities to cover a class without a teacher. This creates ongoing stress because every day is unpredictable. I faced this unpredictability first hand last year when my school was short a preschool teacher for many months. If there was no sub on a particular day, we had to find a way to juggle three classrooms of students between two teachers. We never knew when those days were coming. It was stressful for us—and worse for the kids. Preschool students need stability and consistency, but we couldn’t promise that without full staffing.

So what is causing a sub shortage? One contributing factor is the teacher shortage. When schools cannot hire enough certified teachers, they fill classrooms with long-term subs. This greatly decreases the remaining substitute teachers in our state. Perhaps sub pay is a problem as well. Most substitute teachers are only paid around $100 daily (often less) to take on enormous responsibility. Further, Arizona has an epidemic of growing class sizes. Larger groups of students require better classroom management skills. Perhaps some substitutes don’t find the pay worth the trouble.

Given the challenge of finding a substitute teacher, I have agonized about my upcoming maternity leave. How would I find the perfect guest teacher for my students? The anxiety was REAL—and it wasn’t just me. Teachers at my site kept asking if I had found a long-term sub. I knew why they were anxious. A missing teacher creates unpredictability for everyone.

I started my long-term sub search with BIG dreams about the ideal individual, but I faced denial after denial. Subs had good reasons: not enough pay, too much work, too much responsibility, long hours. It was all true—things are bad for Arizona teachers. I got really discouraged. In fact, I started thinking I would be lucky to find any warm body to accept the job. Shame on me. But really, shame on the AZ lawmakers who created the current teaching conditions in our state.

Fortunately, this story has a fairy tale ending: a wonderful long-term substitute eventually contacted my department about the job. She was a shiny gold treasure, full of excitement about my kids, passion for teaching, and a deep belief that teaching is an important job. As I listened to her, I was elated—and a little bit stunned. I thought about what I had been willing to settle for amidst my discouragement. I thought about how declining school funding in Arizona has created poor working conditions, teacher vacancies, sub shortages, and daily unpredictability for school staffing. I thought about how Arizona lawmakers are trying to get families to believe that any warm body will do.

But I say NO. Any warm body will not do. My students—and all Arizona students—deserve a skilled workforce of educators who are committed to their success. Arizonans must join together in advocacy for our children, and I am excited to see the movement growing. The Arizona legislature must increase funding for Arizona public schools and create working conditions to recruit, support, and retain people with passion for education. Our kids deserve it. And we should not be lowering our standards any longer.

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Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms. Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

Comments 9

  1. Susan Collins

    Well put Jess. You articulated this struggle eloquently. So glad you found a guest teacher for your maternity leave!

  2. Donnie Lee

    As we talk about increase in pay and respect for teachers, we should also begin to discuss better pay and respect for the people who support teachers at schools. During my last few years in the classroom, our non-classroom staffing budget got cut drastically which meant we lost half of our custodial staff. Because of this, teachers had to add time at the end of the day to keep the learning environment clean and sanitary. We also lost a lot of our substitute guest teachers. It was stressful to have life happen in various emergencies and you were too worried about your colleagues or students to attend to your own personal needs. Having no guest teacher for a day when life happens is another level of stress that teachers don’t need. Let’s support all teachers and the staff who are their to help the teachers.

    1. Mike Vargas

      Donnie – I finally broke down and bought a vacuum cleaner. I couldn’t stand the mess in my room that our cleaning people could never seem to handle. I wish districts would think about stuff like this

    2. Jess Ledbetter

      I absolutely agree. I was just thinking how much I appreciate our custodial staff yesterday–and the importance of ALL the school staff. We have to keep site on everyone involved in education who have experienced reduced salaries in the last ten years. These people are valuable and deserve fair wages.

  3. Mike Vargas

    Subs these days are magic golden unicorns…
    My old school had permanent subs. It was so nice, you knew exactly who was taking the class. It was one of 5 people you saw all the time.. Made things really nice. Since moving back here to AZ, I feel like I’m lucky if they can figure out the AV system.. much less leave them with any kind of meaningful lesson plan

  4. Jess Ledbetter

    The same day I posted this blog, I showed up to work and one of the preschool teachers was unexpectedly absent without a sub. She had requested a sub the night before when her son was sick, and no one picked up the job. As I wrote above, school staff juggled the classroom all day to keep the kids safe and preserve the learning environment. Things got especially challenging around lunch while we were trying to cover all the staff lunches at the same time as I also had an IEP meeting that had been scheduled a month earlier for a child transitioning to kindergarten. When the teacher got back yesterday, she mentioned how stressful it was to be gone knowing that there was no sub. These stories are not occasional stories anymore. They are the regular, recurring stories of our Arizona schools in need. They are the stories affecting Arizona kids and parents. They are the stories of schools that are not appropriately funded by our legislature. They are the stories that need to change. #REDforED

  5. Jaime Festa-Daigle

    Thank you for a great behind the scenes look at subs. The craziness that ensues every morning as we search for enough subs at my school is such a poor use of time. I would love to see a permanent guest teacher in every building, although that wouldn’t be enough. However, it would improve the instruction that takes place when teachers are gone. And being gone is a common occurrence in rural Arizona as coaches leave with sports teams at 9 AM multiple times a week.

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