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Substitute teachers: The new MVPs of public education?

by Curtis Weathers —

As a former school administrator, I remember quite well the stress and anxiety I experienced when teachers had to go out on extended leave. Sometimes we were fortunate to have a few quality substitute teachers waiting in the wings; other times, however, it was nightmarish the entire time of their absence.

TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers.

One of the most challenging jobs in our school system is that of a substitute teacher.

When teachers are out and a sub has to be called in, the teaching and learning process can stop dead in its tracks. The substitute teacher often sees their job as just getting through the day without incident and nothing else.

Right now, the teacher shortage is weighing heavily on school districts across the country. The ranks of certified classroom teachers are shrinking, and the need for substitute teachers is in high demand. In a recent statement by the Economic Policy Institute, they make clear that “the teacher shortage nationally is real, large and growing.”

Parents are also concerned as they’ve noticed their kids’ classrooms are being combined with other classes because of the scarcity of both regular classroom and substitute teachers. In addition, teacher assistants and even counselors are being asked to cover classrooms that are being moved to larger holding areas such as cafeterias, the school library, or an auditorium.

I see this happening every week in the schools I visit.

The stress of teaching in today’s classroom has many teachers across the country seriously contemplating leaving the profession for good. The number one reason? Teacher morale. 

According to a survey from the Professional Educators of Tennessee (a teacher advocacy group), 22 percent of teachers say they do not plan to remain in education, and 83 percent of those who participated in the survey point to teacher morale as the culprit. 

Two important questions regarding the teacher shortage deal with retention and retirement. According to a December 2021 survey by Professional Educators of Tennessee, a teacher advocacy group, 22 percent of teachers say they do not plan to remain in education. Coupling that with 29 percent being eligible to retire within five years, the group says there is cause to be concerned regarding the teacher shortage.

 Given all that schools are up against today, making a pretty strong case for substitute teachers being the new MVPs (Most Valuable People) of public education is not very difficult.

I think the leadership in Memphis Shelby County Schools and many other districts across the country would concur.  

That being said, it is time school systems matched the worth of substitute teachers with their pay.

According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, some districts across the country have increased their substitute teacher pay by as much as 50 percent while also decreasing the education requirements for the job.

Towards the end of last year, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona wrote a letter in which he encouraged district leaders to use their American Rescue Plan funds to “recruit and train high-quality substitute teachers.” Many school districts had already taken that initiative. 

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, shown here with Memphis Shelby County Schools Supt. Dr. Joris M. Ray, was a featured speaker at last week’s School Superintendents Association’s National Conference on Education in Nashville. His remarks included his concerns about the nationwide teacher shortage. (Photo: Memphis Shelby County Schools Twitter)

I was so happy to see this past January that the Memphis Shelby County Schools announced a pay increase for substitute teachers, and they also changed their job qualifications. 

Initially, SCS subs were required to have a bachelor’s degree with a 2.5 GPA; now, they are only required to have a high school diploma to qualify for the job. And instead of uncertified substitutes earning only $95 a day, they will now earn $112 per day. Certified substitute teachers will earn $172 per day.  

While I applaud the Memphis Shelby County Schools Board for making that decision, I also think they need to revisit the pay scale for certified classroom teachers as well.  

The job responsibilities of a substitute teacher are much the same as a regular teacher. They are to maintain classroom discipline and carry out classroom procedures as if they were regular teachers. However, unless the assignment is for a week or more, subs rarely get a chance to learn students’ names, let alone anything about them. Neither the student nor the teacher knows what to expect from the other. It is not a very comfortable arrangement. 

As a school leader, I was fortunate to have some outstanding substitute teachers who quickly became an integral part of our family of teachers. They took their job seriously and were excellent at managing their classrooms. I still communicate with some of them today (10-15 years later).

Of course, some did not take their jobs seriously or were simply incapable of managing a classroom full of middle or high school students.

Right now, school systems across Tennessee are still facing an uphill battle as they try to keep teachers and students in the classroom. 

My advice to school principals – and I think they all know this – is if you happen to run across a really good substitute teacher, roll out the red carpet and do all you can to keep them in your school. 

Really good substitute teachers are rare and valuable assets to a school community. They for sure, right now, have my vote for the Most Valuable People (MVP) award in public education!


(Follow TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers on Twitter (@curtisweathers); email: curtislweathers@gmail.com.)

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