In my 13 years of teaching at over 100 schools within LAUSD, K-12, regular and special education, students have asked me this question more times than I care to remember.
While some question the commitment and contribution of substitute teachers, the tired cliche of a Substitute Teacher reading the newspaper and drinking coffee while students hang from the ceiling is just that. The Substitute Teachers I know take the job seriously, and recognize the impact we have on students' lives. According to some estimates, students spend an equivalent of one year with a Substitute Teacher in the course of a K-12 education: (Albuquerque Public Schools).
So it's heartening to see substitute teachers recognized in a resolution proposed by LAUSD Board Member Monica Ratliff and adopted at the November 18, 2014 LAUSD School Board Meeting declaring November 21, 2014 Substitute Educators Appreciation Day. The resolution (LAUSD) stated, in part:
Whereas, In 2006, the California State Legislature decreed the Friday of the first full week before Thanksgiving as 'California Substitute Educators Day,' in official recognition of Substitute Educators, by passage of House Resolution No. 32 (Karnette); Whereas, Substitute Educators are a vital part of the District community, with 462,877 requests for Substitute Educators last school year alone; Whereas, The District currently employs 4,840 Substitute Educators; and Whereas, Substitute Educators provide continuity in the learning process, provide a safe and healthy learning environment for pupils, and contribute to the establishment and promotion of a positive instructional environment within the District; therefore be it Resolved, That the Governing Board of the Los Angeles Unified School District hereby recognizes and honors the contributions of Substitute Educators to quality education in the State of California and in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and extends its gratitude and appreciation for their dedicated service; and be it further Resolved, That the Governing Board of the Los Angeles Unified School District hereby declares November 21, 2014, as Substitute Educators Appreciation Day in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Considering that between 40 percent and 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession within the first 5 years (Education Week), we really should be doing more to celebrate the efforts of all educators -- as this resolution does -- and work to create incentives to make teaching more attractive in order to recruit and retain the best and brightest among our workforce.
Yet teachers in LAUSD haven't seen a raise, not even a Cost of Living Adjustment, in more than seven years, per pupil funding in California still lags around the bottom of all states (Education Week), and affordable housing in Los Angeles is increasingly becoming even more scarce (Curbed Los Angeles).
Some would say if you don't like it, get another job. While true, if teacher quality is as important as everyone says it is -- one way to improve teacher quality is to make the job more attractive -- not less competitive. Yet when regular teachers are absent, they are having to spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to find ever fewer available Substitute Teachers (Frontline Technologies). -It's becoming ever more difficult to find effective, responsible, professional Substitute Teachers willing to do the job due to the low pay and, in some school environments, the lack of professional respect.
In much of the rest of the civilized world, if a student were, for example, fighting in class -- the question would be, 'why were you fighting in class?' But in America, oftentimes when students fight, we blame the teacher: (Newsweek).
The Obama Administration's latest response is a repeat of what we've already seen -- an order to states to devise "plans" to increase the number of "excellent teachers" in our most underserved schools: (Washington Post).
Yet there isn't even consensus on what effective teaching actually looks like. Nor does the proposal address the very real impact poverty has on our schools (Education Week).
But that's the nature of the education debate nowadays -- a hyper focus on "teacher effectiveness" -- to the exclusion of other vital issues such as poverty, funding, attrition, pay, morale, respect, and support. Reformers often respond to such complaints with feel-good, roll up your sleeves statements such as that poverty is no excuse for low achievement, and anecdotal evidence about how some of their friends have been laid off while ineffective teachers remain on the job.
At the same time, if we are to improve public education, there has to be a middle ground. Reformers need to embrace the notion that unions are not the enemy. Union leadership needs to recognize that calling for accountability is entirely reasonable, and that if someone doesn't agree lockstep with their vision, that doesn't mean that person is some sort of evil corporate reformer bent on working to privatize public education. As the Democratic party midterm election losses have shown us, unions need to lean closer to the center in order to attract disenfranchised union members -- or they risk becoming marginalized. It is possible to have principled differences.
So am I a real teacher?
Among my qualifications, I have a B.A. in English from UC Santa Barbara, an MFA in Screenwriting from The American Film Institute, I've been enrolled in and completed a quarter of training in an accredited teacher credentialing program, I've passed a fingerprint background check, a TB test, I have thirteen years of on the job classroom teaching experience, and I've also taken and passed the CBEST, as well as Subtests I, II, and III of the CSET Multiple Subjects Subtests. I've also worked multiple long-term assignments where I have performed all of the same responsibilities as every other full-time regular classroom teacher.
While a resolution does not increase my take-home pay, it does formalize recognition for the efforts of Substitute Teachers, and in today's politically divided environment -- where it seems that much of the time all the adults ever do is argue and point fingers -- every bit of recognition is greatly appreciated.
If you can read this, thank a substitute teacher.