So You Think You Can Sub? U.S., UK, Japan Try Oddball Ideas To Replace Absent Teachers

Who can do substitute teaching work coolly and expertly and be willing to accept per diems that start at $40 and average $105? The answers -- from the U.S., the UK, and Japan -- may surprise you.
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This month, 500,000 hopeful substitute teachers are queuing up for work in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and countless small-town schools across the nation. I know from first-hand experience that the extra income and flexibility are big draws, especially if one is unemployed.

But I also know that the job can be demanding, low paying, and conducted without supervision or assistance. Who, I wondered, could do this work coolly and expertly and be willing to accept per diems that start at $45 and average $105?

The answers -- from the United States, the UK, and Japan -- may surprise you.

Q: Can a robot be a substitute teacher?

A: Yes. Japan, the civilization that brought the world the first remote-controlled toilet flusher, unveiled the first robotic substitute teacher. Her name is Saya and, in anime fashion, she is young with shoulder-length black hair and big, saucer eyes. Wearing a professional, if somewhat dowdy, lemon-yellow suit, Saya subbed for fifth and sixth graders in Tokyo in 2009, where she displayed the six emotions with which she had been programmed and which are familiar to many substitute teachers: fear, disgust, anger, sadness, surprise and happiness. On her first day, Saya took attendance and shouted, "Be quiet!" which sounded a lot like my first day. But unlike me, Saya, who apparently has sophisticated electrical impulses in her latex-covered head, found work elsewhere after that. I can fault her outfit, but not her career decision.

Q: Can a teacher substitute for himself?

A: Yes. Newspaper editor Laura Bell, of rural Montana's The Big Sky Weekly, reported the following story on March 18, 2009. In Ophir School, located a couple miles from Yellowstone National Park, high-school music teacher Dave Johnson was fired because he let his certification lapse. In other words, he hadn't obtained his bachelor of science in education degree. The school board agreed that finding another music teacher in rural Montana would be difficult, but they had to let Johnson go; they could lose their accreditation if they kept him on. Now here's where it gets fun. In Montana, a person with only a high school degree can work as a substitute teacher. So Johnson asked if he could substitute for himself through the end of the year, when his two last college credits would be completed. (The answer was yes, although Bell later informed me that Johnson chose not to return to his classroom.)

Q: Is a nightclub bouncer considered an ideal substitute teacher?

A: Yes. London's Guardian education editor Polly Curtis reported this story on April 13, 2009. In an unidentified north London school, described only as being not particularly rough, bouncers, prison officers, policemen and soldiers -- all people with experience in crowd control -- were being recruited to fill in for absent teachers. One advertisement read, "You might be an ex-Marine, police officer, bouncer, fireman, sportsman or actor. Whichever it is, we need someone who thinks they can get involved in a school environment and control the kids in schools." This unorthodox recruitment effort was designed to save money. New teacher contracts were limiting the number of hours that teachers were required to cover for absent colleagues and thus more outsiders were being hired to lead classrooms, U.S. style. In England, a traditional substitute teacher, called a "supply teacher," possesses teaching credentials and earns as much as a regular teacher per day; this bouncer-filled position, called a "cover supervisor," required no credentials and paid far less.

There you have it. If during the upcoming school year you find yourself standing in front of 24 third graders and feel frustrated, help may be on way. Look for it in the form of a robot, bouncer, or (best yet) a highly-trained, cool, expert, regular classroom teacher.

TIME magazine recently named Carolyn Bucior's Sub Culture, Three Years in Education's Dustiest Corner one of the summer's best education books.

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