The Myth of Substitute Teaching as an Entry Into a Full-time Teaching Position

For a year and a half, I was a substitute teacher, waiting for an evening or early-morning phone call to learn if I would have work the next day. I would typically go to a different school every day, sign in and be instructed where to go. I would find my classroom, situate myself, learn what my schedule was if I had no students, start reading a book, or newspaper if the school offered complimentary copies to the students and staff. On more than one occasion I was told newspapers were reserved for full-time staff only, and I could not have one until all staff had a chance to take one. There were always leftovers at the end of the day.

When I got to my temporary classroom, I read the lesson plans, if there were any, and waited for the students to come in with the typical response of 'We have a sub today?' or something to that effect, followed by glee that there would be a light amount of work, if any to do. More importantly, the regular teacher was not there and learning was put on hold for the day. While first and second period are usually quiet, they became an exercise in testing limits and seeing how much the students could get away with. Students would file in, act as if no one was in the room supervising them and file out as they pleased. Classroom management techniques do not factor into substitute teaching, because students have the sometimes correct assumption that you, the substitute, are powerless against them.

Taking attendance and settling the class down is a chore but the only hope is to have the students respectful of their temporary teacher. Sometimes students realize a report is left for the regular teacher, sometimes they do not but usually the report for the teacher is never held with any degree of authority and disregarded. On more than one occasion, a teacher asked why I even bothered to leave her a note, as she wasn't going to discipline them for my inactions with them. Sometimes students would help with attendance but generally it was 1 v. 100.

Assigning work for the day came next and unless the students were informed fully well the day prior by their teacher that they would have to complete this assignment and hand it in, the class was lost for the day. Whether urban, suburban or rural, around 50% of the students would disregard assignments and talk amongst friends, ask to go to the bathroom (for extended periods of time) or gather attention to themselves. The latter typically resulted in some sort of discipline problem.

Administrators would pull students out but referrals were sometimes found to have been not implemented or in the garbage, as occurred at two middle schools in the same urban district. To call for a hall-monitor to come to get a student became an exercise in futility, as hall-monitors are seemingly untrained in classroom management and have no immediacy to help you out, for you are the substitute and there are more important things to deal with, in many observed cases socializing with other hall-monitors.

If an administrator entered the room to take a student out or speak to the students, they would pay attention while he/she made remarks about respect and doing work and sitting quietly but moments after they left it all started up again. This is less the fault of administrators and more the fault of years of disrespect for substitute teachers as well as a lack of parental training in respect for adults. On more than one occasion, an administrator would not look at the referrals that were sent for students who refused to do work, refused to sit quietly or were disrespectful and insubordinate. Pulling the student out was the only solution. Unless the student committed a violent act, it was virtually assured the student would be back in classes the next day, a bad mix if there was a substitute the next day. While a student should not be prevented from all classes, at the very least some discussion with a counselor about behavior modifications during that specific class would have been suggestible but rarely implemented. This could be due to a lack of effort, a lack of foresight to implement such intervention techniques or a lack of interest in helping that student, as well as the temporary worker in the school who would possibly be at the school the next day.

On one occasion that was reported to me from a former substitute teacher, a lock-down procedure occurred, a test in both cases but a serious event nonetheless. These instances are when teachers, students and all faculty remain confined to rooms due to a threat, whether real or potential. However, in this case there was no notification given by the office staff, either by a secretary, an administrator or the regular teacher (who may have been unaware of the lock-down, as they were not there and there was no note left regarding this). When the lock-down went into effect, students knew what to do to a certain extent. While the doors were covered and windows shut, the students continued to work on their assignment or talk amongst themselves. Unbeknownst to those who have never been in a lock-down (real or practice) is to lock the classroom door. With keys to a classroom typically not given out to substitute teachers it is impossible to meet this requirement. The door was checked by the administration from the outside during the lock-down and the substitute teacher embarrassed by the administrator for not knowing the proper procedure for a lock-down, specifically for not locking the door and keeping the kids quiet and away from the door. This point was argued later but the blame was put on the substitute rather than the administration for not addressing this issue. Had it been a real lock-down and the substitute still was unaware of this procedure, who would have been to blame? The administration for not giving instructions on this all-important day, giving out the keys to lock the door, and having the students group in a separate corner of the room, or the substitute for being expected to follow along with procedures they had not yet been introduced to?

The situation is slightly different for long-term substitutes, as they are able to build up a rapport with staff and team/department members. Long-term subbing is anywhere from more than 1 week to the entire school year. When I had a long-term gig, it was better than the daily subbing, for many reasons. Other teachers saw you as a regular, closer to an equal and they would even talk to you about students and concerns. Staff members got to know your name and requests to remove students were heard with greater concern. However, you were still paid per-diem, you did not get the benefit of having health care and there was still no job security. This is where the myth that subbing leads to a full-time job comes in.

Many college graduates and those with Masters Degrees as well are forced to look to subbing as a viable alternative to a full-time job in case they haven't gotten one by the time the school year starts. It is easy to quit subbing once a job has been found, but it is tough to find a long-term job in the schools you sub at. The reason for this is simple -- those who sub can either work every day at one of many districts, or they can opt to work solely in one district, possibly lessening their days worked but this might make him able to have their face out there more and possibly get a job in that district. This latter point is one of the most common myths of substitute teaching and impacts those who seek to get a full-time job teaching through this method.

Part of the problem with the 'get your face out there' method of subbing is that schools are in constant need of decent substitute teachers. There seems to be a great lack of them and for a paltry 60-95 a day (low in rural areas, average in suburban areas, high in urban schools, at least in New York State) and no benefits, schools can't seem to get subs when they need them. The lack of respect is also an issue, but money would seem to be the main issue. After a week of working in an urban district, a teacher could expect to gross around $400 on average but take home around $350 or so after taxes. Assuming work in that district, everyday, with no snow days, holidays, or vacation days, that would amount to $1400 a month, on average. One can assume $1400 * 9 = $12,600 as a yearly salary in substitute teaching, but you have to take into account the times of the year when teachers are not taking days off. This includes the beginning and end of the year, around the holidays in December, the days surrounding winter and spring Break, as well as random holidays when there is no work: Veterans Day, Columbus Day, Jewish Holidays, etc... So take away a month to two months and you have a take home pay, for a full-time substitute teacher with no benefits of $9800-$11,200.

So someone who is put into a classroom to substitute teach is making roughly ¼ of the salary the regular teacher is making. Without benefits and hardly any respect that a teacher of any stature deserves from both students and fellow colleagues. One way to solve this would be to raise the rates for substitute teachers but a more important would be to raise the level of respect for the professionals who undertake this temporary service to a district where they typically have little respect from the students and often go unnoticed by the staff and other teachers. The role of the substitute is critical and should not be shunned or ignored. When teachers need to take a day off due to illness or personal reasons, someone is covering their classroom; this is not an easy task as teachers know and they should be shown respect from teachers and administrators alike.

One more difficulty in substitute teaching is the inability to gain a full-time job from the position. Granted, being in the schools makes you able to learn of openings before they are posted or if your expertise would benefit the school you are subbing at. But as stated before subs are tough to come by and many schools are wholly understaffed in this area, which would explain why urban schools pay subs higher than other districts. So when a district, whether urban, suburban or rural finds a sub that is reliable, they try and keep that sub in the district in that capacity, lest have to find other subs that are hit or miss. I was informed at one school, when I was not even granted an interview at the school I had subbed at (despite being assured I would be included in the interviews) that I was indispensable as a sub and they wanted me to remain in that capacity. The salary differential was huge (using the above math, $9800-$11,200 v. an average $40,000 starting salary with benefits in New York for a teacher with a Masters Degree) yet my abilities were better suited to substitute teaching? A Masters Degree, initial certification, experience in urban schools and I was destined to be a substitute for the next year or more? I found this unremarkably biased and a bit on the side of temporary self-preservation for the school district. Rather than seek out certified teachers who had urban experience they would prefer to look beyond the teacher right in their line of sight, and seek out dozens of other candidates who did not do the aforementioned 'getting their face out there'. It shows a lack of understanding of the plight of substitute teachers by the districts and administration and a complete lack of respect to those who attempt to acquire a full-time job while having gained some experience during their time substitute teaching.

While substitute teaching is beneficial to those who want to 'tide themselves over' between semesters of college or grad school or simply want to 'get their face out there' for the future, it is not a full-time position as many districts and administrators seem to think it is. Arriving daily to a new assignment, new students, and the occasional lesson plan does not create a positive job environment. Having no respect from students and fellow staff does not benefit the substitute teacher in any way and can scare them off from the teaching profession, rather than the district retaining their services. Being caught in a never-ending loop of substitute teaching rather than arrive at a full-time teaching position does not help the substitute to meet their basic financial needs with a compensation that borders on the poverty line. Taking a second job is a near certainty for most substitute teacher.

Some suggestions to school districts of all sizes would include implementing procedures to incorporate regular substitute teachers who are qualified into the candidate pool for their subject area. Furthermore, pay for substitute teachers should be increased greatly, starting by making the per diem salary comparable to that of a full-time teacher. Currently, if the average yearly salary is $40,000, the per diem is roughly $250. Raising the rate to around $150 would attract more substitute teachers. The qualifications could be increased to require college degrees and their experience could determine where they are placed for their substituting assignment(s). In terms of planning, when teachers are knowingly taking a day off or an emergency comes up, lesson plans should not just be left in a clear area, but the detailed lesson plan, communicated either through email or a phone call would ensure that the substitute provides a seamless transition between regular teacher and substitute teacher. Teachers should always err on the side of caution and make sure that even if they plan to be in school the next day there are still lesson plans laid out, just in case. The Boy Scout motto 'Be Prepared' comes to mind in this case.

One last point which, albeit would be slightly more difficult to implement, is to raise the level of respect of substitutes among teachers, staff, and students alike. For too long, substitute teachers have been looked down upon, not taken seriously, and disrespected for their position. If schools hope to attract substitute teachers into their coffers of staff, they should make sure that every step is taken to ensure the respect for them. Respect in terms of pay, attitude from staff and attitude from students who more often than not expect a free day when a substitute comes in. Substitutes take a potential cut in pay from many jobs to come to a school and are typically requested to take attendance and pass out an assignment. They should be given greater respect, and treated as if they were full-time teachers. Only then will substitute teaching and those who seek temporary employment in this field of education be on par with their colleagues and have the ability for upward mobility in schools.