Back at the beginning of the school year, I wrote in this esteemed publication about the state of teaching as I saw it. I talked about the lack of substitute teachers and the chances that students had of making up the lost progress from the last two years. I’ll write more about the latter subject later in the school year, when we have more test results. For now, I’m going to paint you a picture of helplessness in teaching right now.
The substitute teacher problem reached lows in the last couple of months that we are still struggling to process. Kennewick School District has increased the daily rate for substitute teachers to $145 per day, but the extra $5 isn’t really addressing the problem here. They have also offered staff who have to cover a class for the day an extra $30 per day, which is a genuinely nice gesture. After a while it becomes moot, though; I’ve spent six of the twenty teaching days in January covering other classes. In one instance, our librarian had an afternoon appointment while I was covering Kindergarten. A substitute turned up for an afternoon in the library, but refused the kindergarten job, leaving me to cover it while they taught in the library.
This caused me to throw a bit of a tantrum with our admin. I felt like I had accepted so many things that were abnormal and detrimental to my work life. I would only find out I was covering a class less than an hour before school started; no one would check on us to see if we needed a break; we were subbing twice a week instead of once every couple of months, and now a substitute teacher can come in and declare that they will teach library or they’ll walk, leaving me teaching kindergarten instead of technology. Since when did a stranger to my school outrank me, where I’ve spent nine years working and done so much good? Blah blah and blah.
The point wasn’t really that the sub was given precedence, it’s just the helpless feeling of everything and my own internal struggle that while this is seriously annoying and stressful to deal with, I still have a job and am staying healthy. How can I complain about things that may be trivial in the big picture?
Also, there aren’t really any alternatives to the situation that I could endorse. Some elementary schools have teachers cover a class on their planning break for 50 minutes at a time, but not only would you have people being late to pick up their kids, but you’d have up to six teachers covering a kindergarten class in a day — not a great outcome for the kids. Other schools have different rotations or different staff that are required to cover if no sub can be found, but that doesn’t really solve the situation; it just passes the burden to someone else.
The best solution that has the best outcome for the students is to continue the same process we already have. The kids love having a specialist cover their class, and we get to teach somewhere new for the day and make new connections with the students. Unfortunately, I know of some teachers who were planning on moving into specialist positions who have now changed their minds, as they don’t want to become glorified substitutes.
This uncertainty, paired with low attendance numbers and multiple staff absences, has led us to enter some kind of survival mode. We still have all of our extra plans and themes to implement in our classes, and we’re determined to try and maintain this for our students, but with diminished resources and energy, it’s a slog. We also want to catch up with the families of the kids we only see once or twice a week, but when there’s no planning time, your imminent lessons take precedence.
The kids have been through a lot too, and it’s not really letting up for them. They’ve become good at keeping their masks on all day long, the behavior is mostly improving as we get to see them more often, and they’re beginning to be able to have more proper in-person parties with their friends. There are some students with social anxiety, but for the most part, we seem to be doing okay. We will be entering testing season after spring break, where the kids will be required to take their Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBA). The SBA consists of at least four tests required by the state that normally take at least a day each to administer. It’s one of the most stressful things a third, fourth, and fifth grader can do in the school year, and save for a shorter version that was administered at the beginning of this school year, not even the fifth graders have been through it before.
I have it on good authority from my milkman that the Omicron surge is on the downward slope, and so our absences should drop — then we can have a better idea of who is sick and who needs attendance reminders. In the meantime, we’re still here, plugging away, trying to do the best for our students.
Mark Russell is on a mission.