One moment, I’m driving into school with the kids for a normal, regular day. I have an easy morning with a prep period to start, and then 4th and 5th grades are planning to finish off our 3D printing designs for a project we have been working on. The next moment, I’m sitting in a room full of kindergarteners who are learning English, singing the days of the week to the Addams Family theme tune. I am no longer Mr. Russell, Technology Specialist; I am now a substitute for Mrs. Kimber, and I didn’t even get a Ziggy to calculate my odds of success.

There’s a serious problem with the lack of substitute teachers in the Kennewick School District. This is one of those statements like the world is warming, politics is polarizing, and Australia is annoyingly good at cricket. In this case, though, the situation seems to be getting worse at the moment for our elementary schools. Before we discuss why this is, a caveat: I have no issue with the district’s sub dispatchers or system. Staffing over twenty schools early in the morning with very little notice is a hard job, and I’m not here to point fingers or cause consternation. I actually enjoy subbing in regular classrooms from time to time, as it helps me to get to know students a little better, and I often learn something new.

Westgate is a Title One school, which means we have a large number of low-income families in our community. This creates a reputation that we are a more difficult school; I will argue against this all day long, but it exists. This also means that substitutes are more likely to turn down jobs at Title One schools on reputation alone, or based upon one bad subbing experience.

We also have a younger average teacher age, which means that many of them are parents of younger kids themselves, which means we need a lot of substitutes. Currently, Westgate has three teachers out on maternity leave, which means we have three long-term subs already in the building. This makes it hard for us to complain about the lack of subs — we’re already using three every day. Full-time teachers in KSD currently get twelve sick days and three personal days per year. As parents know, kids can start throwing up at any time; I used all of my sick leave on my kids in my first couple of years. Towards the end of the school year, many of the more competent subs have already been asked to fill long-term absences. The sub pool gets refilled when there are new graduates, but two of our three long-termers were student teachers in our building earlier in the year.

So, what happens when we can’t get a substitute? In middle and high school, a teacher who should have a prep period will probably cover that period. That way, the kids don’t miss a lesson, and the covering teacher usually still gets to work while the students follow their lesson on their Chromebooks. There are also more teachers available to cover if needed, so a teacher could feasibly say no if they need the prep time.

Elementary is different, and buildings have their own ways of doing things. At my school, most classroom teachers will get a 50-minute prep period when their students go to specials (library, technology, music, and PE) where they can work on preparing lessons or play Kwazy Kupcakes. If a specialist teacher has a sub but a classroom teacher does not, that sub will get moved to a classroom role. Otherwise, we rotate through the four ‘non-academic’ specialists (not reading or math), and the counselor covers grade-level or special education classrooms, and the classes that were due to have specials lose that lesson, and the teacher loses their prep time.

This is where the problems arise, and it’s happening more and more as the year passes. One colleague has been pulled from their regular classroom three out of the last five Mondays. There are so many cons to this: the student misses out on a specialist class, the teacher loses their prep time and has to find activities at short notice, the specialist has to miss a day’s worth of classes with no guarantee of making the lesson up later, and the cost of compensating everyone for their trouble ends up being about double the cost of a substitute.

What are the solutions? Yes, we need more subs, but finding, hiring, and keeping good subs is hard. Should the principal or vice principal teach? Maybe in a pinch, but not having admin around for support when a student or parent is having a rough time, or if there’s a lockdown or evacuation, is fairly dangerous.

My humble suggestion is to ease the required qualifications for hiring substitutes. Currently, a substitute teacher needs a bachelor's degree in anything to qualify. This isn’t always a reliable sign that someone is capable of running a classroom for a day. If the district could find capable candidates, the statute should allow them to provide training and supervision to allow more people to show their worth.

Another solution is to use our paraeducators. We have many paras in our buildings who know the kids and classrooms and use the curriculum daily. They are the unsung heroes of any school, as they are doing vital work for our students for little more than minimum wage. If we were to identify those in-building that the administration believes are capable and who are willing, they could be offered a stipend to cover a class for a day. The students would get a sub they know, the sub would have a passing knowledge of the curriculum, teachers would get their prep periods, and specialists would get to provide a more consistent experience for students. Obviously that para’s duties would need to be covered, and their small group lessons would be canceled, but the impact would be less than removing a specialist for the day.

Finally, if you have a bachelor’s degree and are a fan of Quantum Leap, you’ll love subbing. It’s like becoming someone else for six hours, and most teachers save their easy stuff for subs. You can specify grade levels and schools, and pick your available days. You’d be a huge help, and you’d get a great class at least ⅘ of the time. If you don’t have a bachelor’s, you can still sub as a paraeducator, and you might get a walkie talkie for the day, which always makes me jealous.

Mark Russell is always up for other duties as assigned. Twitter: @badbarky

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash