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Dr. Joanne Meier

Along with her background as a professor, researcher, writer, and teacher, Joanne Meier is a mom. Join Joanne every week as she shares her experiences raising her own young readers, and guides parents and teachers on the best practices in reading.

No substitute for a teacher

January 23, 2008

Molly's teacher leaves this Friday for maternity leave. The long-term sub has been hired, the kids have been prepped, and they're throwing her a baby shower before she goes. Sounds good, right?

I sat down to our local paper last week to the headline: Increased use of substitute teachers has negative effect. USA Today carried the story with an even stronger headline: Teacher absences hurting learning. Ouch! Not what this mother wants to read as her daughter embarks upon 8-10 weeks with a substitute teacher.

According to the story, the problem with subs isn't just with teachers home for a day or two — it's the use of subs to fill full-time vacancies. Nationwide, according to Education Department data, the number of schools reporting that they used substitutes to fill regular teaching vacancies doubled between 1994 and 2004.

Other data, from a study out of the University of Washington, suggests that 10 teacher absences within a year cause a significant loss in math achievement (fourth-grade math test scores being the measure used). YIKES!

There are so many issues: good teachers are hard to find, good subs maybe even harder, varying state standards for subs, lack of meaningful lesson plans left for subs, bonding between students and the sub, and differing expectations just to name a few.

For our own personal situation, the silver lining to this cloud might be our county guidelines: "To be approved to fill a long-term substitute position, candidates or applicants must hold or be eligible for a Virginia teaching license to teach the subject/grade of the long-term assignment." It's not a panacea, for sure, but a step in the right direction.

What's your experience with subs? What are your district's requirements for substitute teachers?


My child had a long term sub when his teacher's daughter was diagnosed with cancer last year. She was off the last month or two of school. The sub was a retired elemetary principal that has been in the community and subs for elementary teachers on a daily basis. He still has a wonderful way about him and is excited to be teaching in the classroom. I loved that my child got the experience of a male teeacher and feel the experience was very positive for him. My child is also one of the youngest in his class and his birthday is on the cuttoff day...July 31st. I'm still glad we made the decision to send him. In first grade he has done well. He was so excited to go to school that I think if I would have made him sit out a year his excitement would have suffered. His older brother started a year earlier. I think this was a huge factor in us starting him the next year. They talked about school everyday and it was not unusual for them to say, "next year you will get to do this". His older brother has a birthday of December 15th. He is having a much more difficult time with reading than his younger brother. I'm not sure if this is because of the way he learns or the later start. Our school also used 4-block reading to teach reading. I personally don't like this program very much. I prferr the way I learned of course, but I'm trying to have an open mind.

Substitute teachers have all the qualification that full time teachers have. They just need a opportunity to perform in the classroom.

Thanks, Mary, for your comment! It's absurd for a district to create a structure whereby teachers attend day-long meetings every month. I'm all for professional development, but not at the expense of the classroom environment. I'd like to see teachers paid overtime or during the summers to attend those meetings. In our personal situation, the sub seems nice enough, but boy! are we noticing subtle signs of how Molly feels during this transition. Yesterday she remarked, "It's two whole calendars until Ms. S comes back."

In Michigan some on our staff have been asked or assigned to multiple committees, with each committee having a day-long monthly meeting! The staff members miss being at school with their students and teaching their students, which is what they have been educated to do. Parents have been asking one staff member if she is feeling better, she told them, "I haven't been ill. I haven't taken any sick or personal days this year." She has already missed nearly 20 days in her classroom with her students. One parent who is a teacher in another district spoke up and said, "Oh, you are on committees requiring you to be out of the classroom during the day, too?" If our state and nation really want children to learn, then teachers need to be left in the classroom during the day to teach. Then, if you still feel a meeting is important and necessary, they should be held after school and teachers should be paid to attend them. To have an unknown person try to fill the teacher's shoes is nearly impossible. I subbed for one year before being hired to teach fulltime. There are so many circumstances, needs, problems in the lives of our students, they ALL deserve their teacher as a constant in their lives.My two cents.

Thanks, Michelle. I plan to keep up my weekly volunteer time slot in the classroom while the sub is there; she asked for one week to get to know the class before we all came in, which I could understand. Being in Utah, have you heard of the Substitute Teaching Institute at USU?

I agree that using subs to fill long a teaching position is a problem. Districts who do this are often in a bind with a teacher shortage. They should look at the reasons they have a teacher shortage. I live in Utah, and we often have openings long after school has started. the pay is low, and less students graduate and stay to teach each year.I have left on maternity leave, and I arranged for my own sub who did a good job. She stayed in touch and did the best she could to fill my shoes. As long as women will be the bulk of the teaching force, you will always have maternity leaves. Sorry, but that will not be changing. Just stay in touch with the sub and be a presence in the classroom. I think parents can make sure things go smoothly by offering their help in the classroom on a regular basis.

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"Writing is thinking on paper. " — William Zinsser