I started substitute teaching this year, and in a very short time, I have seen both the best and worst of the American education system.
Qualifications: A Bachelor's Degree and a Pulse
First of all, there is a massive teacher shortage, which means it is very easy to get an emergency teaching credential. As my sister puts it:
"They are looking for anyone with a bachelor's degree and a pulse."
Getting a substitute teaching job ended up being one of the easier things I have done in my professional life. Although I appreciated not having to jump through unnecessary hoops, I did hope for a little more training and was surprised by the lack of one-on-one vetting.
All I had to do was a bit of paperwork, fingerprinting, and a crash course on timekeeping. There was no formal training, and I started subbing without so much as an interview.
Unsurprisingly, my first day was a disaster.
Public Schools Are in Trouble
In saying that the kids are not alright, my next point is that many school districts do not have their shit together.
On my first day, I subbed in for a class without a teacher.
Administrators told me that the district had laid off a teacher because enrollment was down at the school. Then, when enrollment unexpectedly spiked right before school started, they had 30 kindergarteners with no one to teach them.
The district's solution to this problem was to hire a long-term sub, who as you can probably guess, was about as qualified as me (hint: not very). He was doing his best, but was totally underprepared and totally without support.
School administrators left him alone with almost no experience and about 30 children who had never attended school before! Before his first day, they had him come in to set up the classroom with practically no resources. He told me he didn't even get paid for this, and they kept asking him to work harder and stay later with no extra pay.
Worse, administrators kept telling me how bad of a job he was doing and sharing their plans to fire him -- and treating me as if I was going to take over and solve all their problems.
Now, this man is a substitute teacher who has another job and an entire family at home. Again, he has an emergency teaching credential, and they somehow expected him to shoulder the public school district's enormous error.
Administrators brought me in to help, but there was little I could do and the whole experience was appalling, to say the least. Based on the size of each class, I also could not tell for the life of me why the district fired a teacher when they could have just had smaller, more manageable class sizes.
I did not go back to that school, I hesitate when I see requests in that district, and I vowed to never teach kindergarten again.
Of course, I already had a prior commitment on the subbing platform for, you guessed it, a kindergarten class.
Maybe the Kids Are Alright
I went into my second day of substitute teaching expecting the worst. My experience was night and day compared to the first school.
This time, I was subbing at a charter school in a district that absolutely had its shit together.
Administrators were welcoming and helpful, I had a wonderful aide in my kindergarten classroom, and the teacher left behind detailed lesson plans.
Most importantly, the children were well-behaved and respectful. They were only a week into school and quickly learning the routines of the classroom.
I felt honored to help them in this process. When the class needed subbing on another day, I jumped at the opportunity to go back.
Now, I sub at this school almost every Friday (the regular teacher takes her maternity leave on Fridays), and I consider these kids my (adopted) class.
I chat with their aide and write notes back and forth with their teacher. We discuss everything from behavior and seating charts to birthdays and academic progress -- and I truly feel like part of the family. Make no mistake, a good school feels like a family with consistent values and behavior from top to bottom.
My students have grown so much in the few weeks I've been subbing for them and learn important lessons every day. Of course, I learn just as much from them as they do from me.
These kiddos certainly give me hope for the future.
Underserved Districts Remain Underserved
This week, I wasn't available to sub on Friday, so I decided to try something new. I subbed in for some high schoolers in an underserved district.
Once again, the teachers were doing their best, but I don't know if it's enough.
Maybe it was just because I was a sub, but the students were so disengaged and so disrespectful. It was like pulling teeth getting them to pay attention and practically impossible to keep them on task with their assignment -- even after half a day shadowing their teacher (which to the district's credit is more training than I normally get)!
The students didn't seem to care about their grades, their community, or even each other despite their teacher's noblest efforts. Perhaps it was because all of their school work occurred in the dark on screens and computers?
When I was in high school, computers in class were just starting to become a thing, so it was jarring to see all the students on their laptops and phones. Also, with 20-30 kids on their computers, it just was not possible to monitor all the screens.
I'm not sure how successful monitoring would have been, however. One student blatantly played video games in front of me and shrugged when I asked him to focus on his assignment, and another spent the entire period texting on her phone and flirting with her boyfriend despite my best efforts to redirect her attention.
Overall, it seems like the success of a school depends just as much on the district and its administrators as it does on its teachers, even if the teachers are very talented.
How the School Is Run Matters
I have found that I can guess what a school day is going to be like based on my reception at the front office.
When I arrived at my favorite school, they handed me lesson plans, worksheets, a laptop, and a walkie to stay in touch. Later, they checked in to see if I needed anything.
When I arrived at my most recent school, they had accidentally hired 3 subs for the same assignment and were scrambling to figure out what to do with us.
This "vibe," if you will, absolutely trickles down to the students and how they learn and treat one another.
In closing, I do think the kids will be alright, but it's up to us to take care of them.
To me, this means more funding and attention at the district and administrative levels and committing to a core set of values at each district and school.
Also, it should go without saying, but we definitely need to pay teachers more. These men and women are the kindest, most patient individuals I have ever met, and they are carrying the weight of our collective society on their backs.
If we want to protect our future, the best place to invest is education. Let's lift up every district and give our schools and teachers the resources they need, from administrators to subs like me.
Please share this blog if you agree.
For questions and concerns, please contact me on my website or at loganrosereadsandwrites at gmail dot com.