The Truth Is… We Could Not Run Our Schools Without Our Substitutes

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On any given Friday in May, my school district is struggling to fill our substitute vacancies. Many of our highly regarded substitutes are retired teachers, and by May they have worked all of the days that our state’s retirement system will allow. In addition, May brings college graduations and weddings and, well, a wide array of reasons for our teachers to be absent from work. And yet… learning must continue.

Thus, we find ourselves utilizing creative solutions for plugging those holes, and so, a substitute may arrive at one school to step in for a third grade teacher, only to be told that we’ve covered that vacancy another way, and that he/she is instead needed at another school across town to teach bilingual Polish first grade, or middle school math, or perhaps PE. Or, a substitute will come to a middle school teaching assignment expecting to have planning time as part of the day (definitely not guaranteed for substitutes, but a nice perk!), and will instead be told that he/she will be covering other classes during that time.

When we are asking our substitutes to do more and more, I am glad that we have a few constructs in place to thank them for their commitment to our district:

  • Like many districts, we have different pay rates — a daily rate, an increased rate for those who have worked a certain number of days, and a long-term rate. A couple of years ago, we also added a Loyalty Rate to honor those who have, indeed, shown loyalty to our school district. In order to be eligible for this rate, a substitute must meet these qualifications: have worked in our district for at least 5 years as a substitute and/or in a full time position, and have worked on at least 90 days as a substitute in our school district in the previous year. The Loyalty Rate resets each fall, and thus each spring we review our data to identify which substitutes qualify for the rate in the next school year. Full disclosure: the Loyalty Rate is only $3.00 per day more than the rate used for those who have worked at least 60 days. However, we know that our substitutes may also work in surrounding districts, and we created this rate to both encourage them to keep our district at the top of their list, and to acknowledge their consistent work and longevity with our district.

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  • Each June, we host a Substitute Appreciation Tea. We schedule it during the window between the school year ending and summer school starting so that as many substitutes as possible might be available. We work with our food service provider to create a real tea, complete with finger sandwiches, pastries, lemonade, and of course, tea! The agenda is simple: very brief speeches from a couple of grateful administrators, time to mingle (many of our substitutes have known each other for years, and love the chance to catch up), and an opportunity for substitutes to provide feedback to us via a brief form which they complete in small groups.

Our Tea gives us the chance to let our substitutes know how much we really appreciate them while also getting feedback from them in a positive setting.

  • We are proud of the training that we provide to our substitutes, and believe that putting time and effort into offering substitute trainings shows them that we appreciate and value the work that they do for us. We make it very clear to them that every day counts for our students, that gone are the days when a teacher might have the substitute put on a movie for the students. Our substitutes need to be ready to teach new skills and reinforce what has already been taught, and thus our school district helps them to hone their craft.

    All of our substitutes are required to attend a half-day training prior to working for us. Even if they have worked in this role in other places, we want to make sure that they have full awareness of the expectations in our district. We try to keep our training interactive and fun while we provide important information. During this training, we cover: HR basics such as securing assignments and understanding pay structure, information about our district, crisis plans and health training (such as practice with EPI Pens), and classroom management expectations and tips.

In addition, we offer our substitutes optional training opportunities throughout the year. We take advantage of times when we know our substitutes would not be working for us, such as after school or during School Improvement Days when students are not in attendance, and then provide inservices run by our specialists. For example, training about working with students who receive special education services was provided by our Director of Student Services, and updated information about math instruction was given by our Math Coordinator. In this way, we help our substitutes to remain current in their teaching practices, and we honor their work as educators who are important to our system.

Of course, the best appreciation comes at the school level. I will never forget the joy and pride I felt when teachers told me that they had created goodie bags for all of the substitutes who were present at their school on a particular day. I also regularly remind our principals and building secretaries to greet and thank substitutes, and to treat them as the professionals that they are.

The truth is, we could not run our schools without our substitutes. It seems only right that we let them know that.

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