'I'll be your teacher today'
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:25 PM
"Heres your assignment for the day.Within the next couple hours, go to a place where youve never worked, learn a new set of office rules, maintain order and supervise, motivate and be a role model for around 20 to 30 strangers.Oh, and we almost forgot teach them French.Congratulations. Youre a substitute teacher.The job of a substitute can be an adventure to say the least. Sometimes called in at the last minute, most subs rush into situations where many people would fear to set foot. And their job is far from insignificant. According to research reported by the Substitute Teaching Institute in Utah, a student will spend about eight months of classroom time with substitute teachers by the time they graduate from high school. At any one time, at least 10 percent of the nations classrooms are being taught by substitutes.But across the nation, and here on Whidbey too, good, qualified substitute teachers are becoming harder to find.The reasons are many: Low pay compared to many private sector jobs; a general teacher shortage which draws more substitutes into full-time positions; lack of benefits and the increased stress levels of the modern classroom. There is also a higher demand for substitutes brought on by new education reforms which pull regular teachers out of the classroom more often for training.Here on Whidbey, the problem of finding substitute teachers isnt quite as bad as it is in other parts of the county where some school districts have had to offer bonuses, advertise in the newspaper and plead with retired teachers to come back to work.But Barbara James, the Oak Harbor School Districts director of personnel, said that doesnt mean everything is fine here.Substitute teachers are in short supply and its getting shorter, she said this week. During the summer, James told the Oak Harbor School Board that in March, April and May of this year the district may have difficulty keeping up with absences. Janet Fisher, who handles accounts payable for the Coupeville School District, said the situation in her district is much the same. She said a districts list of good substitutes is a valuable and often guarded thing. In most workplaces, the workload of an absent employee is usually covered by the rest of the staff or held until the employee returns. But in schools, classrooms full of kids cant simply be left unattended and remaining school staff is often already pushed to its limit. As a result, replacement teachers need to be brought in.Many subs who work for Coupeville and Oak Harbor often also make themselves available to South Whidbey and Anacortes schools. On average, a local substitute teacher can easily work three or four days a week.But who are they? And how do you find them?In most cases, substitutes are trained and certified teachers. Some of them are retired teachers with many years of classroom experience. Some are people currently working in other professions who also have a state teaching certificate. The vast majority are teachers waiting to get a full-time job with a district, said Shauna Gumbel. Gumbels job is to round up substitutes every morning for the Oak Harbor School District. She said that as many as 90 percent of subs on her list are looking for a job with a local district. Substituting looks good on their resumes at employment time, and gives them a chance to get to know the schools and school staffmembers.On a normal day Gumbel said she has to locate about 30 substitutes from a list of about 100 candidates each day. About half the vacancies are caused by illness. The other half arise because teachers have other commitments such as training sessions to attend.Sometimes it takes one call, sometimes its four or five calls, Gumbel said. At that rate, Gumbel can use up her list pretty quickly, particularly when illness spreads. It seems like on days when we have a lot of illness, Coupeville has a lot of illness and South Whidbey has a lot of illness. Its everywhere. You could have 300 people on your list and it wouldnt be enough.The substitute pool sometimes benefits from the local military population. Several military spouses are certified teachers who would rather substitute than take a full-time job because they dont plan to be here long, said Gumbel.And some are young mothers who dont want to work every day. Subbing is perfect for them, she said.To lend some assistance to the sub shortage, the Oak Harbor School Board recently changed their policy on hiring retired teachers as substitutes. Previously, retired teachers could only work for 75 days per year without affecting their retirement benefits. Under the new policy, they can work an additional 45 days. Currently, the district has only 11 retired teachers on their substitute list. Coupeville has none.The state is also trying to give school districts more options by allowing them to hire non-certificated teachers to fill in as subs. Districts can apply for emergency certification for local individuals they believe can do the job regardless of whether they hold an official college degree. By law, districts can only use emergency-certified substitutes after they have exhausted their resources of certified-teacher candidates. Just the same, James said the need is there.I think well see more and more use of it, she said. According to Joanne Sorensen of the states Professional Education and Certification Office, 428 emergency certifications were granted across the state during the 1998-1999 school year. Thats an 11 percent increase over the previous year and Sorensen said she expects the number to grow again this year."