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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why Substitute Teachers?

David Hedges
I don't want to be accused of suggesting that I don't need a job, nor that I can be worth every penny the taxpayers spend on me as a teacher, but what really happens in a classroom when a substitute teacher assigned to it is very different from what the taxpayers have the right to expect for their hard earned money.

This is not to say that qualified personnel is needed, and is even in short supply in the school system.  There is an overabundance of inexperienced administrators and teachers who are making the kinds of decisions that they should not be allow make.  The DOE knows this, which is why they have retired principals mentoring and keeping a watchful eye on the young'uns.  Even principals from schools that were closed are coaching the new principals, so extreme the shortage of experienced professionals must be!

A recent experience will help to illustrate my point:

A highly experienced teacher had to be out for a few weeks for medical reasons.  The DOE elected to place a highly experienced ATR in that spot until the regular teacher returned.  The thing is, as soon as students perceive that someone is substituting for their regular teacher, the unwritten code is that that room, or whatever room that substitute teacher is covering, becomes the "free-for-all" room.  And, to boot, every student is given a "get out of jail free" card since no matter how many fights break out between students who either should or should not be in that classroom, no matter how many students pelt the teacher with chalk, rolled paper balls, or threatening verbiage, there won't be any disciplinary consequences or legal remedies.  The students know this because they have seen it in action.  For example, on the second day I was covering this class I asked a student to stop throwing paper balls across the room.  His response: "But I did this yesterday and you didn't say anything."  Had he?  Perhaps he had and I hadn't noticed, since I may have spent those moments asking students to remove themselves from other students' laps, or moving out of the way as students played shuffleboard with chairs and tables.

For several days before the regular teacher left, I observed her class.  I quietly walked around and asked students to write their names on a seating chart and noted their work habits.  By midweek I had learned every students names and seen that they all came to class prepared, had their notebooks open, copied assignments from the board, and in short, had developed the kind of routine one expects of students under the watchful eye of an experienced teacher.  That was true of them on Monday and on Tuesday.  But on Wednesday, when the regular teacher was out and I was there, their behavior changed radically.  The laws of physics don't lie. 

I emulated the regular teacher's style, from the seating arrangement to the way the Do Now was worded on the Smartboard.  The students went bananas.  I had to call in the principal, the dean of students, and both assistant principals.  I was very concerned by the chaos I was witnessing.  Each time an administrator came in I gave him or her then name of the student(s) who were rough housing, or throwing chalk at me, or who were playing shuffleboard with the furniture.  I know you hope that the administrators would have found a disciplinary remedy for the situation, but now, that is not what happened at all.  In fact, there aren't even any "referral" slips, so the infractions aren't even documented.  You see, at the end of the year the UFT Chapter Leader sits with the principal and they tally up the referrals.  If the number of referrals that the administration has is less than the number that had been submitted, there is a problem.  One way of averting any problem is simply to do away with referral slips, or to pretend the infraction never happened, which is pretty much what was going on each time I had to call for back-up.

Students don't take long to figure these things out.  The chaos spread.  Students take it as their right to arrive late, because they wanted to go downstairs and get some water or a soda.  "But you are losing valuable class time," I might say.  Their response: "What difference does it make whether I go before class or during class?"  Perhaps he was right.  Perhaps his last class was closer to the stairwell that takes him to the cafeteria and he saved himself a few minutes by doing it all in one trip.  Smart, right?  Except the collective behavior of a school now makes that the norm.  Even if the better, more efficient decision is right, it is wrong because it causes everyone to presume that it's okay to be late, or play shuffleboard with the classroom furniture, or with the personnel for that matter.

Dummy-down and ego-up is the way school policies are driven.  Where we, in my day, were scolded for social promotion and "enabling" students, now unacceptable behavior is brushed under the carpet so the Superintendent and the Chancellor never get wind of it. 

There are ways of managing classes when a teacher is absent, but the standard approach of the substitute isn't a successful model.  It never has and it never will be. 

There are alternatives: for example, break the class up and reassign the students to classes where other regular teachers are giving lessons.  Even if the student is placed in a trigonometry class when she expects Spanish, the benefits on the child's behavior offset the possible loss of LOTE time.  The help with the overflow, assign the ATR to work with students individually in the library or in the administrator's office.  Temporary rescheduling of a student's program is less harmful than sending them into the "free-for-all" room.  That tradition, the way students behave when a substitute teacher is in charge of the class, is not going to change.  What can change is to recognize the need for pedagogical continuity in the child's life and regroup the students so they won't panic because their teacher is out.

If, however, flexible programming is out of the question, then why not discipline students who act out, instead of making excuses for them and covering up their infractions so the big bosses don't find out?

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