Substitute Shouldn't Mean Substandard

02/25/2012 07:10 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2012

Imagine this: you're at the dinner table when your children start to tell you about their new teachers. Mr. Smith is a laidback web surfer who prefers reading email over grading papers; he leaves the teaching up to the student TA. Mrs. Farn (tries to) rule the classroom with an iron fist; her every other phrase is a bellowed "Listen up, now!" Mr. Hyde is unprepared and frazzled; he stumbles over the key vocabulary and concepts, laughingly confessing that the last time he took this subject, he barely passed the class.

What would your reaction be? How long would you keep your son or daughter in those classes?

Now you find out that Mr. Smith, Mrs. Farn, and Mr. Hyde are not permanent teachers, but substitutes. They've been called in for a day or two, a week at the longest. And by next Monday, the good old teachers will be back. What do you do now? Take a sigh of relief? Say, "It's too bad they couldn't get a better sub, but you know, they have to teach on such short notice?"

Why should your reaction be so different?

Sure, the individual substitute teacher may only teach for a day or two, but the absences teachers take add up. Nationally, teachers take about 10 absences yearly (outside of school vacation days such as winter break) according to Mary Finlayson (in "The Impact of Teacher Absenteeism on Student Performance"). As a result, high school students taking six classes with different teachers could experience 60 classes with substitute teachers over the course of the school year. In poorer school districts with more teacher absenteeism, that number could be even higher -- meaning more substitute teachers for the kids who need highly qualified teachers the most. Ineffective substitute teaching is a problem that means thousands of hours of lost learning for America's students. It cannot be dismissed with a sigh and "Just wait for the teacher to come back on Monday."

In my experience, effective substitute teachers have been rare. If you criticize me for stereotyping substitute teachers in my introduction, know that they are all real people (names changed) who have taught classes I take. When I complained to my parents about substitute teachers, my dad commented defensively, "It's a thankless job with low pay and short preparation time." This is completely true. Substitute teachers are often called up on short notice, often with no prior experience with the class, and have myriad responsibilities -- taking attendance, checking off assignments, starting projects -- thrown at them. Teachers may leave incomplete or confusing lesson plans or none at all.

In most cases (except for that sub who surfed the web instead of doing anything), the substitute teacher's ineffectiveness is not from lack of trying. Rather, it is the result of lack of experience with or knowledge of the subject's curriculum. This is a problem that needs to be addressed by education administrators.

In my school district substitute teachers are required to have teaching certification -- but no knowledge qualification for the subject they are substituting for. Someone who scored a D when they last took the subject -- but has a teaching certificate -- was a substitute teacher in one of my classes. I saw the district's priority on the certificate instead of the knowledge evidenced clearly in a description of requirements for a long-term substitute position for teaching chemistry: "Must hold current WA State teaching certificate... Prefer Highly Qualified in Chemistry as well." Really, what's more important? A piece of paper (that never really guarantees good teaching anyway) or in-depth knowledge of the subject? Who do you think would be the better substitute teacher -- someone who's taught fifth grade language arts for two years with a brief stint subbing for a science teacher, or someone without a certificate who has taught science classes at technical colleges and has advanced degrees in chemistry and physics?

But one little piece of paper keeps people who may have actual academic or real world experience with a topic out of the classroom, while under qualified substitute teachers continue to pour in.

Imagine if your son or daughter starts a new conversation at the dinner table. Mr. Inik did a stunning live demonstration in class that shocked and enthralled everyone. Ms. Paige involved students in a project that went live on the web to hundreds of viewers. Mrs. Watson is so liked by students that her Facebook page has 2,000 likes (think that's unrealistic? Check out "Mr. Ito Time," a fan page set up by adoring students of a popular sub in my school district).

This vision is possible. We need to recruit better by looking further -- beyond the limiting boundaries of education certification, considering qualified volunteers with professional or academic experience. We need to reward the "thankless job" of substitute teaching with better pay and chances for permanent positions. I look forward to the day when no student comes home saying, "I didn't learn much today... we had a sub."