So you just heard that your child's substitute teacher is a hard-core, gay porn super-star who made movies with titles like Desperate Husbands and Mo' Bubble Butt and directed the Grabby Award-winning series World of Men.
Is that all you got?
Try these on for size.
Substitute teachers have told students that Santa Claus is make believe and that toothpaste contains rat poison. Put little children on the wrong school buses. Passed out drunk at the teacher's desk. Punched 7- and 8-year-old students. Acted sexually inappropriate with countless children.
In addition to flat-out bad substitute teachers, good ones have been caught in situations where students' lives and safety were at risk. They've been at the helm, often unprepared to handle the event, when shooters have entered schools, and children have had health crises.
Although school districts have been sued for issues involving both these vague categories of substitute teachers, 77 percent of school districts still do not train them and 56 percent never conduct face-to-face interviews before allowing them into classrooms, according to STEDI.org, the national leader in substitute teacher research and training.
Each school day, an average of 5.2 percent of teachers are absent. By the time your child finishes high school, he or she will have had a substitute teacher for nearly a year of their education, according to Raegen Miller, associate director for education research at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
What do you need to know about your child's school days when the teacher is absent? And what immediate, low-cost steps can parents and PTOs take to improve substitute teaching within their districts?
After subbing for a couple days a week for nearly three years, I identified the following three pointers as the most important for parents.
1. Do some personal digging if your child has a health condition that a supervising adult should know about.
Top medical concerns among school-aged children include seizures, asthma, diabetes, and severe allergic reactions. If your child has one of these or another health condition, bear in mind that his or her substitute teacher may not be aware of it, trained to recognize signs and symptoms of the condition, nor trained to respond to a health crisis. This is more important than ever with yet deeper cuts to school nurses, as substitute may not have a medical professional to rely on. (Personally, I subbed for nearly three years in a high-achieving district, and only twice was made aware of which children had medical conditions; I never received training on steps to take in any medical emergency.)
Find out, with certainty, how information about your child's health condition is shared with substitutes and if they are trained to handle health issues. Experts recommend that teachers leave for substitutes a clearly marked photo of each child with a health condition.
2. Push your district to commit to its substitute teachers.
At one end of the spectrum, the untrained substitute teacher is harmlessly babysitting. At the other end, he or she is flirting with disaster.
Couple the fact that an untrained substitute is not schooled in classroom management, curriculum or safety with the high accountability and responsibility of the job and the scene is set for misfortune, according to Rachel Fisher, program director and founder of EDTrainingCenter, a Tampa-based company that trains all substitute teachers for public school districts in New York City, Miami, Atlanta, Las Vegas and other cities.
A district-wide advisory committee is a terrific and no-cost starting point for any district that wants to improve their substitute teacher situation. The committee's charge is to examine the district's substitute teacher situation from all angles, identify problems, and seek solutions. The committee should allow all parties a voice, and thus could include the superintendent, principals, sub manager, human resources representative, a teacher, an experienced sub, and a new sub.
PTOs can have a voice in this issue as well. One Washington D.C. parent-teacher group told me that they funded the hiring of a permanent substitute for their grade school.
Formal substitute teacher training is the best way to improve teaching, ensure child safety, and prevent lawsuits. Here, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, says Kathy Rogers, education specialist with the substitute teacher training program at the Education Service Center Region 12 in Waco, Texas. Among the many things substitute teachers should be taught are lockdown procedures, according to Rogers, who notes that substitute teachers were working at schools on the Fort Hood base during the 2009 shooting. "With no training, no procedures of how to handle students and a room in a lockdown situation, how did they manage from 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.?" she says.
3. Support the creation of absence report cards for schools in your district.
Substitute teachers are the Ritz mock apple pies of educators; they're a far cry from the real thing. According to research, students do worse in years when their teachers take more time off. While teachers have many legitimate reasons to be out of the classroom, teachers who abuse benefits should be held accountable and this information should be public knowledge, stresses Miller.
Detailed reports of Chicago Public School teachers, for example, show absence rates at specific schools as high as 14 percent on Fridays. In New York City, where 20 percent of public school teachers are absent more than the ten sick days allotted annually, recent studies show that higher teacher absence rates correlate with tougher neighborhoods.
In Providence, RI, more than half the students at Central Falls High School didn't receive a grade for the first quarter of 2010 in at least one subject when several teachers took indefinite leaves of absences and qualified substitutes could not be found.
Finally, in Santa Fe Public Schools, teacher absences during 2009-10 at Capital High School were 40 percent higher than nearby Santa Fe High School, and test scores at Capital were significantly lower.
Substitute teaching is perhaps the dustiest corner of education. But it shouldn't be, as the numerous days your child spends with a substitute matter. In particular, your child's health, academic achievement, and even his or her own attitude toward school and school attendance may be on the line.
Carolyn Bucior is the author of the journalistic memoir on substitute teaching, Sub Culture: Three Year's in Education's Dustiest Corner named by TIME magazine as one of the summer's best education reads. She is a mother, journalist and former substitute teacher.