Substitute Teacher Training

01/27/2011 01:25 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Too often, it seems that the most shocking news occurs in my home state of Florida. I saw some disturbing Florida news last week that got me thinking.

William Amory, a substitute teacher in Sarasota, was arrested and is being charged with child abuse. While substituting for a second-grade class, he allegedly punched two boys and pushed a girl in a fit of rage as he tried to maintain order.

This is a very serious allegation.

For the sake of fairness, we will assume that Mr. Amory is innocent unless proven guilty in the ensuing legal process. That being said, even his lawyer admits that he put his hand on students during the event in question.

I asked myself the following: Are we in such a need for substitute teachers that we just let anybody spend a day with a group of unfamiliar children or teenagers? I wondered about Sarasota's requirements for being a substitute teacher, so I checked the district's website.

Surprisingly, I discovered that Sarasota's substitute teacher requirements are quite high.

The following stringent requirement has been in effect since the 2008-2009 school year:

Attention Substitute Applicants: Effective immediately, the Human Resources Department will only process candidates to be substitutes who:
• performed their student teaching in our schools or
• are current Florida certified teachers.

To require that substitute teachers essentially be regular teachers without permanent teaching positions should, in theory, ensure a qualified pool of substitutes. Via email, I asked Sarasota County Schools spokesman Scott Ferguson if Mr. Amory met this latest requirement. Mr. Amory did not. Mr. Ferguson explained that veteran subs, like Mr. Amory (who has been subbing for 17 years), do not have to meet the new requirement as long as they sub once a year and are certified to sub based on the other, pre-2008 criteria. Essentially, Mr. Amory was grandfathered in. "Grandfathering in" is a common practice across professions, and means that veteran practitioners are exempt from new policies.

One of the pre-2008 requirements to become a substitute teacher in Sarasota, based on Florida law, is training. For this, Sarasota currently offers an online course. According to Mr. Ferguson, Mr. Amory did receive the training. But considering that he did in fact put his hand on children, I wonder how effective Mr. Amory's training was.

Why am I so interested in this case? I gained my first public school teaching experience as a substitute teacher in Broward County, Florida six years ago. When I decided to sub, the training was voluntary. But Broward knew how to incentivize the training: if you took the training you got paid more for each day's work. So I took the training. (Broward also pays subs more if they work in the county's most challenging schools.)

So under the instruction of a wise veteran teacher at Broward College (Broward Community College at the time), I learned to have a lesson ready in case the regular teacher didn't leave one; I learned to leave the regular teacher a note about the day's events; I learned to have word games and math puzzles at hand for students who finish their work early; and to keep off of the newspaper's front page... I learned to never put my hands on the children and teenagers under my care. Furthermore, the instructor taught us to be extremely aware of things like body language and proximity, and that we should never be alone in a room with a student. Good advice for teachers. Great advice for substitutes.

Because substitute teachers usually haven't established working relationships with the students under their care, events and intentions are very easily misinterpreted. Also, because substitutes oftentimes do not have longevity in any one school, it is difficult to establish a reputation for professional excellence among colleagues, administrators, staff, and parents. This means that if the substitute is accused of wrongdoing, no one can genuinely speak out on his behalf. No one knows him well enough to do so.

Being a substitute teacher is by no means easy. One of my worst teaching days ever was spent with a first grade class in Fort Lauderdale, where I couldn't get the kids to line up for lunch or sit on the floor quietly to hear me read a story. When one of the students ran away from the group after lunch to throw rocks at buildings, my substitute teacher training kicked in and I didn't attempt to deal with the student myself. I asked one of the school's regular teachers for help, and she got the boy under control. On another occasion at another school, I couldn't take a kindergarten class to lunch because one small boy refused to get out of his seat. Although gently nudging the boy along appeared to be an option, my substitute teacher training told me that it was not. So again, I asked one of the school's regular teachers for help and she got the boy to find his place in the line of students, and to the lunch room we all triumphantly marched.

So what's a district to do? Require that all substitute teachers receive training that mirrors the training I received at Broward College. Not an online course, but training offered by a successful, experienced educator who will stand an inch from your face and say, "If you are this close to a student, then you need to back up." (My instructor drove home major points through role-play.)

Upon successful completion of my 14-hour substitute teacher training at Broward College six years ago, I received a certificate. That certificate hangs above my desk at home to this day. I value that certificate not just because it opened my door to the world of education, but because I learned some invaluable teacher skills and knowledge that I still apply.

In the absence of their regular teacher, students need and deserve a qualified substitute teacher to ensure that instruction moves forward in a safe environment. High-quality training goes a long way to meet this end.

I know that Florida can do better.