Ay, There’s  the Sub!

By Jane Weinkrantz  


            A recent New York Times article, “The Replacements” by Carolyn Bucior, provoked quite a reaction from many of my colleagues as they read about Bucior’s tribulations as a substitute teacher. Bucior endorses the Substitute Teaching Improvement Act, legislation that would provide federal funds for training substitutes, and discusses the challenging reality of “being Mrs. So-and-So today.”

            There is no doubt that substitute teaching requires nimble thinking, flexibility, a personality that is warm enough to get students to like you while firm enough to keep them from behaving badly, a thick skin, a sense of humor and the capacity not to be annoyed when the phone rings at 5:00 a.m. or when it doesn’t. I speak from experience; while in grad school, I was a substitute for a music teacher who had taken a four-month leave. Did I mention that I can’t play any musical instruments? That people leave the room when I sing? That when you get right down to it, I can’t even clap to a beat? The administration at that school provided me with no attendance lists and there were no lesson plans, not that I could have followed them anyway, assuming they required any talent in music. But, the same students showed up every day.  (I had them read articles about various musicians and then do reading comprehension exercises.) Only when I received the report cards to bubble in, did I realize some of the kids were not actually enrolled in my class. Substitute teachers, believe me…I’ve felt your pain.

            Although being a substitute was challenging, unpredictable and not all that lucrative, I did enjoy my work; every day confirmed my decision to finish my Master’s and commence a lifelong teaching career. One bemused teacher noticed how happy I was and said wryly, “If you like subbing, you’ll love teaching.” I did. I do.

            However, the experience seems to have had an altogether different effect on marketing specialist Carolyn Bucior, a writer who specializes in work for educational institutions and is penning a memoir about subbing. Bucior lashes out at the substitute system in general and teachers in particular.

After citing unclear lesson plans, lack of training and administrative disinterest as obstacles to substitute teaching, Bucior writes, “I was most angered  by how many days teachers were out of their classrooms. Nationwide, 5.2 percent of teachers are absent on any given day, a rate three times as high as that of professionals outside teaching and more than one and a half times as high as that of teachers in Britain. Teachers in America are most likely to be absent on Fridays, followed by Mondays.”

            First, let my inner English teacher get out her red pen and write “SOURCE?” in the margin of Bucior’s paper. Don’t stats like that beg for some attribution? Wouldn’t you be interested in finding out who is keeping track of your absences and on what weekdays they fall, let alone what your colleagues across the pond are up to?

            As for the claim that teachers are absent more frequently than other professionals, assuming it’s accurate, there are a few things to consider. To begin, teachers are exposed to a lot more germs than accountants or attorneys. How many times have you taught a class where all 25 students had the same cough or sneeze?  Elementary teachers even have to wipe noses occasionally. Some parents send their sick kids to school because they need to go to work. Parents of high school students often encourage their teens to attend school when they are ill in order to take important tests. The POBJFK attendance policy mandates that students lose credit for a full year class after 18 absences. Last year, one of my seniors came to school with swine flu; she was afraid she would lose credit for phys. ed. if she missed another day. The loss would have prevented her from graduating. Luckily, our principal heard her rattling cough, saw her flushed and feverish face and sent her home.

            I’ve contracted bronchitis, strep throat, pneumonia (twice), stomach viruses and a whole host of other infirmities in my twenty years as a teacher.  If I was absent on Fridays or Mondays, it was usually because my train of thought went something like this: “Today’s Tuesday and I feel a little sick, but I can handle it.  I’ll take Vitamin C and drink herbal tea. Hmmm, today’s Wednesday and I have a little fever, but the kids have a test tomorrow. I need to review.  I’ll take a couple of aspirin and go to work. Wow, it’s Thursday. I was up all night coughing and sneezing, but the students worked so hard preparing for their test. I hate to be absent and have to postpone it. Maybe I’ll go to the doctor after work.” By Friday, I’ve admitted defeat and finally called in sick at the doctor’s advice or I’m thinking “Friday. One more day. One more day and then I’ll rest all weekend. Really.”  At that point, I may be much sicker than I was earlier. So, even though I’ve rested all weekend and gotten medication from my physician, it will take more than two days to recuperate….hence, a Monday absence. I’ve been in auto accidents, been rushed to the hospital with appendicitis, responded to calls from the school nurse at my son’s school and taken days off when members of my family had surgery. The district has also sent me to conferences and asked me to chaperone field trips. Each time, I was grateful to have a competent, certified, unionized POB substitute who knows my class routine to fill in for me. I’ve never, ever encountered one who felt he had the right to be annoyed at my rate of absence. Besides a teacher’s health issues being personal, complaining about her absences seems antithetical to a substitute’s livelihood.

            However, Carolyn Bucior sees it differently. She writes, “To minimize the need for substitutes, principals should require that teachers call them personally when they’re ill---calling in to a machine increases absences. They should keep track of all teacher absences. And they should hold in-service training sessions for teachers on weekends or during the summer, rather than on school days, or else conduct them in the classroom with the students.”

            Where to begin? Teachers call into a computer system that creates an absence and then notifies a substitute.  I’m sure administrators have better things to do with their early mornings than to field phone calls from teachers notifying them of impending colonoscopies and various other procedures and maladies. Someone tell Ms. Bucior that school districts already keep track of teacher absences. How else does she imagine sick days are deducted? As for holding teacher training on weekends or during the summer, would Bucior be willing to attend the sessions the Substitute Teaching Improvement Act would mandate in the summer or on weekends?  How does she imagine school districts would gain control when authors and educational experts visit our area to give seminars?  Are her suggestions really meant to be proactive or punitive?

The most realistic and sensible thing a school district can do to prevent teacher absences is something our district already does: provide flu shots. Buying tissues and anti-bacterial cleanser for every classroom would be great; right now, teachers purchase those classroom items themselves.

But, teachers shouldn’t have to apologize for calling in sick, nor should teacher absence rates be part of the school report cards as the Department of Education suggests and Bucior endorses.  If teacher absence rates are included in school report cards, is that meant to convey how healthy the teachers in a given district are? Bucior implies that parents would conclude that the districts with high absenteeism are staffed with teachers who don’t care about their work. Would the faculty absence rate for last spring, when Plainview-Old Bethpage was swamped with swine flu, accurately reflect our level of professional commitment?

In the end, Bucior’s criticism of substitute working conditions and teacher absences reflects the contemporary issues of the day. How are American teachers supposed to be “highly qualified” and up to date on all the latest instructional trends without attending occasional seminars or workshops?  Would there be so many sick kids in school and, therefore, so many sick teachers if all students had health insurance? Would untrained substitutes be standing in for sick teachers in 28 states --- though happily not in our district---if they weren’t paid much less than certified substitute teachers? Do teachers really take too many sick days or have jobs become so precious in the private sector that employees don’t dare call in sick even when they should? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone if private employers provided a certain number of days for their workers to care for sick family members?  We could ask these questions or like Bucior, we can just blame everything on those lazy teachers once again.

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