Sub Mission

There's No Substitute for a Teacher - Just Ask AISD

Substitute teacher Amy Batiz
photograph by John Anderson

When it comes to getting respect, somewhere near the bottom of the list (perhaps after Rodney Dangerfield) are substitute teachers - those temporary souls whom students perceive as pushovers, "fake teachers" who don't know the rules of the game. With no respect, much less pay incentive, it's no wonder so many subs are dropping out of the temp pool and marketing their flex time somewhere else. It's also no wonder that the Austin Independent School District is ending the school year with a record - a record for scrambling to find subs on almost a daily basis. "There used to be a time," says Louis Malfaro, president of the Austin Federation of Teachers, "when you could just rely on people who made it their day job. There's not enough of those people anymore. We're living in a prosperous city. A college grad can easily find a better paying temp job than substitute teaching."

As it is, AISD has enough problems trying to attract and keep qualified full-time teachers, but the shortage of subs reached crisis proportions this year, principals and teachers say. On the average, 500 substitute teachers are needed each day - that's 100 more than last year. Plus, seasonal quirks - a Friday in the spring or a Monday during flu season, for example - can push the demand for substitutes as high as 800 a day. District officials say they are doing what they can to accommodate subs. They increased the daily pay to a range of $55 to $65 a day (depending on education), and reduced the number of required training hours from 90 to 60. But other factors figure into the crunch. The so-called employment boom in Austin gives temp workers a wider selection of jobs to pick from, leaving AISD short-handed on days when teachers are ill or attending required workshops and classes. Also, teachers are more inclined to use up their allotted number of sick days and personal days during a year because there is no "buy-back" incentive policy in place.

With this "substitute crisis," as it has come to be called, principals all too frequently have had to farm out kids to other classrooms or hunt for a warm body to play traffic cop while the students perform busy work. So the full-time teachers either find themselves saddled with twice as many students, or they're forced to relinquish their planning periods to take care of unmanned classes. And in the end, the students lose hours - sometimes entire days - of instruction.

"Many teachers will not take sick days no matter what, because they feel instruction will suffer," said Ruben Valdez, president of the Austin Association of Teachers.

"Generally speaking, it all kind of messes up your day," said Nora Tavasoli, a Walnut Creek Elementary teacher who has more than once found herself trying to teach 40 first-graders - half in Spanish - because another classroom teacher was absent and no sub could be found. District officials estimate that more than 50 teachers a day end up with combined classes because of the sub shortage. Teachers try to make the best of the situation, rewriting lesson plans on the fly to make sure that all the kids are learning: "You don't want them just sitting there coloring; that's not working their minds," Tavasoli said.

Tavasoli and her colleagues have their own ideas about how the district could ease the sub shortage - by offering financial incentives to teachers who don't use their sick leave or personal days, and by re-examining its "professional development" policy that requires teachers to attend workshops and classes, which they say accounts for fully one-third of teacher absences.

While teachers agree that professional enrichment programs and training are important, some teachers are away from the classroom as many as 10-12 days a year for conferences, curriculum meetings, and training. Sometimes training is done after hours or during the summer, but teachers are understandably unenthusiastic about using unpaid time for training. They see irony in the fact their class is receiving a substandard education while they are out of class trying to improve it. "If they really value that training," Malfaro observed, "it follows that you should ensure that you have good people in class. This isn't the kind of problem like the seats on the bus are torn," Malfaro said. "This is really having a deleterious effect on teaching, and the administration doesn't seem to want to do anything about it."

Malfaro and Valdez believe they have a solution: They want the district to hire a pool of teachers to cover the minimal demand, and assign them to specific schools where they would fill in as needed. As an added incentive for the substitutes, Malfaro has proposed paying these "permanent subs" a salary and benefits. In addition to giving each school a base of people they can depend on, the substitutes would have a regular presence on campus - something many agree would boost a substitute's credibility among students, as well as give them an opportunity to communicate regularly with the teachers they are asked to replace.

Paul Shooter, AISD's director of personnel services, said the district is studying the substitute problem and hopes to have a recommendation to the Board of Trustees next month, though he said giving the substitutes benefits could open a whole new can of worms. "If substitutes have benefits, such as sick days, then we may find ourselves finding substitutes for the substitutes." But he also points out that there are already a number of substitutes assigned to specific schools every day who receive an additional $10 a day for their commitment.

One substitute teacher willing to make that commitment is Amy Batiz, a recent graduate of UT-Brownsville, who has been a "permanent sub" at Mendez Middle School since moving to Austin in December. The fact that she has a recognizable presence on campus makes her job easier. "It's tough to walk into a classroom as a substitute teacher," she said. "The kids can be, well, chaotic. Being a permanent sub works so great because they know and respect you."

That stability, of course, gives teachers peace of mind when they're out of the classroom. "It's a nice thing because it has allowed me the same person in my room when I had to be gone," said Mendez teacher Jo Michaels. "She knows my kids, and that makes her more effective even if I am not there."

But it's hard for even the most dedicated substitutes to overlook the lack of benefits such as health insurance and paid school holidays. One certified teacher looking to break into AISD with a full-time teaching gig, Kirk Verhalen, substitutes as often as he can, usually scheduling his assignments in advance, and often works at the same schools, so the kids get to know him. But in addition to eight-hour days teaching, Verhalen has to work as a checker at H-E-B and a tutor at Sylvan Learning Centers to supplement his $65 a day pay. "If I wasn't sharing an apartment or if I had to make car payments, I'd be in trouble," he said. "You just can't make it in this town on what they are paying."

A benefits package would be a good incentive for more substitutes to stick around, said Batiz. "I think it would make a big difference - I mean, who would pass that up?" says Batiz, adding that she knows of some fellow substitutes who are considering teaching in Eanes, a much smaller district that pays subs $76 a day.

If AISD wants to avoid next year what it experienced this year, the district needs to re-think its substitute teacher process and take alternative steps to retain qualified subs. "It's the only way to bring qualified people in," Malfaro said. "I keep hoping against all odds that the administration will pick up on this idea."

And many believe that if AISD begins to regard the substitute teacher as something more than "filler," there's the off chance that the kids would similarly change their view of subs. "The kids try to get away with as much as possible," said one regular substitute teacher, who asked that her name not be used. "It's that whole idea that substitute teacher equals free day. My classroom management skills are constantly challenged." And to make matters worse, she said, subs are sometimes assigned to bilingual or special education classes that they are not qualified to teach. "That's enough," she noted, "to send anyone running from the school."

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