In years past, finding enough substitute teachers in California high schools was not a daily struggle. Now they are in high demand.
Improving our democracy, together.
By Hope Gorecki, special for CalMatters
Hope Gorecki is a former San Diego Unified School District English teacher who works as a substitute teacher at San Diego District and Grossmont High Schools.
It’s 7 a.m. on a Wednesday morning after winter break at Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley, Calif., one of several high schools in the Grossmont Union School District.
The principal’s secretary printed out color-coded spreadsheets of the day’s substitute schedule — orange for me, fuchsia for another substitute, green for MH, light blue for MS, and so on. We are still six substitute teachers short when the phone rings and another teacher calls for the day.
We are now short of seven replacements, with a total of 15 absent teachers.
Secretary changes what she calls her ‘daily puzzle’ for the third time, moving substitutes to cover necessary classes, asking those who can to stay late, asking regular teachers if they’re willing to quit during their periods of preparation to cover another teacher’s class.
Later, I’ll be running – literally – across campus in a biology class to fill in for a specialist teacher. I will meet another substitute who does brisk walking, having given up his preparation period to replace a physical education class. To make matters worse, the librarian is absent, so the school will have to close the library, the place where too many students are corralized when there is no replacement to cover a class.
Sadly, this is not an isolated event, but an all too common pandemic-induced event, not just at this high school, but in high schools across California. In years past, finding enough substitute teachers was not a daily struggle. Now, it seems every substitute teacher is in high demand.
As one of three resident substitute teachers on site this year, I have been fortunate to be part of the school community, on the front lines of education during COVID-19 and then the pandemic. omicron. But it is not just teachers who call themselves ill that contribute to absenteeism; some lacked childcare due to new COVID restrictions.
Before the pandemic, it was not uncommon for parents to send their children to school with sniffles, as long as they didn’t have a fever. But during the pandemic, a runny nose would send little ones straight home, keeping the working parent at home as well. I have often heard of the frustrations of teachers who were forced to lose another sick day due to what seemed like a perpetual cycle of sniffles.
In my experience, most substitute teachers – perhaps 60% – are older adults, many of whom are retired teachers or other professionals. In just one week, I met a former physics teacher, a retired civil engineer, a published author, a retired physical education coach, and a former English teacher. Elders have learned the need for patience, which gives them the advantage of rarely being agitated by the emotional transitions of adolescents.
Yet everyone has their tipping point. Between the health risk of working during the pandemic and the surprising new social and emotional adjustment that so many students have faced after a long school quarantine, many of our replacements have decided to quit. Some have moved to more affordable states, creating a wider surrogate shortage
As for younger supply teachers, teaching is a good opportunity for those in the teacher certification program to gain both work experience and income. It’s also a good way to increase your visibility once you’ve completed the program and hope to be hired as a permanent teacher. According to Education Week, enrollment in the teacher certification program has plummeted, so we’ve lost a lot of that population to the subgroup.
What can be done to replenish this vital but dwindling population of certified employees? Certainly, the well-deserved salary increase over the past year has been appreciated. But how about drastically reducing the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing’s 30-day supply teaching permit application fee — which is $102.50 — so as not to deter people initially? For those who renew their license every year, the fee should be waived altogether.
We are in a new era that emphasizes treating others with kindness and equality. It is true that during the pandemic, substitute teachers have been more recognized. It’s amazing how encouraging a genuine “thank you for being here” can be. This is a step in the right direction, and I hope these courtesies continue. After a very stressful year, schools have realized how valuable substitute teachers are.
For my part, I will continue this journey. Now if only my ride was cheaper.