There were few better feelings in middle school and high school than walking into your classroom and seeing a new face behind the teacher’s desk.
The substitute teacher.
The single best indicator that a bulky TV was about to be rolled into the classroom, and we were going to watch a movie that did or didn’t have anything to do with the class we were in for the next 55 minutes.
We were never mean to the sub. He or she often acted like they wanted to be there just as much as we did, or they were so intimidated that they avoided conflict or confrontation at all costs. Most of the time, it didn’t seem like they were there to “teach” us much; they were there to make sure we didn’t leave for a Taco Bell run.
And everybody was happy.
I don’t have this view of the substitute teacher anymore. The pandemic has changed a lot of views in this country, and for the past two years, the substitute teacher has become an important frontline worker whose role has become vital in keeping our schools functioning as teachers juggle in-person learning and their own health concerns.
And now that our country (and our very own school district) is experiencing a shortage of them, substitute teachers have become unicorns — hard-to-find mythical creatures capable of doing everything they’re asked to do and for very little reward.
The sub shortage is everywhere. The New York Times and The Atlantic recently dedicated big, front-page stories to pose the question, “Where have all the substitutes gone?” In this space last month, Rant writer Richard Sullins asked the same question regarding workers in the restaurant (specifically fast food) industry, and offered answers from local experts. Many restaurant workers, he found, have realized during the pandemic that lower pay and often stressful, laborious work just aren’t worth it anymore, especially with jobs in other fields currently looking for anybody and everybody to fill roles.
It’s not the same answer for substitutes. The problem isn’t that nobody wants to do it — the problem is that there were never this many of them available to begin with. The pandemic has led to far more absences for full-time teachers and early retirements (or simply quitting) for many more who aren’t comfortable working in close quarters with so many children and adults who either don’t know how to wear a mask properly or refuse to. Substitutes who are working right now pretty much have full-time jobs, because there’s always a need.
Always. Every day. Without fail.
And like the aforementioned articles stated, there simply aren’t enough subs to meet the demand. It’s led to high-profile stories of Major League Baseball players and state governors and even local mayors to volunteer and step in to fill the void.
Full disclosure — I’m aware of the current sub situation because I watched my wife step up shortly after the beginning of the pandemic and return to in-person learning to be a substitute at B.T. Bullock Elementary, where our children attend. She was immediately placed in a role to fill in long-term for a teacher on maternity leave. Since her return, my wife has subbed at every grade level at the school, filled in for the librarian and tutored at the school (all while juggling family and her own classes in grad school).
Her experience has given me a new appreciation for the job. Today’s subs are far more than the “TV monitors” of my youth. They are used so often, many — like my wife — have become part of the family and culture at their schools. They’re more like “utility” teachers than substitutes. The Nick Foles of the education system — ready to come off the bench and beat the Patriots if that’s what’s asked of them.
I’ve seen kids in Sanford beam when they see my wife out in public, and I know the teachers at Bullock are just as happy to see her.
I told her I wouldn’t make this all about her. Nor will I make it solely about the substitute.
Teachers as a whole have been among the real heroes of this pandemic. Working through all the absences around them, shuffling back and forth between remote and in-person learning and giving students a sense of “normal” and consistency during a time that’s anything but … our teachers don’t get enough credit.
So please do me a favor. Find a way to support our local schools — whether it’s the school your child attends or the one closest to your home. If you are able, sign up to substitute or volunteer. If that’s not possible, find out what our schools are missing when it comes to supplies and help out. Public, charter or private — they’re all going through the same thing right now. They could all use a hand.
My wife’s phone gets at least three calls or messages from Lee County Schools a night requesting substitute help. Teachers are now being compensated for taking on other classes during the work day.
The need is real, and those who are stepping up need your support.
Email Billy Liggett at firstname.lastname@example.org.