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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 2000
Vol. 57
No. 8

Special Topic / No Substitute for Quality

Students, teachers, and administrators suggest ways to ensure that quality learning continues when a substitute teacher takes over a class.

A student in our teacher preparation program asked whether I knew of any materials that would help her prepare to be a substitute teacher in a local school district. I did not. Although a teacher educator for nearly 30 years, I had given little thought to the issue of training substitute teachers. I invited her to join me in researching the topic.
We found that the most recent estimates on the prevalence of substitute teachers were from the early 1980s. On any given day, substitute teachers filled 10 percent of the nation's classrooms (Friedman, 1983); the typical student spent seven days of every school year, or approximately 84 days during 12 years of schooling, with a substitute teacher (McIntire & Hughes, 1982). Two recent practices have likely increased the use of substitutes: expanded family leave policies and inservice programs for regular teachers held during the school day.
In light of this extensive use of substitute teachers, I surveyed the superintendents in seven New Jersey counties. I had three goals: to identify current hiring, training, and evaluation procedures for substitute teachers; to determine the perceived need for more and better training and evaluation procedures for substitute teachers; and to develop policies, practices, and teaching materials that will better prepare substitute and regular teachers to make these substantial blocks of learning time more meaningful and more personal for students and teachers.
During the first stage of the research, I collected surveys from 74 percent (137) of the superintendents. Their districts employed 9,461 substitute teachers, and the total average number of substitutes used in a week was 5,320. Eighty-nine percent of the districts provided little or no training for substitutes, and 93 percent offered little or no training for regular teachers in how to use substitutes. In addition, 69 percent of the districts did not formally evaluate substitutes. Approximately 90 percent of the districts indicated interest in training materials for both substitute and regular teachers.
The picture is probably similar nationwide. In fact, during the opening week of the school year, many major metropolitan newspapers carried front-page articles decrying the shortage of substitute teachers and projecting a growing need for them. However, most school boards are unable or unwilling to fund any extensive training of substitute teachers. How are public school administrators going to turn those 84 days of what most people call "babysitting" situations into meaningful learning experiences?
The second stage of the research was designed to answer that question. I interviewed groups of administrators in representative districts, collected and analyzed surveys from regular and substitute teachers, and interviewed secondary students in one district about their views on good and bad substitute teachers and their ideas about how to improve the quality of learning that goes on when a substitute teacher is in the classroom.

What Administrators Want from Substitute Teachers

Interviews with administrators showed consensus that getting good substitute teachers is a serious and growing challenge. All agreed that they would like to require substitutes to go through a training program. However, they did not think that such a policy would work unless all districts in a region required training, because substitutes would simply not work for the ones that did. Proposals for encouraging substitutes to go through training programs included paying them for the training and paying trained substitutes higher salaries.
When I questioned administrators about what to include in a training program, all agreed on the importance of classroom management and discipline coupled with basic instructional techniques. Both regular and substitute teachers concurred overwhelmingly. Administrators and teachers stated that substitutes need an orientation for both district and school procedures. Although all agreed that training programs are crucial for improving the quality of teaching and learning that take place with substitutes, they acknowledged that school boards often do not support the costs for such programs.

What Teachers Want from Substitute Teachers

Regular teachers frequently cited the failure of substitute teachers to follow lesson plans. One regular teacher said, "Substitutes often talk to kids the entire period, and nothing gets done." Another reported, "Some substitutes make their own agenda." Other issues were poor classroom management and unsatisfactory disciplining of students, which one regular teacher described graphically: Substitutes do not monitor student behavior effectively—students with a pass in the hall for too long, students talking or sleeping instead of completing the assignment. They also expressed concern about continuity when they were assigned different substitutes.
  • Being inexperienced with the school or the curriculum
  • Not leaving a note about any problems and what was done
  • Being inflexible
  • Not leaving the room as it was
  • Not giving correct assignments
  • Being too familiar with students
  • Chewing gum or eating candy
  • Not knowing or following the routine
  • Lacking knowledge of subject matter
  • Not understanding special education students

What Substitute Teachers Want from Classroom Teachers

When I asked substitutes what circumstances made substituting a good experience, their most frequent answers paralleled the responses of regular teachers: good lesson plans with clear and thorough instructions and an explicit and well-structured discipline system. One substitute described a good situation: Good lesson plans and the names of students I could count on. Detailed lesson plans with all materials needed readily available. Included in the lesson plans are the teacher's discipline policy, lavatory procedure, and so on.
  • Helpful teachers in the department and the school
  • Easy-to-find materials
  • Well-behaved and receptive students
  • Enough planned work to keep students busy
  • Good seating charts
  • Emergency procedures
  • Books on the teacher's desk
  • Extra work for students
  • Names of responsible students
  • Clearly explained rules and routines
  • An organized teacher
Several responses were especially insightful. One substitute teacher said, When the principal and teachers introduce themselves and address you by name, not only does it help build a good relationship, but also the students know that your presence is important and you're not a "stranger" in the room. Another offered, It is helpful when the teacher has explained to the class how to behave for a substitute and follows through on reports left by the substitute. This helps the sub command respect and lets students know that the teacher relies on the sub's report. Follow-through is one of the most important issues in substitute teaching. One substitute concluded her remarks in this way: Another thing that makes an experience enjoyable is repeat substituting for the same class. The students and I become familiar with each other. I become familiar with the regular teacher's schedule and teaching style. This helps the day go smoothly.

What Students Want from Substitute Teachers

Students immediately decide how "good" a substitute will be on the basis of whether he or she is reading a newspaper when they enter the room. Several regular teachers also commented on this situation. Said one, There are substitutes who are using this job as "easy money"—they come prepared with newspapers, novels, and, believe it or not, knitting!
Students reported some ways in which regular teachers can contribute to the substitute teacher's success in controlling the class. A teacher who gives specific assignments for all students to complete and hand in at the end of the class period lets students know that he or she will evaluate their work. Further, students suggested that the regular teacher announce in advance that the substitute is coming and that the entire class will receive a single grade for the day that is based on the substitute's report of their behavior.
  • Maintaining a professional appearance
  • Projecting a cordial and pleasant attitude
  • Acting not like babysitters but like professional teachers
  • Using methods appropriate to the course level and subject
  • Showing impartiality toward cliques of students
  • Accomplishing the work the regular teacher left without nagging

Addressing the Problem

Several ideas for supporting substitute teachers and improving substitute teaching emerged from this research.
At the school level. Many substitutes indicated that their best substituting experiences were in schools with a strong support system that included the principal, the other teachers, and the secretaries. In small schools, principals should know all substitutes by name and touch base with them at least once during the school day. Large schools should develop a system at the department level such that either the department chair or assigned "buddy" teachers make routine daily contact with substitutes.
For students to have meaningful classroom experiences with substitutes, a schoolwide approach is essential: well-known policies and procedures; high expectations for student behavior; and a well-thought-out and consistent communication system among regular teachers, substitute teachers, and principals. In addition, principals must enforce requirements that regular teachers leave meaningful lesson plans and all the information and materials that substitutes need to carry out those plans. Regular teachers need routine inservice programs to review and reinforce procedures.
One tool that many schools and districts use to improve performance is a report form for both the substitute and the regular teacher. Both teachers see these reports, which the principal also reviews. In this way, communication between substitute and regular teachers is part of the routine, and principals can intervene in any difficulties. In addition, principals can readily identify problem substitutes.
At the district level. The overwhelming support for substitute teacher inservice training by both regular and substitute teachers reflects its importance and highlights the extent of its absence. The districts reporting the fewest problems with substitutes dedicated at least one full day before the start of the school year to an inservice program for substitutes. Some also reported periodic after-school training sessions throughout the school year.
Another frequently discussed tool for improving the performance of substitutes was a handbook. The original survey of superintendents requested that they share copies of their districts' substitute handbooks. Of the 137 responding districts, only 33 included such materials, which in some cases consisted of only a few pages of basic information, such as where the schools are and where to pick up paychecks. Many districts indicated that they do not have handbooks and saw this as an area of need.
At the professional level. Two possibilities emerged as ways for the teaching profession to respond to the growing need for substitute teachers. First, regular four-year teacher education programs could incorporate substitute training and make experience as a substitute a requirement for completing the program and getting certified. Several districts indicated interest in working with our university as a possible way to acquire trained substitutes as early as students' sophomore year and for the following years until graduation.
The second possibility involves developing the concept of career substitutes. Individuals would complete a two-year associate degree program to receive certification as a substitute teacher. Districts might assign such teachers to schools on a full-time basis so that they get to know well the routines, teachers, and students. These substitutes could then take over regular teachers' classes with a minimum of disruption.

A Cooperative Venture

One concept that emerged from these surveys and discussions is the interactive nature of improving the teaching and learning environment when a substitute teacher is in the classroom. It involves training not only the substitutes but also the regular teachers in how best to prepare for substitutes. In addition, students should learn the expectations for their performance that will be held constant between the regular teacher and the substitute teacher.
Principals and other district administrators must change their thinking about the role that substitute teachers can and should play in the teaching and learning process. Historically, their prevailing attitude has been that if the substitute keeps the kids in the room and more or less quiet without sending anyone to the principal's office, that's all they can hope for. Anything more is icing on the cake.
Given the acknowledged importance of academic learning time, we can no longer operate in such a mode in our public schools. It is essential that we find low-cost ways to address this situation.

Friedman, D. J. (1983). High school substituting: Task demands and adaptations in educational work. Urban Education,18(1), 114–126.

McIntire, R., & Hughes, I. (1982). Houston program trains effective substitutes. Phi Delta Kappan, 63, 702.

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