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Tag Archives: what is it like to be a substitute teacher in the U.S.

Substitute teachers in the United States are often paid poorly and treated like trash

If you want to discover what America’s leaders at the state and federal level really think about our public schools and the education of our children, look no further than substitute teachers.

“Crazy is Normal, a classroom exposé”, my memoir, was reviewed on Sincerely Stacie.com as a part of a book blog tour, and Stacie’s review caused me to think about substitute teachers. In fact, I had trouble sleeping the night that review appeared, because of memories that surfaced when I was a full-time, substitute teacher from 1976 – 1978.

What I found especially interesting was that Stacie was a substitute teacher and a mother of three, because dedicated substitute teachers are  valuable to full-time teachers—so rare, that full-time teachers often book the best, dedicated, experienced substitute teachers as far in advance as possible hoping that another teacher won’t steal them away first.

But, most of the time, for me, there was no way to know who the substitute teacher would be, and a few times, even when I had succeeded in booking a substitute teacher that I knew was good at her job, the district might redirect them at the last minute—without my knowledge—to another classroom or school and send my students to the library without a substitute, and my students would miss another day of instruction.

In this era of high-stakes testing with rank and yank results for teachers, every day lost in the classroom might cost a full-time-teacher her job.

What you learn from this post might shock you—and even make you angry—but the qualifications to become a K to 12 substitute teacher in California have not changed for decades. They are the same now as they were during my thirty years in the classroom (1975-2005).

I copied the following information from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing Website:

I DON’T HAVE MY BACHELOR’S DEGREE YET. CAN I SUBSTITUTE TEACH?

Yes. The Emergency Substitute Teaching Permit for Prospective Teachers may be issued based on the completion of 90 semester units of course work from a regionally-accredited California college or university, verification of current enrollment in a regionally-accredited California college or university, and having satisfied the basic skills requirement [PDF].

For anyone who isn’t aware of the minimum number of units necessary for a bachelor’s degree, it’s usually 4-to 5-years of college and graduation requires a minimum of 120 units. Many majors and degrees have requirements that extend beyond the minimum number of units.

What this reveals is that many substitutes may not even be a senior in college or a college graduate.  And if you look at substitute pay on a state-by-state basis, you might be even more shocked.

For instance, in Alabama, the state reimburses local school districts $35 a day for a substitute teacher and that teacher only needs a high school diploma and a negative TB skin test.

If you click on this nea.org link, you may see how much each state—for those that list the daily pay—is willing to pay a substitute. I think what substitute teachers are paid is a crime. They should be paid much more—at least $100 a day with benefits.

In Iowa, where Stacie works as a substitute teacher, substitutes have the same licensing requirements as full time teachers—high standards compared to Alabama or California, but the average salary for a substitute teacher in Iowa is $23,905, while starting pay for a full time teacher is $39,200—and the average age of a substitute teacher in Iowa is 50. TeacherSalary.net

When I was still teaching, there was a shortage of substitute teachers in California and often, full time teachers were called on to be substitutes during their planning periods.


I think it’s safe to say that this substitute teacher was a high school graduate from Alabama.

For instance, I was called a few times during the 27-years I worked as a full-time teacher, and once the district was so desperate that after they fired one, new and young, first-year teacher for teaching his students how to cheat on tests, the district staffed his five periods with five, full-time teachers by asking us to give up our planning period. I was one of those five teachers for the rest of the second semester.  The district paid me an extra $45 a day for giving up my planning period and teaching that one-extra class. For the rest of that year, instead of teaching five classes, I taught six. The district could have saved money if they had hired a substitute to finish that year, because the average hourly top pay for a substitute in California runs between $11 to $17. In Iowa, the top hourly pay is $10 to $15, but starts at $7.

If you have already read the “Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession” by Dana Goldstein, you might remember that she doesn’t mention substitute teachers in her book, which is sad, because substitute teachers are important to full time teachers, who don’t want their students to miss one day of instruction. Most teachers, who are out of their classroom for a day or more, don’t want baby sitters. They want skilled teachers—who teach just like they would. I know, because I did and the teachers I worked with did.

I now know there is one job in the United States that is more Embattled than a full-time teacher and that is the job of a dedicated, full-time, professional substitute teacher, who gets up early every day waiting for that phone call that will send them to a different classroom, subject and different challenge.

How do I know this?  Well, my first year in education was as a full-time, paid intern in a residency program with a master teacher in her fifth grade classroom. My second and third years, I worked as a full-time substitute teacher waiting for that 5-to-6 a.m. phone call, and I taught in seven different school districts in Southern California. I never knew what district would call first and what grade, subject, or school I would be sent to.

In conclusion, think of the differences between—for instance, me or a dedicated, full-time, experienced substitute teacher like Stacie versus a young K-12 substitute teacher with only a high school degree or even 90 or more college units but no BA degree and little or no experience or training as a classroom teacher.

The only teachers who might have a little bit more experience over that high school graduate or 90-unit, wet-behind-the-ears substitute teacher, who might not even be 21, would be a Teach For American (TFA) recruit with a BA/BS degree and 5 weeks of training in a summer workshop without any experience teaching children in the classroom before they started their first, full-time teaching assignment. This might explain why only a third of TFA recruits stay in education as teachers and 85% of those TFA recruits who stay in teaching, after two years, transfer into more affluent schools and away from schools with high rates of poverty leaving less than 3-percent of the original TFA recruits where they were needed most—with the at-risk children.

In fact, I think TFA recruits might be a better source for substitute teachers in some states—but not Iowa where the substitutes must meet the same qualifications as a full time teacher—than that high school graduate in Alabama or the 90+ unit non-college graduate in California.

When I was a substitute teacher, I already had a BA degree in journalism and a teaching credential earned through a full-time residency program in my master teacher’s fifth grade classroom. When I walked in a classroom as a substitute—no matter where or what—I knew what had to be done. At the time, my California teaching credential was a life, multi-subject credential.

I think the time has come to bring this issue into the open. Dedicated, full-time substitute teachers deserve more support, respect, benefits and pay, because they are a vital link in a child’s education when the regular teacher is out sick or attending a district workshop or meeting.

If our elected representatives and the corporate-driven, fake, education reformers really cared about our children’s education more than profiting off tax dollars that were meant for the public schools, substitute teachers in every state would at least match the requirements found in Iowa, and be paid the same as a professional college graduate instead of poverty wages with no benefits.

_______________________

Lloyd Lofthouse is a former U.S. Marine and Vietnam Veteran,
who taught in the public schools for thirty years (1975 – 2005).

Crazy is Normal promotional image with blurbs

Lofthouse’s first novel was the award winning historical fiction My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. His second novel was the award winning thriller Running with the Enemy. His short story A Night at the “Well of Purity” was named a finalist of the 2007 Chicago Literary Awards. His wife is Anchee Min, the international, best-selling, award winning author of Red Azalea, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year (1992).

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