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There’s a reason most of us remember classes taught by substitute teachers as wasted or boring instead of useful or interesting. Consider how substitute teachers typically end up in a classroom. In what might be a typical situation, a high school history teacher is halfway through a unit on the Vietnam War, but has to miss a day to attend a professional development seminar. She will request a substitute teacher through a large district call system that will most likely contact the substitute the day of the assignment. The substitute will be asked to read and digest a lesson for the day, turn on a movie or supervise students as they complete mundane class work. It’s a situation that benefits no one – not the regular teacher, the substitute teacher or the students. Indeed, it’s a waste of precious time that hurts everybody involved.
On any given school day, roughly 275,000 substitute teachers will stand before our nation’s school children. The quality of these teachers varies dramatically – hardly a surprise given the mottled requirements that states and districts have for substitute teachers. In Alabama, the only requirement needed to serve as a substitute teacher is a high school diploma or a GED. In Georgia, substitute teachers are also required to attend a four-hour training session before receiving clearance to teach. In fact, nine out of the ten lowest-ranked states in National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing allowed substitute teachers with only a high school diploma to teach in their schools. Even more shocking is that 77 percent of school districts provide their substitute teachers with no training and 56 percent never meet with their substitute teachers prior to them entering the classroom, according to the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University.
Instead of asking substitute teachers to be stand-ins who teach pre-planned lessons outside of their expertise, we should ask them to be specialists who only teach subjects which they are trained in, and who develop their own lessons. These lessons would have state-based objectives and graded in-class assignments and/or quizzes to ensure student comprehension. Lessons would be self-contained, meaning that the lesson could potentially be taught at any point in the school year, would require little, if any, later review and would not interfere with the regular teacher’s long-term planning. The substitute teacher would provide the regular teacher with grades for each student, completed assignments and a brief summary of the state objectives covered that day.
Districts would post on a substitute teacher website, linked to the district’s site, the different state-based objectives that a substitute teacher specializes in teaching. This would ensure that regular teachers are aware of the objectives to be covered by the substitute teacher and can adjust accordingly. This would also guarantee that students aren’t covering objectives more than once. Teachers, in the instances of planned absences, could even accommodate substitute teachers specialties in their long-term plans.
Allowing substitutes to develop their own lesson plans lets them draw on their strengths and expertise. As well, students receive a distinctive perspective they normally wouldn’t get from their regular classroom teacher. This would increase a substitute teacher’s investment and enjoyment of teaching. Furthermore, freeing regular teachers from the onerous task of planning for a substitute teacher and then verifying that the substitute teacher effectively taught the students would provide the regular teacher with more time to plan for future lessons.