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More than a measly raise is needed to fix D.C.’s substitute teacher problem

Other places across the country are coming up with creative solutions to school staffing shortages, and D.C. is offering substitutes $1.80 more an hour.

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When Dana Grosser-Clarkson first read the email from her children’s principal asking parents to consider applying to become substitute teachers, she laughed.

Then she thought about it some more.

By 11 that night, she decided to apply.

“I was thinking, ‘I’m a teacher, I know a lot about the field and this is a way I could help out when my schedule has some vacancies,’” recalls Grosser-Clarkson, who has two children, ages 4 and 6, and works as a teacher educator at the University of Maryland, instructing future teachers who are working toward certification.

Grosser-Clarkson applied to become a substitute teacher with D.C. Public Schools at the end of October, and she hoped to spend time in classrooms in December and the beginning of January, when her workload is lightest.

Last week, after 2½ months, she finally got approved to work as a substitute.

“There is a teacher shortage, so if we have people who are willing to sub, we need to speed this process up,” Grosser-Clarkson says when we talk on a recent morning. She recognizes background checks, fingerprinting and drug testing should not be rushed, but she says other parts of the process were unnecessarily drawn out and difficult in ways that could push away quality applicants.

She describes retired teachers being asked to provide transcripts for colleges they hadn’t attended in decades and all applicants having to create a lesson plan and present it online. The school system provided only a handful of time slots in November for people to sign up to give those presentations, making scheduling difficult, she says. When her turn came, she found herself in a virtual meeting with other applicants. She recalls them being told that they had five minutes to give their lessons and that if they went over their allotted time, points would be deducted.

“Honestly, I laughed out loud at that point, because why are points involved?” Grosser-Clarkson says. “I’m sorry, but you have a teacher shortage and we’re trying to help you.”

What Grosser-Clarkson experienced while trying to become a substitute teacher in the nation’s capital — and which she can talk about openly because she doesn’t depend on the job for a salary — offers important insight at a time when cities and counties across the nation are experiencing serious staffing shortages in schools.

The desperate need for more substitute teachers has led some lawmakers and educational leaders to take unusual actions. On Wednesday, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) announced an initiative that encourages National Guard members and state workers to become licensed substitute teachers and child-care workers. A day earlier, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) issued an executive order that allows state employees to volunteer as substitute teachers and maintain their salaries.

New Mexico is short on substitute teachers. The governor asked the National Guard and state employees for help.

Other places have lowered requirements for certification, expanded the pool of school employees who can work as substitute teachers and turned to teacher-preparation programs for help.

On Tuesday, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced in a news release that the city was boosting the pay of its daily substitute teachers from $121.50 a day to $136.00 a day. That amounts to an increase from $15.20 an hour to $17 an hour.

Her announcement drew quick criticism from people who saw the gesture as too small for people who are filling a big need. Through social media, people pointed out that $17 an hour amounted to little more than the District’s upcoming minimum wage of $16.10 an hour and fell far short of the $300 a day that substitute teachers had been demanding.

“This is a sad opening move from Mayor Bowser,” tweeted one educator. “Substitutes have not had a raise since 2008, perform INCREDIBLY important jobs keeping our schools operational, and fill in for long term VACANCIES her policies create.”

“I stand in solidarity with Educators and substitute teachers,” tweeted Andre Davis, a former D.C. Public Schools teacher and mayoral candidate. “That pay raise was not enough. And a realistic and generous increase is LONG overdue!!!”

If ever there was a time to significantly increase the pay of substitute teachers, it is now — during a pandemic, when parents and children need the schools to stay open and overworked educators are pleading for help.

But it’s also going to take more than money to address the city’s substitute teacher problem. It’s going to take the city keeping its promises and making the hiring process thorough but not tedious.

In October, the city announced that it had the funding to place a covid coordinator and a permanent substitute teacher in every school. In December, council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) sent a letter to Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee saying no school had received that staffing. On Tuesday, the D.C. Council passed legislation that if signed by the mayor would require the school system to take several coronavirus transparency measures, including updating the council each month on the status of that promise.

D.C. measure would require schools to tell parents about covid cases within 24 hours

Grosser-Clarkson says it wasn’t until she was going through the process to become a substitute teacher that she saw the flaws in the hiring system.

“Maybe this was in the fine print somewhere,” she says, “but I didn’t find out until my final session, when I was onboarding, that you have to substitute two days a month or you lose your substitute privileges in the District. I just found that so frustrating.”

That clause means that her students, who are on the verge of getting their undergraduate degrees and master’s degrees, can’t work as substitute teachers.

“Come April, come May,” she says, “when some of these colleges are letting out, there is this huge pool of young, healthy, energetic folks who would be willing to fill these positions, and I feel like you’re shutting them out.”

She also witnessed an encounter that left her concerned for retired teachers. The school system pays retired teachers up to $300 a day if they work as long-term substitutes, which is defined as working more than 31 consecutive days.

Grosser-Clarkson says a human resources employee was explaining that to her and other new substitute teachers in an online meeting when a retired teacher asked if she could get an excused absence within that 31-day period. She explained that her daughter had recently passed away and that she would need to attend the funeral in January.

“The HR person said ‘No,’” Grosser-Clarkson says. “I was blown away. At that point, I was very upset, so I came off mute and I said, ‘I’m sorry, that is not okay.’”

She says the retired teacher later contacted her and thanked her for speaking up. She also told her that officials had agreed to make an exception.

Since applying to become a substitute teacher, Grosser-Clarkson has helped several classes at her children’s school. But she did that by finding a quicker route than the substitute hiring process. She signed up as a volunteer.

Read more from Theresa Vargas

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