Good has seen this many times. She has been a teacher off-and-on since 1969. The substitute assigned to the second-grade class was in his 20s, with no formal teaching experience or training. He had been forced to take nine students from another class that lacked a substitute.
Good said she tried to help, but little was learned. “Many subs are totally unprepared to be in classrooms,” she said. “They receive little or no training, and many have no teaching experience. The school administration rarely observes them or checks to see if help is needed. People believe anyone can teach and thus we have inexperienced people doing nothing but babysitting.”
A Sept. 20 news release from the Montgomery County Public Schools seemed to make her point. It announced that henceforth, substitutes will need only two years of college credit instead of a bachelor’s degree. The release said: “MCPS expects this change to increase the number of available substitutes; decrease unfilled vacancies; limit the need for in-school class coverage; lead to a more diverse range of candidates; and help build partnerships with local colleges while candidates earn their degree.”
Improving the education of children was not mentioned.
Montgomery County schools spokesman Derek G. Turner said while improving education was not cited, “it should be assumed” that would happen if the mentioned improvements occur. He said Good’s views “are one perspective and don’t reflect the view of all or most substitutes,” although the district has not surveyed substitutes on these issues.
My mother spent almost all her working life as a substitute teacher. She had an education degree from the University of California at Los Angeles, but she worked full time only when her sons’ college bills had to be paid. She usually substituted at the elementary school and the middle school a block from our home. She was good at it. She liked the flexibility. She volunteered for schoolyard duty well into her 80s.
The average substitute’s life today is nothing like hers. Good, 72, created and taught for eight years a high school class on issues in American education that inspired many students to go into teaching. She used to love subbing, but “the job has gotten so difficult now that I still love the kids, but I hate going into the classrooms,” she said. “Curriculum is so thin that it angers me. Lesson plans are often impossible to follow. I once got plans that were cut and pasted from somewhere and when I questioned the teacher, she couldn’t explain them.”
Turner said the school where Good worked most recently disputes her characterization of its lesson plans. He said “a bachelor’s degree doesn’t automatically make someone better prepared to manage a classroom.” He noted that the second-grade substitute Good saw had a bachelor’s degree.
On average, 120 of the 500 to 600 daily substitute requests in the Montgomery County schools are not fulfilled. The school systems in neighboring Prince George’s County in Maryland and in Fairfax County in the Northern Virginia suburbs require just two years of college credit for substitutes. Requirements at some other systems are even less. In Charles County, Md., you need only a high school diploma, according to a recent story on the issue from my colleague Donna St. George.
Part of the problem, Good said, is the way Montgomery schedules efforts to improve teacher skills. “Often, MCPS schedules a training, let’s say for ESOL teachers, then all ESOL teachers would need a sub at the same time,” she said. “If they didn’t schedule every third- and fourth-grade teacher in the school for training at the same time on the same day, there would be sufficient subs to go around.” Turner said the Montgomery superintendent has raised concerns about the practice and asked staff “to begin exploring and implementing alternatives that are less disruptive to students.”
If no sub can be found, classroom aides, reading specialists, coaches and administrators fill in. This works well in small charter schools where everyone is wired into the same curriculum, but big district schools are not like that.
It might be helpful to pay more than Montgomery’s $19.58 an hour for certified subs. That is $1.17 more (you can get a Coke for that at McDonald’s, give or take) than the $18.41 an hour for those without certification. But people with the talents of Good may need more to persuade them that subbing is a sensible use of their time.