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Utah really needs more substitute teachers. Here’s what I learned when I volunteered

Jon Reed substitute teacher profile-1, classroom illustration, Feb. 2022
Renee Bright

Pure terror might be a good way to describe what I was feeling as I walked into a seventh-grade classroom to teach for the first time in my life.

I was responding to a call from school districts across the state. During the omicron surge earlier this year, more teachers and school staff were calling in sick than ever before, but there weren’t enough substitutes to take their place. Gov. Spencer Cox even issued an executive order allowing state employees time off to fill in as subs and other positions.

I wanted to see what it would be like on the frontlines, so I applied, passed a background check and took a job filling in for two days in mid-February.

Jon Reed substitute teacher profile-2, Jon w/ badge, Feb. 2022
Jon Reed
A selfie of KUER's Jon Reed, all badged up and ready for his first-day substitute teaching.

I arrived at the school at about 7:30 a.m. on a Wednesday. The Granite School District knew I was a reporter, but KUER agreed not to name the particular school as parents didn’t know a journalist would be subbing.
I was there to teach, which is what I tried to do. I didn’t record or take photos during class, but I was surprised at how difficult it was to keep the students on task.

Easily 80% of the students in my classes had no interest in working. There were constant disruptions — students talking, restlessly moving around and throwing things when they thought I wasn’t looking. The second day was much better than the first after I had gotten over the initial nervousness and uncertainty. But I can confidently say I was essentially useless as a teacher.

A longstanding challenge

This is what schools have had to resort to this year — just hoping someone would help out for a day or two.

“I wouldn’t be going out on a limb to say a lot of us were surprised at just how difficult this year has been,” said Patrick Flanagan, the Granite District’s human resources director.

Flanagan said the worst seems to be over now. More people have applied to fill in over the last few months, perhaps responding to the calls for help or the bonus pay the district is offering.

But the challenge of finding subs hasn’t disappeared completely, he said. Even before the pandemic, “normal” meant about 20-30 sub jobs a week went unfilled across the district. It’s a perennial problem, he said, particularly in a hot economy.

Jon Reed substitute teacher profile-3, sub recruitment flyer, Feb. 2022
Jon Reed
The Granite District, and others in Utah, have put out flyers asking community members to help out as substitute teachers in school. It also offered bonus pay for people taking multiple jobs in a month.
Jon Reed substitute teacher profile-5, Granite School District recruitment banner, Feb. 2022
Jon Reed

“Going into next year, I’m sure the hourly rate for subs will probably look to be increased,” he said. “As districts look at their budgets, they’re going to have to find ways to try and make sure that everybody feels like what they are doing is appreciated.”

The crucial role of subs

Having good, qualified substitutes is a critical piece of the education puzzle, said special education teacher Jennifer Johnson. And more money seems to be one of the only ways to get more people interested in subbing.

She said that could also help ensure those who are filling in are better trained and able to work over a longer term to provide more consistency for students.

My experience was probably not representative of all subs, but Johnson said there’s no question students benefit more with a trained teacher. They know the material, they have strategies for helping kids understand and get interested and they know how to manage a classroom.

As I discovered, there’s not much else that can happen without that last piece.

“It's a very humbling experience when you are faced with a group of 30 or so 12- and 13-year-olds who are all of a sudden staring at you and you're supposed to be in charge,” she said. “You feel really powerless, like how am I supposed to create this authority?”

Jon Reed substitute teacher profile-4, Jennifer Johnson, Feb. 2022
Jon Reed
Educator Jennifer Johnson has a 45-minute prep period each day, but that often gets interrupted when other teachers are out.

But if it is a question of more money, schools are balancing lots of financial challenges now — like rising inflation and a tightening labor shortage. Among a broad range of needs districts have, subs may not always be first on the priority list.

Emily Grunig, a principal in the Granite District, said something needs to be done. She agrees that it’s crucial to find people who can fill in long term. One of her teachers died recently and another has been out with breast cancer.

“I don't think there's a good answer for it right now,” she said. “I stumble in every which way, but it's not fair. It's not fair to anybody.”

Fewer subs, more stress

One of the core issues for her is teacher burnout. She’s grateful there are people willing to fill in temporarily. But even in the best cases, a sub is usually only doing a fraction of the work, which means Grunig or other teachers have to help out.

She noted she’s been grading papers and creating lesson plans for drama classes that she “has no business doing.”

“A sub is just basically there to make sure that they're following the lesson plan,” she said. “They don't have to create the lesson plan, they don't have to do the grading. It's just control the chaos and make sure their students are working.”

The subbing situation is one of many factors that can make teaching an exhausting and, at times, demoralizing job, she said. Stress is a big reason close to half of early career teachers in Utah leave the field after five years.

Even so, for her, teaching is also one of the most rewarding jobs. It’s just more people need to hear that message.

“However we get people in high school right now to go into that field of education, that's what's going to turn this narrative around,” she said. “If we don't get people getting interested in education, what does this look like in 10 years?”

In the meantime, one thing the state rolled out recently is a program called Adopt-A-School. It partners businesses with schools to provide resources they wouldn’t otherwise have, such as encouraging employees to fill in as subs.

Teacher Jennifer Johnson said something like that could work if people are able to commit to a few days a month. Or, she said, maybe state lawmakers could try it out, too. No camera crew — or in my case, no microphones. Just follow the lesson plan, meet the kids and find out what's really going on in schools.

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