The Role of the Substitute Teacher Needs an Overhaul

Opinion | Education Workforce

The Role of the Substitute Teacher Needs an Overhaul

By James Parra     Oct 4, 2023

The Role of the Substitute Teacher Needs an Overhaul

This story was published by a Voices of Change fellow. Learn more about the fellowship here.

Education experts were raising questions and expressing concerns about teaching shortages long before COVID-19 came into the picture, but the pandemic exacerbated the issue. With stressful working conditions, low wages and health risks, many teachers have been making their exit — and with particularly acute shortages for substitute teachers, it’s been tough to find long-term solutions.

Many schools and districts, including mine, scrambled to find quick fixes to keep the doors open during the height of the pandemic and in its wake.

In a deal struck between the New York City Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers, a new position — paraprofessional classroom manager (PCM) — was created as a temporary solution to allow paraprofessionals (paras) like me to sub for classroom teachers. This gave paras an opportunity to step up and cover a class when needed, and it gave administrators a cushion to fall back on for coverages.

The role of PCM was an added responsibility for paras. A PCM maintained all of their responsibilities as a para while expanding their role in a critical way — they could teach a class without a supervising teacher in an emergency. The title came with a stipend and if the PCM was asked to do more than five emergency coverages in a term, there was additional compensation.

I applied for the role, was accepted and served as a PCM from October 2020 to June 2022. During that period, I continued my duties as a para, ensuring the students I worked with met the goals and mandates of their Individualized Education Plan (IEP). If there was a class to be covered, I was pulled to teach it. That happened frequently (according to logs I kept while I was PCM, I covered 97 classes).

I was excited about the new job. After all, it offered me a chance to see how I’d feel leading a classroom and it came with a pay raise. But I soon learned that the position came with little support and quickly led to burnout.

This experience gave me a glimpse inside the challenges facing substitute teachers and I’m convinced that things need to change. Education leaders need to reimagine what it means to be a substitute teacher, design systems and resources to support the people doing this important work, and take further steps to foster a sense of belonging and community for substitutes in our schools.

Subbing In

Navigating life as a para and a sub was difficult and the first year was the toughest. Health and safety guidelines were changing daily. Some teachers were leaving and others were calling out sick. Every day felt like we were putting out fires and there was no time to breathe.

But it wasn’t only difficult because of the pandemic. Even once the dust settled and we weren’t facing daily emergencies, the job had obstacles. I was expected to pivot my daily schedule with the drop of a hat, it was hard to set expectations with students when they knew I’d only be there for a short time and there was a real lack of support.

My time subbing gave me an inside look at the ways in which educators are thrust into situations they are not adequately equipped or prepared for. One of the first signs that this new role was going to be a taxing one was the fact that I rarely knew in advance if I would be covering a class. It was common to be notified that I was needed as a substitute the day of, and in many instances, just minutes before the kids were into the classroom. Every day was drastically different from the last, especially in that first year.

Fortunately, I had a number of factors working in my favor. First, I was able to draw from my experience being in classrooms as a para to inform my practices as a substitute teacher. Plus, I already had preexisting relationships with the majority of the students before I subbed in their classroom and knew what classroom management style worked with them. These are luxuries that are not afforded to most subs. Even still, I struggled to form deeper connections with students, to engage them while I was implementing lesson plans on-the-fly, and to hold them to high standards, when they knew it was likely that I wouldn’t be there the next day.

The thing that really struck me though, was even in this very specific case in which a role was created to solve a critical problem, there was a lack of preparation. I didn’t have to attend professional development or training to become a PCM. I remember wondering: How can schools and districts expect to retain subs if they are not equipping them with the tools necessary to set them up for success?

In the midst of the chaos of 2020 and its aftermath, I found reasons to come to work each day. Mostly, I found purpose in knowing that the teaching shortage was tough on students and I could help. If a sub couldn’t not be found, classes were often split; special classes that students loved like music, art and physical education were canceled; and too often, the special education teachers in co-teaching environments were being pulled for coverage and students were losing out. By stepping in, I was supporting the students and they were excited to have me there. Hearing them shout “We have Mr. Parra today!” when they realized I’d be subbing was what got me through the day.

My colleagues were also a source of comfort. I was at the end of my rope and in my conversations with my colleagues I began to understand that I was not alone in how I was feeling. Being under constant pressure to perform at pre-pandemic levels was proving to be too much. The world had changed and my job was fundamentally different. It felt as though the only ones who did not seem to get that memo were district leaders.

In Fall 2022, about a month into the school year, my principal told me that the PCM position was effectively dissolved. The additional compensation that I depended on to help support my family was taken away swiftly and without official notice, and my time teaching classes came to an end.

In my eight years as a paraprofessional, I’ve often felt undervalued, underpaid and too often, forgotten, but education is the field I’ve dreamed of working in for as long as I can remember. This opportunity gave me a taste of what it would be like to have my own classroom and it was eye-opening. Some days, I could picture myself becoming a teacher and other days I found myself questioning whether or not I can realistically continue on this path without substantive changes to workforce conditions.

Time for Change

After this experience, I can say it comes as no surprise that the substitute shortage has raged on for so long. As it exists today, it’s not a very enticing job.

If school and district leaders wish to retain the subs they already have and attract strong new candidates, they need to start thinking about bold changes that can lead to longer-term solutions. Those might include offering comprehensive training and ongoing professional development; increasing pay and benefits for substitute teachers; and putting a support system in place to foster a substitute teacher’s ability to develop stronger bonds with students and colleagues to better equip them to step into the classroom.

Unfortunately, these changes aren’t coming fast enough. Educators at every level are being pushed to their limits. Many are still leaving the profession and shortages remain.

I often hear district leaders and education policymakers praising the work educators do day in and day out, and speaking about how our children deserve the most qualified teachers. My plea is for them to back their words with action. And my hope is that while they’re hard at work on solutions, they recognize that substitute teachers are an integral part of the education system and our children deserve the most qualified, prepared substitute teachers too.

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