Substitute teachers are the unsung heroes of the school community. As we celebrate Substitute Educators Day this Friday, November 18, it’s worth highlighting how important subs are to a successful school. I retired last June after five years as principal of Forest High School in Ocala, FL, and immediately took a new position as the principal of a new charter high school that will open in Ocala this fall. In my previous job, and in this one helping to plan the new school, I have tried to make sure that our substitutes were valued and appreciated—and that they would want to come and work at our school again.
Finding enough good substitute teachers has never been easy, but it’s been harder since the pandemic. Some subs never came back, some found jobs that paid better, and some have found it difficult to teach the rigorous content required at the high school level.
Our first priority as administrators, no matter what else is on our plates, is to ensure that instruction continues even if the teacher is absent. We must make sure our students are actually learning. When we couldn’t get enough subs, I did my fair share of substituting, along with my other administrators. I like to say I did OK unless it was a math classroom. I did follow the lesson plan. Was there rigorous teaching involved? Probably not.
That’s why we must rely heavily on teachers having solid lesson plans, whether for the substitute or for whoever is covering the class that day. There were many times when teacher absences were unexpected, so we didn’t always have a good lesson plan available. One thing we decided to do was build a virtual folder of lesson plans we could pull from in case the teacher didn’t have a specific one available.
As I’m planning this new school, one thing I’m going to do during teacher planning week is give teachers enough time, in groups or individually, to prepare three days of universal lesson plans. That way, I will have a file cabinet in my office with specific content that we can pull from instead of putting something together at the last minute when someone is out.
I will also be recruiting new substitutes anytime I’m in a place where people are talking about education, especially with retired teachers. They are some of the best subs since they have the skills, and they know the lay of the land.
I quickly learned how important it is to treat your regular substitutes well. Even though they are employees of the district, they are basically coming to your home to do a job for you and help your students. When they walk into my school, I think it’s important for them to feel a warm, welcoming environment; I always introduce myself, thank them for coming, and make sure someone checked on them during the day.
That sort of support goes a long way toward getting them to come back, because they have the choice whether or not to return to your school. Inevitably, they will choose the school where they feel welcomed and supported, and where they are not overused.
If I had to rank employees’ importance to the school, substitute teachers would be way up there. Aside from the continuity of instruction they provide and allowing administrators to do their jobs rather than filling in as needed, they provide an important service to the full-time teachers as well. Teachers need to be able to take care of themselves. You don’t want a teacher who is ill coming to school. And if they are unable to rest and get well, they may push themselves too hard. Whenever you have a teacher who needs to take time off, you want them to feel confident that they can take that time and that the instruction and learning they work so hard on with their students will continue even if they are out.