Not long ago, I took my five-year-old granddaughter to see a rollicking musical based on the popular children’s book Miss Nelson is Missing by Harry Allard and James Marshall.
Miss Nelson’s class is an unruly gang of paper airplane throwers, and when she takes some mysterious time off, a scary substitute named Viola Swamp appears. She makes the kids wish they had their old teacher back.
Spoiler alert: Miss Nelson IS Miss Swamp - in disguise. Armed with that knowledge, my young companion was unfazed when the terrifying Viola Swamp stomped on stage. She’d read the book, and knew it had a happy ending.
Now, to be fair to the Miss Swamps of the world, a substitute teacher might, herself, find it scary to step in at the last minute and attempt to bring order to a chaotic classroom, with a lesson plan she - or he - didn’t devise, for kids who may see a stand-in as mostly a target for pranks.
For all that stress and strain, substitute teachers don’t get paid all that much. In Vermont, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the hourly mean wage is about fifteen dollars, though rates vary widely from one district to another.
Qualifications are minimal: subs must be at least 18, have a high school diploma, U.S. citizenship or a work visa, and pass a background check. Data from the National Education Association show that many states set the bar higher than we do. In California, Connecticut, and Illinois, for example, substitute teachers must hold bachelor’s degrees, and are paid accordingly.
A 2012 article in Education Week magazine estimates that the average teacher misses between 6 and 13 days a year. Occasionally, there are longer sub stints, as in maternity leaves. And just a few weeks in a child’s academic career can be a game changer, for better or worse. So there are calls for a better qualified substitute teaching workforce. But that’s a tall order, with many districts already experiencing acute shortages of short-term staff.
The soft-hearted but savvy Miss Nelson masquerades as her own substitute and solves behavioral problems without costing the district an extra cent. But in real life, it takes money to train and reward the people we ask to fill last-minute teaching assignments, and we ought to be willing to spend it, if we want every school day to count.