Susan Rodgers has substituted in K-12 classrooms in North Idaho for 30 years.
Some days are spent working one-on-one with special education students; on other days she might be managing a kindergarten classroom or teaching high school math.
The 54-year-old works almost every day, she said.
Her qualifications: an associate degree in elementary education, enough assertiveness to manage a class of even the rowdiest students and a good reputation among teachers.
From kindergarten to graduation, an average student will have spent more than a year being taught by a substitute teacher.
Depending on the state, the quality of the education provided by “subs” varies.
Twenty-eight states require no more than a high school diploma for those temporary teachers, according to national data. Seven require some college education, and 15 states require substitutes to have a college degree.
The Inland Northwest’s neighboring states are at opposite ends of the qualification spectrum. In Washington, substitutes must be certified teachers – a bachelor’s degree plus a one-year teaching program. In Idaho, a high school diploma could be enough to step into a classroom.
The Idaho Department of Education has considered increasing the requirements for substitutes but backed off because small, rural school districts voiced concerns about their ability to fill their substitute openings, said Melissa McGrath, department spokeswoman.
Each state sets its own requirement level. School districts can set additional qualifications but cannot go below the state standard.
The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union for educators, has advocated for change in the qualification gap for substitutes.
High standards are important, and there should be a national skill level requirement, said John Wright, an NEA senior policy analyst for teacher quality.
When a substitute can’t maintain instructional quality, momentum will be lost, he said.
Permanent subs eyed
The need for substitute teachers arises most commonly due to teacher illness and teacher training or professional development. Those two reasons account for close to 70 percent of the absences in Spokane Public Schools, the region’s largest school district.
Spokane Public Schools’ teacher absentee rate ranges between 11 percent and 13 percent daily. Put another way, on average, 176 to 215 substitutes fill in for the district’s 1,641 full-time-equivalent teachers each day.
In Coeur d’Alene School District, the average is 10 percent, or 55 to 60 subs for close to 600 teachers.
The national average for teacher absenteeism is 8 to 10 percent.
Spokane Public Schools’ board members and superintendent learned about the high rate this spring.
“We don’t want absenteeism,” said Superintendent Shelley Redinger. “There isn’t a good substitute for the classroom teacher.”
Students need consistency and continuity, she said.
To address the problem, the district plans on hiring eight or nine permanent substitutes. Those people would be full-time employees who would be assigned to certain buildings, “so they get to know the people and build relationships,” Redinger said. Ensuring a continuum of learning is easier when instructors know the system, she said.
Permanent subs are common in larger districts, education experts say.
Low pay hinders hiring
North Idaho has many small, rural school districts where substitute teachers with more than a high school diploma could be hard to find.
The Coeur d’Alene School District is an exception, but finding strong candidates there is still tough because substitute pay comes in at the low end of the scale, said Tim Sandford, a Coeur d’Alene Education Association vice president.
A full day of subbing in Coeur d’Alene School District pays $60; half-day pay is $35, according to the school district.
Spokane Public Schools pays $116.62 per day. Nationwide, the range is between $55 and $120, national data show.
“Ideally, we’d want a certified teacher, but the reality is we can’t afford it,” Sandford said.
The Coeur d’Alene School District gives first preference to subs with a degree and teaching certificate, followed by those with a bachelor’s degree, and finally, those going through an education program at an accredited school.
All the substitute applicants are screened and put into a pool along with others from the Lakeland and Post Falls school districts.
Rodgers, the 30-year sub, has been teaching in Coeur d’Alene School District for so long that teachers often call her to request that she substitute, she said.
She said her lack of formal training doesn’t create an obstacle.
Teachers usually leave really good notes, she said, or sometimes they’ll just tell her to show a movie. She hates that, she noted, because she’d rather teach.
She believes the most important quality of a sub is to be confident and assertive.
“Kids can sense if you know what you’re doing or not,” Rodgers said. “I don’t have a problem because I know how to manage a classroom. When the bell rings, I stand up and say, ‘This is my time. Let’s take roll and get started.’ ”