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Why a substitute teacher often means busywork for students
An inside look at the reasons ...
Originally published in the Moultrie News.
When my child has a substitute teacher, the regular teacher often leaves behind busywork, computer work, or no work at all (the kids will just watch movies instead of learning). I’ve heard you say there are only 180 opportunities a year for teachers to make an impact, and every one of them should matter. Can teachers do better than this when they have to have a substitute?
I agree with the concern, and the knee-jerk answer is yes, they can and they should. But as with many things educational, the situation is more nuanced than it initially appears.
First, let’s clear up some misunderstandings that may have crept into your perception. Quiet, independent work is not necessarily “busywork.” Busywork has only one goal: keep kids distracted so they don’t eat each other alive. Students may think a report or set of worksheets is pointless, but often these activities can fulfill important educational goals without the student even realizing it.
Likewise, videos and computer work don’t have to be time-killers. I agree that screen time must be strictly rationed lest the “Z” in “Gen Z” stand for “Zombie,” but it can, under certain circumstances, serve an educational purpose as well. For example, some documentaries can do as good a job of instructing as teachers can. And a well-designed video lesson can help kids become active, critical viewers. That’s important in today’s world of mindless binge-watching.
Of course, many teachers don’t follow this pattern, so it may be helpful to explain why absent teachers sometimes leave unchallenging lessons for substitutes to deliver.
Frequently, there isn’t enough time to pull together a full day’s slate of rigorous activities. If teachers are sick, they may have to prepare lessons on extremely short notice, using only what’s available at home and what can be emailed to a colleague. Also, if they’re truly ill, they may not have the strength to prepare a more developed lesson than “Show ‘em the ‘The Polar Express.’”
Another reason: when a teacher leaves a substantial activity, many kids won’t do it or will pay it little attention. Giving those kids bad grades can come back to haunt the teacher through irate parents who blame teachers for any failure and principals who won’t uphold the failing grades anyway.
If you think teachers are poorly compensated, substitutes are even worse off, and that’s another problem. Rigorous, high-challenging lessons are difficult to explain and a struggle to pull off, especially for kids whose general respect for a substitute is commensurate with what that individual is paid. Why would a teacher do that to a friend in the foxhole? The gentler response is to leave something that will keep kids — and therefore substitutes — at peace.
Many teachers have been conditioned to avoid putting their backs into preparing substitute lesson plans because substitutes are frequently unavailable. This is a big problem that’s getting bigger. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, rising shortages have resulted in 20% of requests for substitutes going unfilled. The Bureau notes that schools accommodate these unfilled requests “by moving students to other classes, pulling in other school personnel to cover for the absent teacher or moving students to the gym, cafeteria or library, with little to no supervision.”
That analysis is spot on. And as for the “whys” of the substitute shortage, the reasons are precisely the same as for regular teachers: low pay and bad working conditions. You can read about those in other columns.
None of this, of course, is to justify the practice of leaving watered-down lessons for substitutes. I’m just explaining the reality of the situation. More focus on the problem would fix many of the issues, and I wholeheartedly agree it is a legitimate concern. But right now, education has a thousand problems, and too much of “The Polar Express” for kids without a teacher is unlikely to crack the top 20 anytime soon.
Read the original column here.
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