A school bus drops off students at Mira Mesa High School. Photo by Chris Stone
It’s 7 on a Wednesday morning after winter break at Monte Vista High School in Spring Valley, California, one of the many high schools in the Grossmont Union High School District.
The principal’s secretary has printed color-coded spreadsheet copies of the day’s substitute schedule — orange for me, fuchsia for another substitute, green for Mr. H., light blue for Mr. S., etc. We are still short six substitute teachers when the phone rings and one more teacher calls out for the day.
We are now seven substitutes short, with a total of 15 teachers out.
The secretary changes what she calls her “daily puzzle” for the third time, shifting substitutes to cover needed classes, requesting those who can to stay late, asking regular teachers if they are willing to give up their prep periods to cover another teacher’s class.
Later, I will run — literally — across campus from a biology class to cover for a special education teacher. I will pass another substitute who is power-walking, having given up his prep period to fill in for a physical education class. To make matters worse, the librarian is absent, so the school will have to close the library, the place where we corral an overflow of students when there is no substitute to cover a class.
Sadly, this is not an isolated event, but an all-too-common pandemic-induced occurrence, not just at this high school, but at high schools throughout California. In years past, finding enough substitute teachers was not a daily struggle. Now it seems as if every substitute teacher is in high demand.
As one of three resident on-site substitute teachers this year, I was fortunate to become part of the school’s community, on the frontlines of education during the COVID-19 and then the omicron pandemic surges. But it wasn’t just teachers calling in sick that contributed to the absenteeism; some lacked child care because of the new COVID restrictions.
Before the pandemic, it wasn’t uncommon for parents to send their kids to school with sniffles, as long they weren’t running a fever. But during the pandemic, a runny nose would send the little ones straight home, keeping the working parent home as well. I often heard about the frustrations of teachers who were forced to lose another day of sick pay to what seemed like a perpetual cycle of sniffles.
In my experience, most substitute teachers — perhaps 60% — are older adults, many of them retired teachers or other professionals. In just one week, I met a former physics professor, a retired civil engineer, a published author, a retired physical education coach and a former English teacher. Elders have learned the necessity of patience, giving them the advantage of being seldom stirred by the emotional transitions of teens.
Yet everyone has their tipping point. Between the health risk of working during the pandemic and the new social and surprising emotional adjustment so many students faced after a long quarantine from school, many of our substitutes called it quits. Some relocated to more affordable states, creating a wider substitute shortage
As for the younger substitutes, teaching is a good opportunity for those in the teacher credentialing program to gain both on-the-job experience and an income. It’s also a good way to increase visibility once you have completed the program and are hoping to get hired as a permanent teacher. According to Education Week, enrollment in the teacher credentialing program has plummeted, so we have lost a large portion of this population to the sub pool.
What can be done to replenish this vital but diminishing population of credentialed employees? Certainly the well-deserved pay increase over the past year was appreciated. But how about significantly reducing the California Commision on Teacher Credentialing 30-day substitute-teaching permit application fee — which is $102.50 — so that we don’t deter people at the starting gate? For those annually renewing their permit, the fee should be waived altogether.
We are in a new era that emphasizes treating others with kindness and equality. It’s true that during the pandemic, substitute teachers were acknowledged more. It’s amazing how encouraging a genuine “thank you for being here” can be. It’s a step in the right direction, and hopefully such courtesies will continue. After a very stressful year, schools realized just how valuable substitute teachers are.
I for one will continue this journey. Now if only my commute was cheaper.
Hope Gorecki is a former English teacher in the San Diego Unified School District who works as a substitute teacher in both San Diego and Grossmont district high schools. She wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.