What does it mean for a school district to recognize the crucial role of substitute teachers?

Nov 20, 2020

Substitute teachers are as important as ever, and many school districts, like Lake Havasu Unified School District, are looking at ways to support and maintain strong relationships with this crucial part of the teaching community.

“Statistically speaking, a student will spend roughly 10 percent of their career, K-12, with a substitute,” says Jaime Festa-Daigle, NBCT, Director of Personnel and Technology at Lake Havasu. “That’s a lot of time. As a teacher, I don’t think I ever thought about that cumulative number; I only thought about my time.”

Substitutes may fill in for individual days when a teacher needs to attend an event elsewhere or takes a sick day. Long-term ‘subs’ may fill in for weeks or months at a time because of a teacher’s medical leave or if a district isn’t able to fill a position with a certified teacher. A rural district like Lake Havasu, Festa-Daigle says, likely has more demand for substitutes. Being further away from other districts or larger cities means that teachers who coach sports teams or who need to attend professional development events may travel for a full day to get to their destination.

For the two years Festa-Daigle has been in her current role, Lake Havasu has worked to expand its support of substitute teachers. The training helps substitutes “think about what it means to be a teacher versus just walking in and filling in,” Festa-Daigle explains. “What does it mean for their understanding of continuity of learning? How do I have different learning strategies that I’m able to do? How do I understand the culture of the school?’”

Often the hardest-to-fill teaching positions are those for students that require the most qualified teachers, like special education, Festa-Daigle explains. “These are the kids that need the most care. What does that look like?”

Sherry Bidwell has been substituting in Lake Havasu Unified School District for four years, starting out filling in for single days or short amounts of time but now handling long-term positions. This school year, she is in what will likely be a year-long position as a special education teacher for kindergarten through fourth grade.

“With substitute teaching, every classroom is different, every teacher is different, the rules are different, the school is different,” Bidwell explains. “Just doing it through experience, you’ll get to know how this school works, how this classroom works, what this teacher does.”

Bidwell loves the variety that comes with being a sub, though it can be challenging at times. Her advice to subs is to rely on your partners at the school or district when you’re unsure about something. They are there to support. As a long-term substitute, she notes, you’re able to more fully develop that understanding of that class, both logistics like the attendance system, passwords for programs and the students themselves and where they are in their learning journeys.

Bidwell holds a business degree and was a sales manager for a hotel chain before leaving that position to focus on raising her kids. She was first a classroom aide in her children’s school before starting to substitute.

As a Christian, she feels called to help her community in this way, Bidwell says. “There’s a need, and a lot of people can’t substitute, but this is a good fit for me. I enjoy the students, I love teaching, I love seeing their expressions when they finally get the math equation or the concept.” 

Festa-Daigle recognizes how crucial substitutes are and that they need to have the broad knowledge teachers do.

“Substitutes are in classrooms when there are emergencies. Substitutes are in classrooms when there are lockdowns. Substitutes are in classrooms when there are health emergencies,” she says. Lake Havasu is working to provide substitutes with instructional training but also an understanding of what to do in those situations, both logistically and emotionally.

“Those are things that I don’t think anyone thinks about,” Festa-Daigle says. “It’s just, ‘get a substitute cert,’ but there really is a lot that is on schools if we want that quality to be there but there isn’t that support. Their positions are really, really important.”

Like full-time teachers, substitutes are connecting with kids, often seeing them in one class one day and another on another day or day-to-day for long-term subs, she continues. “They’re really important people in kids’ lives, in making those impressions. We owe it to them to provide support.”

Festa-Daigle says Lake Havasu’s substitute pipeline has become a two-way street for full-time, certified teachers: retired teachers often stay on as substitutes and substitutes who become comfortable in that role are often transitioning to full-time teaching. The district is also continually connecting with families in the community about substituting. This year, the district has also worked to emergency certify area college students, who bring both a comfort with the technology being used during distance learning and content expertise related to their majors.

Festa-Daigle is a substitute herself.

“As an administrator, it’s important for me personally to try to sub at least one time a year,” she says. The experience helps focus her daily work. “This is what we’re asking people to do all the time. I think that’s really important work. I always remind people, ‘Sign up to sub, even if it’s just one time.’ That’s really helped in my practice, and helps all of us be better at what we do.”

Bidwell also encourages others to learn more about substitute teaching.

“You don’t do it for the money; you do it to make a difference in the children’s lives,” she says. “You have to be passionate about kids and education. You want people to want to be there and care about the education of the students.”

To become a substitute teacher in Arizona, you need a bachelor’s degree, a fingerprint clearance card from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, and to apply to the Arizona Department Education. Find more information about becoming a certified substitute in Arizona at this link. Call the schools in your area directly or check out their websites to learn about how to apply to substitute teach at their location.

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