Desperately Seeking Substitutes

Teachers Out

It used to be that Marjorye Savage Heeney got hardly a smile from principals or even a kindly word from veteran teachers.

While she still has to duck the occasional spitball from kids, this year Ms. Heeney and 250 other substitute teachers in Topeka, Kan., will be treated to nothing less than Holiday Tea.

The feted pedagogues will sip punch, munch crumpets, and get awards - Substitute of the Year, Longest Serving Substitute, and more.

It's part of one district's aggressive effort to woo the hottest commodity in the education community: subs.

Across the country, schools are similarly scrambling to find fill-ins. Pushed by everything from a burgeoning student population to full-time teachers attending more off-campus workshops, many districts are working ever harder just to make sure someone is standing at every chalkboard.

* In Auburn, Wash., schools are boosting pay and dropping standards for substitutes. Starting today, subs will get $100 a day - up from $92 - and no longer have to be certified teachers. A bachelor's degree will do just fine.

* In Broward County, Fla., - just north of Miami - 1,000 of the district's 11,000 teachers are out each day. This summer, officials scoured old files and sent letters to hundreds of retired teachers. The result: a treasure trove of more than 100 willing workers.

* Postings on the Internet and $400 ads in The New York Times are the latest ploys to attract subs by officials at the William Floyd School District in Mastic Beach, N.Y. Radio spots may be next.

In Topeka, as many as 200 substitute teachers are needed each day. "They're tough to find," says Ned Nusbaum, assistant superintendent of schools, who arranged the holiday high tea. "My attitude is to tell them, 'We need you, we appreciate you, we love you.' "

In the old days, says Heeney, "They'd just give you the key and say, 'Your room is there.' They wouldn't even tell you where the teachers' lounge was." Now there's a new attitude. "Somebody even walks you to your classroom."

Amid all this wooing, many subs are starting to make demands - including when and where they work.

Heeney, for instance, now considers subbing a hobby - to be squeezed in amid trumpet lessons and ballroom dancing. After years of dutifully going to the schools that most needed her, she now prefers to work with special-ed children "because it's a challenge," or with gifted students because "they have a plan."

Indeed, because subs in many cities now call the shots, they often avoid going to unsafe schools, especially those in poor areas. This puts pressure on some schools that need the most help, observers say. They either can't find fill-ins or get inexperienced subs.

John Dorschner knows about a rookie's life. When he started subbing last year in Miami's Dade County - after showing he had two years of college credit and passing a drug test - he was sent to schools with the worst discipline problems.

"If you're a substitute starting out, you're going to get called by the tough school," says Mr. Dorschner. He sometimes found chaos in the classrooms - students climbing on desks, screaming, clicking the lights on and off. "I felt like a policeman - but not a very good policeman," he says. After days like that, many subs opt for more genteel settings.

Quality concerns

But even schools that can find enough good subs struggle to keep quality high.

Topeka, for instance, increasingly calls in "emergency" subs - those who don't have teaching certificates but do have 60 hours of college credit. Three years ago, it hired three emergency subs a semester. Now it hires 30 a day.

And any time a teacher is in the classroom for only a day or two, officials say, critical continuity is lost.

"If we're not careful," says Frank Petruzielo, Broward County's superintendent of schools, for some kids "the definition of a teacher is seven or eight different subs over a few months."

Many schools resort to sending guidance counselors, librarians, even principals into the classroom.

Because they're only there for short periods, subs can't "contribute to the curriculum and education in the classroom," says Mr. Nusbaum. Most often subs are "there to manage the classroom. No learning takes place."

Teachers too busy to teach

One of the biggest reasons schools are scrambling to get good subs may well be the economy. With a plethora of well-paying jobs available, more people are forgoing a hectic day in the classroom.

But the reasons are internal, too. An emphasis on professional development means many full-time teachers spend more time away from the classroom. "It used to be that teachers were either teaching or ill," says Nusbaum. "Today they're not in the classroom, they're getting training every day - from technology to multiculturalism to AIDS prevention."

With the need ever growing, schools are working harder to attract and keep subs.

In Miami, Pruchelle Revell knows how hard schools work. She recently took a full-time teaching job, but during her sub years her phone started ringing at 5:30 a.m. Within minutes, her answering machine was clogged. Some districts even use computers to automatically call subs to ask for help. "It was like a rat race," says Ms. Revell.

Many school districts are now securing their best subs by retaining them on a full-time basis.

Broward County spent $1 million last year to create a pool of full-time subs for its poorest schools.

Edwyn Jones just got a permanent sub job at Orchard Villa Elementary in Dade County. He gets $90 a day, instead of the regular $75. And he and his colleagues aren't just trying to survive one day in a new school. "They know the school's rules, they know the staff, and they know the kids," Mr. Jones says. "They're not just warm bodies holding a class, praying chaos doesn't break into their classroom. They're there to try to teach."

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