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A Times Editorial

In search of stronger substitute teachers

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 26, 2002

In the classroom, there is no substitute for a well-rounded teacher. Education, experience, enthusiasm and a familiarity with students are essential ingredients in achieving success with students, from kindergarten to high school.

But it is becoming increasingly difficult for school districts to fill that bill. Low pay, demanding work and turnover have combined to create a national shortage of teachers, which has forced school boards and superintendents to be smarter and more aggressive in their recruiting efforts. Citrus County is no exception.

And that's just the situation for hiring and retaining full-time teachers. The challenge of finding quality substitute teachers also is problematic, and School Board member Carol Snyder is shining a light on that problem.

Snyder wants the district to make a greater effort at recruiting and hiring substitute teachers who are better educated. Specifically, she wants the district to require substitute teachers to have a bachelor's degree from an accredited university or college. Only about 25 percent of the substitutes she counted met that threshold, and only 51 percent of the so-called long-term substitutes are degreed.

That's a promising goal, but may not go far enough toward strengthening the requirements. The district also should consider, as some other counties have done, requiring substitutes to undergo some training before entering the classroom, including shadowing a full-time teacher.

In addition, it would improve learning and continuity in the classroom if substitute teachers had certification or experience in the subject they are teaching. For instance, an art teacher should not be expected to teach math, or a science instructor to teach a foreign language.

Too often substitutes fulfill the role of a babysitter instead of a teacher because they are unfamiliar with the lesson plans and the progress and potential of their students. It stands to reason that teachers who have degrees, and who are experienced and/or certified in specific disciplines, have a much better chance of succeeding when thrust into a new environment.

Parents and taxpayers have a reasonable expectation that the men and women who instruct their children possess the skills necessary to guide their children in the classroom. Those skills include maturity, an even temperament and the motivation to do the best job they can. But it also is important to have an educational background that enables them to build the bridges that connect information and learning.

Snyder should not be alone in this pursuit. Her colleague on the board, Ginger Bryant, cited this issue when she campaigned for office almost two years ago. She, too, has expressed concern about the practice of employing long-term, uncertified substitute teachers as a way to fill jobs that should be occupied by full-time teachers. And as a teacher, Bryant has firsthand knowledge of the continuity problems created by frequent and unexpected use of substitutes.

Other board members should join Snyder and Bryant in pursuing higher standards on this issue, and implore Superintendent David Hickey to do a better job of identifying and hiring substitutes who are college graduates, and who have previous experience as full-time teachers.

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