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Dadline: Schools in need of substitutes

Dadline: Schools in need of substitutes

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Kitty Ramsey has a terrific job.

She works with people she likes. Her bosses appreciate her. Really, they are thrilled when she shows up for work. Her co-workers are thrilled, too. She makes their workdays so much easier. Better still, she chooses the days she works. So, if she decides she wants to take Friday off, nobody can stop her.

That’s because Ramsey is a substitute school teacher.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s really fun. I wish more people would do it.”

That’s the problem. More people are not taking jobs as substitutes. The pandemic, the plethora of open jobs nationwide and the lack of workers to fill them, combined with the exhausting demands of being a teacher have all created a situation that qualifies as an education crisis. Every day in many school divisions across the country — and especially here in Southwest Virginia — schools don’t have enough teachers to cover classes.

By now, you’ve read or heard stories about the dearth of substitutes and its impact on schools. Teachers in Botetourt County are stretched so thin because of pandemic-related absences, which forces available teachers to cover classes for those who are out because of COVID-19, that the school division decided to simply shut down early on Wednesdays to give everybody a break. Roanoke County announced that it is doing the same.

The Montgomery County School Board recently reduced its education requirements for substitute teachers. Previously, subs needed to have completed at least 60 hours of college credits to sub. Now, a high school diploma will suffice.

The need is great in Roanoke, which still maintains a requirement of a bachelor’s degree or 60 hours of college credits for substitutes. ESS, the company that manages substitute teaching for Roanoke City Public Schools, has about 100 people hired to substitute, but only about 60 or so are available on any given day.

“We are in desperate need of substitutes,” said Vaughn Fox, a Roanoke-based recruiter for ESS.

(Full disclosure: I have been a substitute teacher in Roanoke County, and I have been certified to sub in Roanoke City, but have not done so this year. I guess that makes me part of the problem.)

The pay is decent — ESS pays $100 per day to subs who have bachelor’s degrees, $90 to folks who have completed 60 hours of college credits. A long-term assignment at a specific school can pay $170 a day, $190 for people with active teaching licenses.

Claire Mitzel, Coordinator of Communications and Public Relations for Roanoke schools, said that all but one of the division’s schools have at least one building-based substitute. The division also plans to use more student teachers from regional colleges as subs.

“We are exploring a new opportunity to have our student-teachers substitute for their cooperating teacher in the case of an absence,” Mitzel wrote in an email. “We are working with our local colleges and universities on this partnership, and there will be certain prerequisites required.”

Ramsey, who substitutes in special education classes at Patrick Henry High School, retired last spring after 29 years as a special ed assistant. Her substitute jobs put her back in a familiar environment, she said.

“It’s like old home week for me,” she said.

She said that fulltime teachers can be helpful to the pinch-hitting substitutes.

“The teachers are just so grateful to have a sub,” she said. “They do the best they can to put a person in a position that’s not overwhelming.”

Speaking from personal experience, substitute teaching can be a challenge, especially for someone long removed from classroom experiences.

Every class these days has high-tech components to teaching. A sub must know how to use an electronic “whiteboard” or video monitor, give assignments via online platforms and understand how to read basic lesson plans provided by the absent teacher — all on the fly within a matter of minutes after arriving to the job.

The job can be invigorating. Older subs can “stay young,” at least in their own minds, by being in a classroom of kids. People who are considering teaching as a possible career can get a taste of what the job requires.

Right now, just about every school division is desperate for extra help. And I haven’t even mentioned the lack of school bus drivers, which is another problem in many school divisions.

Ramsey told me that she knows a teacher who retired last year, then became a substitute, only to find that he had to sub in his old job, which still hasn’t been filled.

“That’s a teacher subbing for himself,” she said.

If you would like to become a substitute teacher, go online and find the school division where you would like to work. Training isn’t hard, and if you pass background checks, you can be on the job pretty quickly. ESS, which hired Roanoke substitute teachers, holds training sessions every other Wednesday (https://ess.com).

“This is an issue across the country,” Fox said.

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