Hamilton County Schools relies on more than 850 substitute teachers to fill in for regular classroom teachers, but finding enough subs for the right school at the right time is a daily challenge, educators say.
Some subs agree to teach only at certain schools, others only on specific days of the week.
Substitute pay is $51.50 a day for someone with a high school degree, $56.65 for a college graduate and $61.80 for a certified teacher. More than half of the school district’s substitutes have no college degree. Among the college graduates, 114 of the substitutes are certified teachers, according to school administrators.
Some argue the money isn’t enough.
“They don’t pay (substitutes) enough to make it worth their while,” Lisa Huskey, principal of Signal Mountain Middle School, said.
If no substitute can be found, principals must scramble to split up students in the absent teacher’s class among several classrooms.
Matthew Craig taught technology at Chattanooga Middle School, the Hamilton County School where teacher attendance in 2007 was 92 percent. When covering for other teachers, he was never as productive, he said.
“Your class goes from 20-24 kids up to 30-32, and that’s a huge difference,” he said. “You’re almost into damage control rather than presenting a worthwhile lesson.”
Although Mr. Craig was surprised teacher absenteeism was so high at Chattanooga Middle last year, he said the closing of the school to merge with Normal Park Museum Magnet had a huge impact.
“Morale was low,” he said. “Even though we were focused on meeting (adequate yearly progress), everybody kind of saw the writing on the wall. There wasn’t as much buy-in.”
At Brainerd High School on any given day last year, almost nine classes had substitutes, according to figures provided by the Hamilton County Department of Education.
Shabnam Kaderi-Kendall quit her job as a math teacher at Brainerd in March, after a year she called “a stressful situation for everyone involved.”
Two new assistant principals and another who was suspended for most of the year created “complete upheaval” from the top down, she said.
“There wasn’t a lot of job satisfaction,” she said. “When you don’t feel good about your job, you’re likely to be sick or play sick and get out.”
The high number of unfilled absences at Brainerd — 247 — was not surprising to Ms. Kaderi-Kendall either.
“There were either a lot of absences last-minute and there was no time to fill them, or, and I find this likely, the substitutes just don’t want to be there,” she said.
Messages left for Brainerd principal Frank Jones were not returned.
Even the best substitute is no replacement for a classroom teacher, said Ms. Huskey of Signal Mountain Middle,.
“Nobody can replace the instruction of the regular classroom teacher,” she said. “Any time a teacher is out, you have an issue with kids not getting instruction.”
Clara Sale-Davis, director of the Benwood Initiative at the Public Education Foundation, agrees.
“I think subs are wonderful, but do they have all the tools necessary to teach these kids?” she asked. “Or is it going to be worksheet city and movie time until the teacher gets back?”
Substitutes often cite classroom management as their biggest hurdle, so their teaching days may be spent on crowd control rather than quality instruction. Educators said some substitutes have trouble gaining their temporary students’ respect.
Chad Cate substituted at Ganns Middle Valley Elementary School for the last two months of school while a teacher took maternity leave.
“But I’m a bigger guy, and they are less likely to try to get away with something,” Mr. Cate said.
Younger students such as the first-graders Mr. Cate taught are sometimes apprehensive about the unknown.
“When he first came, we were kind of nervous,” said 6-year-old Emily Bowers.
“Yeah, we didn’t know his name at first. Now we got used to him,” added Taylor Ward, 7.
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...