More Educational Surprises (or, subs are not sandwiches)

Here we go again. Remember the teacher shortage I wrote about a few weeks ago? Well, apparently it caught up with Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, TN. According to USA Today, this school – a school at which President Obama gave the 2011 commencement speech due to an inspiring turn-around story – went almost a full year without a certified Chemistry teacher. Lo and behold, none of the students passed the state’s year-end Chemistry test.

The article goes on to explain that the Chemistry teacher received a promotion in November, and the principal had difficulty filling the position with a qualified teacher. As I have mentioned before, although these types of issues seem surprising to non-educators, this is not an uncommon phenomenon. As of this writing (October, 2017 – well after the start of the school year), the following positions remain vacant in the Charleston, SC, tri-county area: Math/Science: 21, Special Education: 34, other certified teachers: 53. These numbers exclude critical ancillary positions, such as school counselors, media specialists, teaching assistants, bus drivers, head start teachers, and administrators.

To add insult to injury, districts are offering bonuses like never before – there are bonuses for Math/Science teachers, positions in rural areas, and special education teachers, as well as money for relocation. And yet, there are over 100 vacancies! What do you think is happening right now in those 100+ classrooms?

According to the USA Today article, Booker T Washington replaced the absent Chemistry teacher with an unqualified, long-term substitute. In this predicament, that is actually the best-case scenario. Because, guess what? There is a substitute teacher shortage, as well! (Coincidentally, the day after I wrote this piece, there was a report about sub shortages on our local evening news). All too often, classrooms go without a substitute when a teacher is absent. In those cases, it is up to the school building administrators to figure out what to do with the teacher-less students. At the high school level (based on my experience only) teachers are frequently asked to give up their planning period to cover a colleague’s class. This means that the covering teacher must take home even more work – planning and grading on his/her own (unpaid) time.

In an attempt to blame someone for the “oversight” that occurred at BTW, the author of the article points out that, according to state law,  “a substitute teacher who is in a core class more than 20 days must be licensed and endorsed to teach that subject.” Ok, does anyone else see the irony here? If there isn’t a qualified teacher to hire, what difference does it make if you have a law in place? Furthermore, what’s the point of a law like this when you can’t control the candidate pool? I get it…the intent is to ensure that school districts make every effort to secure a qualified teacher, but often times, the district’s hands are tied.

(To be fair, in the case of BTW, there seems to be some confusion as to whether the principal deliberately passed up potentially qualified candidates in his search for a teacher who was “a better fit” for the team. In that case, there might be some blame to assign).

In a previous blog, I wrote that – surprisingly – money is not the primary issue behind the teacher shortage. Instead, college graduates cited bureaucracy, frustrating working conditions, a lack of professional control, and no room for intellectual growth. Even so, here is what I found after a brief search of the Bureau of Labor and Statistics:

Average salary of a public high school teacher: $61,280 (no paid overtime)

Average salary of a chemist/physical scientist/physicist: $80,820 – $121,770

These types of stories – teacher shortages, unqualified subs in the classroom, educators begging for supplies – sound like an aberration. The sad truth is that these issues are all too common. The fact that politicians and reporters seem so surprised by the data speaks to how out-of-touch they are with the realities of the classroom and the daily struggle of educators across the nation.

We must stop blaming teachers for everything that is wrong in education and start looking for real solutions. We can start by asking the right questions: Why are college graduates avoiding the profession? Is standardized testing a panacea? Where is the money going? Why is teacher attrition so high? Should we fit every square peg through the same round hole?

Once we ask the right questions, perhaps then, we can find some answers.