No Substitute for a Teacher

Adults’ absences shortchange students


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SPRING 2013 / VOL. 13, NO. 2

My son had a new degree and a nine-month unpaid gap in his training as a Marine Corps lieutenant. Please don’t fill it with a job at a liquor warehouse, I asked.

Instead, he became a substitute teacher.

In the college town where he was living, an astonishing 47 percent of the school district’s 721 teachers were absent more than 10 days during the school year, according to data the district reported to the U.S. Department of Education for a 2009–10 study. That number rose to 61 percent in an elementary school with one of the district’s highest percentages of black, Hispanic, and low-income children.

Even at that, the district’s absences don’t appear to be record setting. U.S. teachers take off an average of 9.4 days (roughly 1 day per month) each during a typical 180-day school year. By that estimate, the average child has substitute teachers for more than six months of his school career.

Those absences provided full-time employment for my son. With a month-old bachelor’s degree, he taught history and Spanish, his majors; calculus and literature; 2nd and 4th grades (after his second day on the job, the district asked him to take the 2nd-grade class for the rest of the year); tennis (no, he doesn’t play); and gym to a class of severely disabled high schoolers. Once, he worked as a secretary at the alternative school; none of the four teachers assigned to the school showed up that day.

The district didn’t pay much: $60 a day. But it also didn’t ask much in the way of credentials: no teaching certification, teacher education classes, or training beyond a three-hour orientation that focused mainly on administrative details like time sheets. That isn’t unusual either: in some of the country’s larger school districts—including Maryland’s Baltimore County, Florida’s Hillsborough County, Georgia’s Cobb County, and Colorado’s Jefferson County—substitutes need only a high-school GED.

My son taught a high-school unit on World War II, his intellectual passion. But most often, teachers left behind worksheets, quizzes, and videos for him to monitor, amounting to what University of Washington professor Marguerite Roza calls “a lost day for most kids, regardless of the qualifications of the sub.” Indeed, many schools are looking for someone just to keep order rather than to teach differential equations.

“A lot of times, principals are just praying for basic safety,” said Raegen T. Miller, who has studied teacher absenteeism as associate director of education research at the Center for American Progress and as part of a Harvard University team.

No problem there: my son is, after all, a Marine.

Counting the Days

The education department reported after the 2003–04 school year that 5.3 percent of U.S. teachers are absent on any given day, and that’s still the number most researchers use. But districts account for absences differently: some would count the tennis coach absent if he left his gym classes in the hands of a sub to attend an out-of-town tournament with his team; others wouldn’t. Some count professional development days when subs are hired to take the class; others don’t.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employs a weekly absence measure and reports that in 2011, nationwide, 3 percent of the workforce worked less than a 35-hour workweek because of absences. Among public-sector workers, rates were 3.9 for federal workers, 4.2 for state, and 3.6 for employees of local governments.

Geoffrey Smith, who studies substitute-teacher management and founded the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University, says, “A lot doesn’t get called in.” Each of Utah’s 42 school districts counts teacher absences differently, he told me, which means there’s little consistency in the data. Still, he said his surveys suggest that between 8 and 10 percent of teachers are absent on any given day, and there’s some anecdotal evidence on his side.

Last summer, for example, the Camden, New Jersey, school board outsourced its substitute hiring to a private vendor because the job was so onerous: between teachers calling in sick or on leave, the district needed to find subs for up to 40 percent of its teachers each day, it told the local newspaper. In a 2011 report for the Providence, Rhode Island, school board, researchers at Brown University’s Urban Education and Policy program found that the district’s 1,321 teachers took off an average of 21 days each per school year.

In the education department’s 2009–10 report—assembled by its Office for Civil Rights from surveys of 57,000 schools—on average, half the teachers in the 208 Rhode Island schools surveyed were absent more than 10 days during the year, surpassing teacher absences in Hawaii, Arkansas, Oregon, and New Mexico by only a whisker. Nationally, 36 percent of teachers were absent that often. And even in Utah, which reported the lowest absence rates to the department, 20 percent of teachers took off more than 10 days each school year.

Who are those teachers? Harvard researchers Raegen Miller, Richard Murnane, and John Willett studied a district they identified only as large, urban, and northern. Duke University researchers Charles Clotfelter, Helen Ladd, and Jacob Vigdor analyzed data from North Carolina schools. Both studies concluded that teachers in bigger schools were absent more often than those in smaller schools. Elementary-school teachers took off more time than did those in high school. Tenured teachers took off 3.7 more days than did those without tenure.

Teachers in traditional districts seem to take off more than those in charters. Using the education department’s Office for Civil Rights data, Miller estimates that about 37 percent of teachers are absent more than 10 days at district elementary and middle schools compared to 22 percent at charters.

Female teachers under age 35 averaged 3.2 more absences each school year than did men. Teachers who had a master’s degree or graduated from a competitive college took less time than those who didn’t. And teachers in low-income schools were absent more often than those serving higher-income families. One in 4 middle schools in the Duke study were among those with the highest absence rates, but that dropped to 1 in 12 among middle schools serving the district’s most affluent students.

Teachers argue that they’re absent as often as they are because they’re subject to all kinds of infections from sniffly-nosed youngsters and to intense stress in tough schools. Teaching—and particularly elementary-school teaching—is still a majority-female occupation, and child care still falls overwhelmingly on mothers, they add. When a teacher’s child is out with the flu, she may have little choice but to stay home, too.

But other research contends that teachers’ frequent absences are driven by generous leave provisions in their contracts, which typically include time off for illness and personal choice and, in many cases, family deaths, voting, religious observation, union business, conferences, cancer screening, even driver’s license renewal. The National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ), which maintains a database on collective-bargaining agreements in 113 large school districts, reports that the contracts give their teachers, on average, 13.5 days of sick and personal leave per school year.

In Columbus, Ohio, the contract allows teachers 20 paid days off, in addition to school holidays and summer breaks. Teachers have 21 days in Boston, 25 days in Hartford, and up to 28 days in Newark, according to NCTQ. By contrast, only 73 percent of private-sector employers provide any sick leave in addition to paid vacation, according to the U.S. Labor Department, and they offer an average of eight sick-leave days during a 12-month work year. In New York City, even substitutes qualify for sick days, one per month.

Teachers certainly are exposed to all manner of classroom germs, but there’s also evidence that a lot of absences are discretionary. The Harvard study found that the highest percentage of absences at that northern, urban district were on Fridays, when 6.6 percent of teachers took off, providing themselves a three-day weekend. Only 4.9 percent took off Tuesdays. More than half the absences that the study examined were for “personal illness,” and more than half of those were for only a day or two. Perhaps coincidentally, the district required a doctor’s excuse for an absence of three days or more.

Substitutes typically earn less than $100 a day. But even at that, Raegen Miller puts the cost of substitute teachers at $4 billion a year, or about 1 percent of total K–12 spending. In Fairfax County, Virginia, whose 13,000 teachers are offered 11 days off a year, the district budgeted $19 million for substitutes in 2012. Cleveland, Ohio, whose teachers may take 18 days off, is budgeting $10.8 million for substitutes this year.

University of Washington’s Marguerite Roza calculated what districts would save yearly on substitute pay if teachers took leave at the same rate as other professionals, that is, 3 days during a comparable 180-day year. Her conclusion: $43 per pupil in savings, or about one-half percent of school budgets.

Cost to Learning

The costs are far more than just financial, of course. The Duke researchers found that being taught by a sub for 10 days a year has a larger effect on a child’s math score than if he’d changed schools, and about half the size of the effect of poverty. Columbia researchers Mariesa Herrmann and Jonah Rockoff concluded that the effect on learning of using a substitute for even a day is greater than the effect of replacing an average teacher with a terrible one, that is, a teacher in the 10th percentile for math instruction and the 20th percentile in English instruction.

There’s no research on how long that effect lasts. But because learning is cumulative, “you would expect that the effect would aggregate to a larger loss of achievement over an entire school career,” Mariesa Herrmann told me. In other words, “A teacher not in a classroom is a missed opportunity for learning,” says Kate Walsh, president of NCTQ.

Some of that learning loss comes from disruption to the classroom: subs don’t know the kids, the classroom routine, the school culture. They have no skin in the game, nothing to win or lose if no one learns Chaucer. Classroom management breaks down. Miller told me that even janitors know when there’s been a sub: “There’s more crap on the floor.”

Teachers often leave busywork behind, or no work at all. In math, particularly—where the roiling debate over how to teach basic computation continues—subs often are cautioned not to teach anything at all for fear of setting the class back. Given testing pressures and school-wide lesson planning, there’s little time to reteach a lesson.

Then, too, districts set fairly low standards for their subs, although the weak economy and teacher layoffs seem to be bringing more certified teachers into the sub pool. Of the 113 large districts in the NCTQ’s database, less than one-quarter require that subs hold any teaching credentials. Only 37 districts require a college degree; 1 in 11 asks for only a high-school diploma or GED.

Out of curiosity, I perused the Denver Public Schools “Substitute Teacher Handbook.” It told me subs can’t wear bedroom slippers to work, that they’re paid $90.40 a day, and that they can ask for, but shouldn’t expect, an evaluation. It didn’t say anything about their qualifications to teach.

Carrots and Sticks

With school budgets strained and learning loss evident, I wondered why districts didn’t try to claw back some of the days they’ve granted their teachers for illness and personal leave. Miller has calculated the learning loss attributable to teacher absences to be equal to about 5 percent of the achievement gap between black and white students. “If you had an intervention that would close the gap that much, it would be worth doing, wouldn’t it?” he asked.

The problem, NCTQ’s Kate Walsh told me, is that teacher quality has been ignored as a reform issue until fairly recently. Now that the focus has shifted, superintendents have so many bigger issues to confront—teacher-evaluation systems, tenure, differential pay—that “you can understand why they don’t go after this benefit,” she said.

“This is small change” to most districts, Miller added—they’re facing budget gaps way larger than that. And the issue touches such a nerve with teacher groups that “there’s profound reluctance to get into it at the bargaining table,” he said. “It’s an entitlement.”

“You should have seen the hate mail I got” after publishing a recent report on teacher absences, Roza told me.

Instead, districts have been turning to incentives to keep teachers at their desks. Almost all districts allow teachers to accumulate unused sick and personal days, and to cash them out when they retire or leave the district. The Detroit schools paid out $12.5 million for unused sick days in 2010–11, which was twice what it spent on subs. New York City employs hundreds of full-time subs who report daily to a “home” school and fill in where they’re needed. They provide some continuity for the school and soak up teachers who have been laid off by budget cuts or enrollment declines. Even so, says Columbia’s Herrmann, these “absent teacher reserves” account for only 10 to 15 percent of the teachers that New York needs every day.

But some districts, facing such huge eventual payouts, have begun capping the number of sick days teachers can accumulate, posing a use-’em-or-lose-’em dilemma for teachers. And for younger teachers, “in deciding whether to be absent, are you really thinking of your retirement?” Columbia’s Herrmann asked.

Researchers have proposed that districts pay teachers a bonus for the days they don’t take off, or give their schools the money that would have been spent on subs as a collective incentive, or set up a reward system for teachers with good attendance (the Columbia study found that only 3 percent of teachers had perfect attendance). The Duke researchers proposed increasing teacher salaries by $400 a year and then charging teachers $50 for each day they take off. They estimated that the scheme would reduce absences by about one day per teacher and largely pay for itself. (Among the arguments raised against the proposal: it would hit female teachers with children harder than it would hit men.)

Many private schools and some charters simply don’t hire subs. Colleagues fill in for absent teachers during their own nonteaching hours. That keeps the class on pace when, say, one 4th-grade social-studies teacher can fill in for another, especially since they’re likely to have drafted the lesson plan together. It also means that one teacher is imposing on another, which creates some accountability, or at least discomfort for the teacher calling in repeated excuses.

But union contracts often limit how many hours a public-school teacher must be in the classroom: that’s why a school may hire a substitute librarian rather than send everyone back to their homerooms when the full-time librarian is out. And some contracts require districts to pay their teachers to sub, usually at rates higher than they would pay a substitute. The Wichita district pays its own teachers $20 an hour; a full-day sub earns $99.

Research also shows that absences increase where districts install automated absence-management systems instead of leaving the job to school secretaries. Teachers log onto the system’s website to report they will be absent. Subs log onto the same site to choose the class they’ll teach.

But districts are adopting the systems anyway, as school support staffs are slashed and technology becomes cheaper. Among the largest of the systems, privately owned Aesop is in 3,000 districts. Aesop claims on its website that it saves districts money: its “fill rate”—that is, the number of classrooms it fills with a sub—is so high that schools don’t need to use more costly downtime teachers. The company adds that its data reports enable principals to track who’s frequently absent and “to work with teachers” who are.

But the automated systems mean that teachers no longer have to talk to the principal, and perhaps explain that they’re taking a day off for a wedding-gown fitting or an auto tune-up. The automated systems also give schools less control over who will fill their classrooms: schools still can call favorite subs, but when those aren’t available, an opening is listed on the website and anyone on an approved list, including the GED holder, can claim chemistry class.

Researchers have found that teachers are absent more often when their fellow teachers are, too. That can suggest there’s an “absence culture” in the school, as in “heck, everyone else is doing it.” It also suggests a struggling school, where teacher absences and student absences feed off one another until neither group shows up. Or it may suggest weak management and unhappy workers. “If you’ve worked in an effective organization, people show up. If you’ve worked in a dysfunctional organization, they take off,” NCTQ’s Walsh observed.

I wondered about that when I looked at the education department’s 2009 report on absenteeism and paged to high-performing Montgomery County, Maryland. The district reported that only 6.8 percent of teachers were absent 10 or more days per year at one school with a high percentage of black, Hispanic, and low-income children. But at two other schools with similar demographics, 42 percent and 19.6 percent of teachers took off that much time.

I asked the district about that. Then I asked again. As in every district I asked about teacher absenteeism, no one answered.

June Kronholz is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and a regular contributor to Education Next. Her son has resumed active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps.

Comment on this article
  • Karen Lafferty says:

    I’m curious if the researchers were able to separate out sick days that female teachers took to supplement their maternity leaves. I have two sisters who exhausted their accumulated sick days to stay home after the birth of their children. Because teachers are mostly women of child-bearing age this distinction would be useful. On a staff of 50 teachers, say 35 of them women, two new moms who each use 30 days of accrued sick days after the birth of their children would skew the averages considerably.

  • inteach says:

    In addition to being judged by standardized test results they can’t fully control, being relatively poorly paid, being attacked daily in the press, and being held in poor esteem by the general public, we need to mandate that teachers are not allowed to get ill.

    And if they do, a colleague must give up their prep. time to cover the class without any additional compensation.

    These changes are guaranteed to boost morale.


    How about this? A teacher is given a certain number of days they can take off. If they don’t use them, they get a cash equivalent at the end of the year.

    Carrots are softer than sticks.

  • MBL says:

    I would absolutely love it if the subs in my classroom could handle the complicated material that I teach: sixth-grade math. Sadly, frequently they cannot. I leave worksheets whenever I’m absent because I can’t count on the person replacing me even being vaguely literate, much less able to teach. Some of them are great, sure, but those get snapped up quickly and requested, and if I’m absent on no notice– and being sick tend to not give me a lot of notice– it’s a crapshoot.

  • Karynb9 says:

    I’m so confused. As a teacher, some days I read in the media that I’m ineffective and the scourge of society…other days I’m so essential to student learning that I can’t stay home when I’m running fever…hard to keep it all straight.

    While everyone likes to point out how “lucky” teachers are to get their summers off and to “only” have to work from 8-3 , they don’t realize the accompanying lack of flexibility that comes along with that schedule. If a relative gets married out-of-state in the middle of September, I can’t take a “vacation day” then and agree to just work one more day in the middle of July in exchange. If I buy a house in March and need to take time off for the closing on a random Tuesday, I can’t just agree to put in a few more hours on my Spring Break. Unlike many white-collar workers, I don’t have the option of working through my lunch so I can leave an hour early to get to an appointment. I can’t “work from home” when one of my kids wakes up sick. If I can’t be at school for some reason, I can take off from 8-11:30 a.m. or from 11:30 a.m.-3:00 p.m (subs in most school districts are hired for half-days). If I am not going to be able to go to work until 9:30 a.m. for some reason, I actually have to take the entire morning off. I may only NEED to miss first period, but a sub will be hired and I will be charged with missing second and third period too. Heaven forbid I have an appointment with a specialist scheduled at 11:00 a.m., because then I have to take the full day off since I’ll be gone for a part of the morning AND a part of the afternoon block!

    If I’m a married teacher and I have children, whether I’m male or female, chances are that my spouse has to work as well because it’s tough to support a family on a single teaching salary. That means SOMEONE has to miss work to stay home with my kids when they get sick or when they have to go to the doctor. Most of the scenarios cited by the researchers can be explained by something as simple as that — teachers are overwhelmingly female and while they may be single or child-less their first couple of years (with charter school teachers trending younger than regular public school teachers), they then begin having kids (around the same time they have enough experience to earn “tenure”) who then have the audacity to get sick and need someone to stay home with them. In most families, that is more frequently a task assigned to the mother. Like Karen also mentioned, days taken as “sick days” for purposes of maternity leave (when the substitute is frequently a licensed teacher) will also skew the numbers considerably.

    The idea that most absences last only a day or two because “perhaps, coincidentally” a particular district requires a doctor’s note after three days? I imagine that most people who get sick and miss work in ANY profession only take off a day or two at a time because that’s just the nature of most illnesses (bacterial infections requiring antibiotics usually begin clearing up in 24 hours…the common stomach flu is a 24 hour illness…etc.) so the idea that there’s some sinister plot behind teachers only missing a day or two at a time is ridiculous.

    Also, the idea that pulling me away from my prep time or lunch time to cover other teachers’ classes as a way to “limit absenteeism” is offensive, as it perpetuates the idea that I spend my prep period just drinking coffee in the staff lounge. That so-called “free time” is when I make parent phone calls, plan lessons, make copies, hunt down resources, and prepare for labs and other hands-on activities. Forcing me to give up that time on a regular basis to cover for other teachers is just going to end up decreasing the quality of instruction in my own classroom even if I’m not “absent” a single day.

    Are there teachers who “play the system”? Sure. There are also accountants and computer programmers and nurses and secretaries who happen to take off more sunny Fridays in May than they should. The teachers who ARE abusing their leave time should be dealt with on an individual basis. If 4.9% of teachers are absent on Tuesdays and 6.6% of teachers are absent on Fridays (in ONE northern, urban school district, of course), that leaves you with 98.3% of teachers who seem to be doing the right thing and not taking off indiscriminately (or, the fact that 1.7% more teachers chose to take Friday off may mean that they chose to schedule an appointment for that day because they wanted a three-day weekend…but they still needed to schedule the appointment for SOME day that week, so they’re just “trading” one absence for another and not necessarily increasing their number of total absences).

    The issue of substitutes not being able to be counted on to provide quality instruction is a whole different issue that certainly needs to be addressed, but I wanted to attempt to address the other points about the root of this so-called problem — teacher absenteeism.

  • […] Truth be told, I tried to find someone else to fill in and do the blogging for me today — a substitute, if you will. It’s Friday, one of the more common days for teachers to get a classroom substitute, at least according to a Harvard study cited in a new Education Week piece by June Kronholz titled “No Substitute for a Teacher.” […]

  • Barry Garelick says:

    I majored in math and recently obtained my teaching credential for middle and high school math. I have made it known to many of the math teachers in the middle and high schools in the area that I’m capable of teaching math lessons. Some teachers have taken advantage of this and I take over the lesson the teacher would have taught. But the vast majority, who know of my qualifications, leave it to the automated sub-finder to bring in a sub. And if by chance I get the robo-call or see the posting on the web and act on it, I am usually left with worksheets to hand out.

  • […] K-12 Education, Teacher and Principal Quality, Technology and New Models For LearningThe new Education Next piece on substitute teachers by June Kronholz is terrifying. It weaves together her own son’s […]

  • JB says:

    For the inquisitive and motivated a teacher is irrelevant-Aristotle

  • Wilbert says:

    So, since only 73% of the private work force receives no paid sick days, teachers should also give up theirs?

    Teaching is a second career for me. I never worked for a corporation (and wouldn’t have) that didn’t give paid sick time. How much do you imagine you can push teachers down the ranks before you get the lowest common denominator.

    How about some full disclosure–does the author get paid sick days? How about the NCTQ spokesperson?

    It still amazes me that a large majority of the people who think that teachers are overpaid slouches don’t take up the great opportunity to relax for the rest of their working career.

    The ‘reformers’ have combined to make teaching one of the worst professions available. I took a 75% pay cut to give service as a teacher. People like this author and the people she cites have made that the worst decision of my adult life.


  • June Kronholz says:

    To Wilbert’s question: The union contract at Dow Jones and Co., where I worked for 30 years, does not provide for paid sick days. As a freelancer now, I receive no benefits.
    –June Kronholz

  • Nathan Mielke says:

    See Rick Hess’s piece in this issue. Administrators need to track and deal with these issues. Blaming contracts is the easy way out. Ask your leaders to lead.

    This article is an example of journalism that’s not solution based, but in my opinion aims to make teachers out to be leaches on the system. There’s not a stich of information here that might move education forward or help attract talented people to the profession. Just more stats for pundits to cite on talk shows or in op-eds.

  • Michelle Meislahn says:

    I teach kindergarten and always leave up to 12 pages of sub plans so my students’ routine is disrupted as little as possible. Because kindergarten is broken up into small increments of time on task, there is a lot to describe in the plans. I would never dream of leaving a worksheet or movie for them. Because making sub plans is so time intensive, I absolutely hate missing school, and when I do, it’s for a good reason.

  • Jami Ivey says:

    Tracey – this is the article. It is page 17 of the hardcopy.

  • S says:

    In Houston, if you miss more than the 10 allotted days you are not eligible for your ASPIRE bonus (which can be up to $9,000 and is tied to students “value-added). Also, you lose a day of pay (I believe) if you are out before or after a break (e.g. spring break or a long weekend). Not sure how these programs are working out – just sharing…

  • Anna H says:

    To add to Michelle Meislahn:

    Amen! I have missed only 3.5 days of school in my three years as a middle and high school English and history teacher, 1.5 because I was too sick to come to (or stay at) school, and 2 for an education conference that I attended on behalf of my school. I have not used any of the 5 personal leave days that my contract allows me each year. Why? Simply because substitute lesson plans take much more time to prepare than showing up and teaching the lesson; and because school days are precious to me for covering a copious curriculum and can’t be wasted; and because when I come back I have to spend half a lesson or more finding out what (or whether) students learned when I was gone.

    That being said, I have been blessed with singularly good health in the midst of a highly stressful job, but I know other teachers struggling with significant health issues who have been forced to take unexpected days off when they’re dealing with great pain or have been hospitalized. I can’t imagine having to prepare good sub plans in that situation–probably couldn’t!

    This isn’t necessarily a comment on the validity of the questions or conclusions raised by a very interesting article, but simply a personal experience from an overworked but very blessed teacher at a small international school.

  • Jerry Von Korff says:

    So, I’m an attorney, but worked as a high school teacher for five years. My recommendation to the author would be to take a teaching job in an urban school for a year, and then write an article on your experience. If you make it to the end of the year, then you can write an article about how teachers abuse their position. If you can’t make it to the end of the year, you can write an article about how teaching is a whole lot more challenging than you once believed. So, I’ve argued cases to my state Supreme Court, many of them, tried cases to juries, and argued two appellate cases, one after the other on the same morning. I’ve handled cases where my client’s economic future is at risk, and none of that has even remotely compared to the challenge of being a teacher. Teaching is hard work, really hard work, when you are trying to do it well.

  • higgins says:

    I looked up information on this subject because I have a son who has never failed a class (he is a senior) and is now failing his last quarter in a class which is taught by a teacher who misses so many days the students actually keep track of it on twitter.. this year 32 days. I work as a nurse in a hospital and am allowed to call off 4 days in one year which has to be no more than 1 every 3 months. More than that I am at risk of losing my job. Makes no difference what the reason is.. and I would like to argue that teachers are not subjected to any more stress, illness or “inconvenient” work schedules than anyone else who serves the public. The teachers who abuse the system need to be held accountable. And by the way, anyone out there want to be taken care of by a “substitute nurse” who had a bachelor degree in accounting? If anyone can teach then why require them to obtain teaching credentials to do it. What a ridiculous concept.

  • […] a Spring 2013 magazine story No substitute for a teacher for Education Next, former Wall Street Journal reporter June Kronholz dug into the teacher […]

  • […] the other hand, Kate Walsh, says reformers have only recently decided to make an issue of teacher absenteeism as just another way that teachers suck, so I’m sure the complaints are […]

  • Love says:

    As the article makes clear substitute teachers don’t have to have any qualifications. In our district a high school diploma will do, although you get paid more for more education, with retired teachers making the most. My first year of school I didn’t miss a day but my second year I had a child, so had to unfortunately for me take maturnity leave. There were complications so I had to stay in bad for the last three weeks of my pregnancy, that plus 5 days into my baby being born and my time was up. My husband’s salary was not enough to cover our bills and to make things worse, in our district if you miss more than your allotted days and you don’t qualify for sick bank (a repository where every teacher puts one of their days at the beginning of the year to cover the cost of emergencies for other teachers) which you can only get after 5 years working at the school, not only do you not get paid but the cost of the substitute comes out of your pay. There are exceptions for long term disability but maturnity leave cannot count as long term disability. So, I took an extra 3 days literally all I could afford and returned to teaching a total of ten days (including the weekend) after my child was born, 5 days after being released from the hospital, I was in a wheelchair, on painkillers, and was so sore I could barely move, hadn’t slept much, luckily my daughter was in the school daycare for an extra $300 a month they will watch teachers’ infants, and I came back in time to take home and grade all my students’ work (as substitutes don’t do that), three days before midterms with my administration unwilling to give me an extension. I could have quit and stayed home with my baby but I teach Social Studies an area in which there is an abundance of teachers not like math or science where I have known several teachers to quit and come back after they take a full maturnity leave because our school needs them and they can. When I was up for tenure the extra days I had taken came up and with an all male administration almost became a reason not to give me tenure. Luckily my Union Representative threatened a lawsuit if that was the only reason they had (the reason teacher’s need unions). Do teachers’s get and take too many days off maybe. But, the number of rules and regulations that guide how many days off they can have off, when, etc. plus the fact that teacher’s from lower level schools take more days ought to tell us something. Having now taught at both, the teachers at the lower end have so many more problems facing them, including less competent substitutes. I have left well written lesson plans only to have the substitute bring in and show their own animated movie or even just declare it a free day where the students’ could do what they wanted. I have had to specifically ask that the substitute not allow the students to get into my desk drawers or give away candy to all my classes what I have purchased with my own money to give out as a reward when a student does something especially nice. I have a 3 page instruction sheet that tells substitutes everything from what kids in each class to ask if they need help, how to work the projector, to a full seating chart and after 15 years teaching I finally have a list at home of substitutes I personally call to take jobs if I can’t be there then call the district and enter their number because for many years I would request substitutes and the district would just use the next name on the list to even out calls. So for once maybe the moral of the article ought to not to be teachers bad but district’s bad. They don’t give substitutes enough or any training, and make it so that as teachers most of us would rather go to work sick then try to fix whatever happens when you have to have a substitute, and also before we totally demonize teachers for this do a lot more investigation as to why teachers are missing school, and why it hurts students, if the substitutes were trained, followed lesson plans, knew how to handle students and still do something educational like teach study habits, in the case a teacher was too sick to get a full lesson plan in perhaps it would minimize or alleviate this problem.

  • Mary Gurley says:

    There are great teachers and so-so-great teachers and vice versa for subs. Most subs like me will follow a lesson plan well or try to make a productive day for students. Most do care, but middle and high school students who are distuptors will try to scuttle our best intentions. That’s life and we have to just do our best. As for sick leave, teacher are not robots, they are human and need days off. Teaching is taxing though not bad pay if you count the leave, holidays and summers off. The answer is better training for subs about classroom management, what to do if there isn’t a lesson plan (strategies), and also team teachers should help them as needed. If you do this, then it will all be good for all. Another issue is student and parent accountability. I was in a situation where a male student disrupted the class and made it slightly unsafe. The parent was irate by phone at my disciplining the student, so the vice principle banned me from the school to appease the parent. So it’s OK for one student to hop around a room, disrupt and make thing unsafe, but I am at fault? That’s just wrong and I will bet he is continuing to disrupt classrooms there.

  • Anne says:

    I came upon this by chance and wish I hadn’t, but since I did I have to comment.

    What isn’t taken into account AT ALL are the days “taken off” for professional development, which are required, and which account for more of my “sub days” than sick days and personal days (of which I’m given 3 a year) total. How many other jobs require you to leave by the minute plans when stepping out to work in some other fashion?

    I also very rarely give worksheets just to give worksheets when there’s a sub; I can’t afford to get behind. I try to get a sub I know and leave suitable plans that can be taught. However, I have had PLENTY of awful subs who accomplish nothing while I’m gone. I know that can happen but it doesn’t lead me to complain about substite teachers as a whole as this article does about teachers.

    Ridiculous. Do some real research. I work hard because I love my job, certainly not for the substantial pay my master’s degree provides, and I am do sick of the constant bad mouthing of teachers.

  • Stacey says:

    Most educators are absent because of the wretched kids in their classrooms. The breakdown in social etiquette and the lack of those skills being taught at home (lazy, good for nothing parents) make all teachers jobs horrendously stressful and aggravating!

    I miss because I need mental health days from the constant disobedience, defiance and sheer ignorance of students that can’t be motivated because they want everything to be easy. As long as they have a cell phone and a bag of hot chips….honey they’re good to go. Our hands are tied when we can’t communicate with parents because their numbers don’t work and we’re they’re built in baby sitters for each day. They slap them on the wrist and the students basically stays the same. It is extremely frustrating and I need my days off and I don’t apologize to anyone. You come try to teach with mouthy kids, no supplies and complete apathy….only to see just how justified being absent really is!

  • Ragavi Roy says:

    After parents , teachers are the role model to children. They are the one who teachs new learning, well disciplinary behaviors and guide us on the right direction. Great article.

    Ragavi Roy

  • Morgan says:

    I feel it is at times forgotten that guest teachers are at times credentialed teachers that for whatever reason are only working at this capacity. It is not at all thankless work, I find the students are the ones that make it fabulous, it’s the rudeness of certain staff who ask questions such as “who are you today”, or my favorite “are you Mrs.” (I am a man). A good morning and a smile would be so delightful, but rarely do I get this treatment. There is no substitute for a teacher, and that is why I stopped using the word substitute long ago to refer to myself.

  • Scratch says:

    ANY job I ever had, presence is required. Or, I got fired. The same rules should apply to teaching. A college degree doesn’t exempt you from showing up.

  • Jojo says:

    I know I am late but I have some points.This opinion piece has missed some major points from the side of a substitute. I use to be a journalism first rule be unbiased. He is not teacher are salary based and tenured. They have a right to their days off and many of the days they are in school because they have meetings all day so a substitute is needed. I have subbed for many years still looking for a position. I have two other BA degrees. The pay is low in NJ you do need a state substitute certification, TB test, Degree in anything and a background check/ fingerprints. If they did not ask to see this then can get in soooooo much trouble by the NJDOE. The pay is low and we get paid by day. Everyday will be a different class. He is not doing anything that every substitute in the world has not done. If you really care about substitutes. We need a union to protect us. Budget cuts or jealousy can make any substitute lose their job. No questions asked or told to the sub by district. They will not even call you to let you know. School district are rude and treat substitutes as used and abused trash. As a said previously I have subbed for years. I have not made one friends. They look down on you even though I am more educated and most teachers in my district. I am a sub and still can’t get hired. so if you write another article. Please write about substitutes having a union so we can get contracts. That is the biggest problem we have no net. Being a sub is the hardest job because everyday is exactly like starting a new job. Over and over again. So yes teachers according to their contracts can take off and use their sick days and personal day. Which happened to be cut down by many day and don’t roll over anymore. This happened in the recent years. That is what being sub is doing a different job everyday. I have no problem with students it is the staff . They are cliques and I do have to say 1% are very nice and each school within the district. Even the secretaries are different. That is the problem with subbing inconsistency.

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