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How to Be Absent: Managing a Substitute Shortage     

teacher shortage      

About 20 years ago, I was stranded in Florida after a quick President’s Day weekend getaway when a major snowstorm blanketed the D.C. region. Unable to get home and equally unable to get a substitute I had already worked with, I picked up the phone and started cold-calling substitute teachers from a gigantic list. Back in the day, both securing a substitute teacher and leaving appropriate lesson plans and materials seemed complicated enough. Nowadays, it’s nearly impossible. With the endless quarantining and isolation of both students and teachers, being present in a school building is increasingly difficult, not to mention finding others to come in and cover classes when emergencies arise. How can we navigate this new dearth of options for coverage? In the vein of managing what we have an impact on rather than focusing on what we have no control over, here are some ideas for making sure our classes are taken care of. Then, we can be away from work without being stressed out or upset.

Build Out Emergency Plans           

When I first started teaching, my department chair kept our emergency lesson plans in a file cabinet. She requested that we provide one lesson plan plus student rosters and any other information a substitute might need, like a seating chart. When I became a department chair many years later in the age of Google, I also requested emergency lesson plans from each department member, though storing them electronically was a more environmentally friendly option. Now, having a lengthier trajectory of plans in the event of unforeseen circumstances is advisable. It makes sense to create plans that align with overall course goals but that can be taught at any point, just so that they are always relevant and their timeliness is evergreen. Instead of making one or two days’ worth of plans, providing a full week of options ensures that if the worst happens and we are stuck in dire straits, our students will have a well thought-out lesson plan that gives adults in the building (be they substitutes, colleagues or school leaders) time to make any longer-term plans if needed.

Keep Online Presence Active           

A year ago, our teaching presences existed almost exclusively online. We might be back in buildings now, but that digital persona is still out there, and we can take advantage of it. Now that Zoom has invaded every corner of our existence, will anything ever look the same again? Many teachers have disliked doing things virtually, but that does not mean we didn’t derive great benefit from what we took out of the experience. Beyond assigning work at a distance or sharing multimedia, it is very doable to create asynchronous lessons for our absences ahead of time by using programs like Flipgrid or even a platform like YouTube to make videos on a channel we create for professional purposes. If our absence is unforeseen but we can check in with our classes live, beaming in virtually is now an option that almost anyone who is covering a class can help us set up with a simple Zoom link. Essentially, redefining the way we perceive presence is a key element in shifting our own personal narrative around class coverage. With the help of technology, we can be very much a key part of our classes, in real time or not, near or far.

Arrange for Mutual Coverage           

For 10 years, I was lucky enough to have a desk next to my best friend in a communal teacher workspace. Before we went to our classes each morning, I would watch her put on makeup while we dished about what was happening in our lives. More importantly, I knew that if either of us needed help, we would be there for one another. The best part of our jobs is often the people we work with, both child and adult. Before the next emergency crops up (and with quarantining, it will likely be sooner rather than later), arrange a reciprocity system with one or more colleagues for class coverage. This is not the time to partner with a teaching friend we may love, but who is always late; rather, we should set up a system of coverage with reliable, prompt people who exhibit professionalism as well as compassion. One important caveat is that there is absolutely no way a process like mutual coverage can function to the equal benefit of everyone. Unfortunately, some people will need more help than others, often because of circumstances beyond their control. However, having a structure already in place for who can be in our classrooms when a substitute is not available will help ease everyone’s minds, and that is valuable beyond measure.

Don’t Be a Martyr

Prior to the pandemic, I was fully guilty of working while sick. There were days I dragged myself into the classroom with migraines or with laryngitis, and I even kept teaching in the early phases of labor with my third child. Looking back with a lens now influenced by covid, I am ashamed that I did not just stay home. Whatever happens, coming to work when we are unwell cannot happen anymore. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that if we are gone, our students will not learn. The hard truth is that even though we love our students and do amazing work with them each day, we are replaceable, particularly from a temporary standpoint. It is not worth jeopardizing our health (or heaven forbid, the health of our unvaccinated children) to drag ourselves into work because we are functioning under the premise that our presence is essential for anything to happen. Instead of thinking that way, getting ahead of our unforeseen absences with proactive preparation goes a lot farther than saving up our sick days and never using them.

Prepare Students for Disruption           

Over the past year, students have demonstrated their flexibility and adaptability in the face of extreme change. Case in point: children are far more willing to wear masks in school without complaint while the adults around them fuss unbecomingly. Along the lines of teachers not being martyrs, we can easily prepare our students for what happens when we cannot be with them. Sharing our online portals or systems for retrieving work from afar, being as responsive online as we are in person, and continually incorporating technology into our classes even when we are physically present are all ways to accustom students to seamlessly blending the two versions of teacher presence: remote and in-person. We can also assign roles to students that continue in our absence. For example, one student can be responsible for helping with attendance while another might circulate to provide tech assistance as needed. By thinking in advance about what kinds of supports students need when we aren’t right there next to them, we set our classes up to be successful even when we are not there in person.           

No one can pretend that what is happening right now in classrooms all over America is okay. Teachers are stretched to the breaking point, and a lack of flexible infrastructures around educational support systems is causing way too much to come crumbling down. The availability of substitute teachers is part of that fallout, and while we could justifiably complain about what’s happening to us, it is probably more productive to do what we can to help ourselves and our students make it through this year. This is only October, and the pandemic is slogging along at an unbearably slow pace. Instead of waiting for things to get better in a future that we hope is not too distant, let’s do what we can right now to make things go a little more smoothly when life happens and we have to step back from being in our buildings.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

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