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Teacher Shortage: Who's teaching our kids?

Posted at 6:40 PM, Feb 26, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-15 17:28:16-04
So who's teaching your school-aged kids? A severe teacher shortage across the state is leaving many districts with no choice, but plugging the holes with long-term substitutes. And educators say that could hurt student learning in the long run.
Pima County currently has 166 people serving as long-term substitute teachers. So that impacts thousands of students.  Substitute teachers are expected to continue instruction in the same way as a regular classroom teacher. 
But is that realistic? 

Delores Devera is a long-term substitute teacher. Though she has a masters degree in education, she spent most of her career as a journalist. But her love of teaching pulled her into the classrooms a few years ago primarily subbing in Social Studies and English -- subjects she knows well.

"I don't think I would ever take a long term that's not in Social Studies or English," she said.

And here's why. "You have to be tuned into their level of vocabulary and their level of background knowledge," she said. For example, during a lesson on the American Revolution when Devera told her class that the "Bostonians jeered the redcoats."  She said, "A student raised her hand. I don't know what a Bostonian is. I don't know what jeered means and I don't know what a redcoat is. So that was good information for me."
She learned quickly, as a teacher, mastery in a core subject is not enough.
"The burden on them is enormous," said Renee Clift is an associate dean in the University of Arizona's College of Education. She said some retired highly qualified certified teachers return to substitute. 
In the Marana district, long-term subs jumped from 4 in 2013-14 to 24 in just three years. 18 teach in elementary grades or core subjects. Eight are retired certified teachers returning to class. 'Let's factor those people out," said Clift, "They're picking up where they left off, and they're providing a service back to the district."
The other subs -- the majority -- only need a bachelor's degree and a background check. "To truly know how to teach can take 3-5 years even for a regular certified teacher," said Clift. 
At Utterback Middle School in TUSD, Director of School Improvement, Tina Stephans, recently reported to the School Board. "And the first thing I want to say is Utterback had 18 brand new teachers." Parents complained their children struggled in Math and some had substitutes. AZ Merit scores last school year were among the lowest in the state. Only 5 percent of all students passed -- 81 percent failed. 
"Learning to work with different kinds of students, learning to modify instruction to meet the different needs. Learning how to understand when someone doesn't understand.That's what learning to teach is all about," said Clift. 
A reason Devera doesn't feel comfortable subbing in science and math classes. "I really hate when they put me in a math class, because I may be able to do the math problem myself, but I can't at all explain," she said.
"So if you take someone who doesn't know math very well and put them in HS algebra that is really going to hurt the students," said Clift. 
Long term subs could spend months and even up to a full school year in class. "For a year, we know that hurts them in subsequent years. Yes, it can be made up, but it takes some heroic efforts to make that up," said Clift.
She said there are severe teacher shortages in every subject and grade level. And if a student has a long-term substitute two years in a row, such as kindergarten and first grade or in 8th and 9th-grade math, "2 years in a row, it's a cumulative effect and the more it happens, the worse off children are. Making it difficult for the student to ever catch up." said Clift. 
So it's critical for parents to know who's teaching their children. Devera said parents should start asking questions. "I was at a school where kids had multiple subs and a very well behaved kid, and his mom would come to school sometimes, and she was asking him to keep a record of who the teacher was each day -- each class," she said. 
Parents should ask school leaders about the substitute teacher's credentials and consistently check assignments and grades. Clift says some subs don't grade papers because they say they're not the permanent classroom teacher, so it's not their responsibility. "The only way to learn to write is by writing and getting feedback and rewriting and feeling like you're improving as you're getting that feedback. If you're not getting the feedback you're not improving," said Clift.
And Devera says it's hard to tell if students are improving if they're not getting grades. "I've walked in and they say you're a sub you can't give me grades. I had a science sub and they didn't do grades and I said I'm a sub I'm certified and I will do grades," she said. 
Yolanda Sotelo works with TUSD's Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Instruction Department and was an Itinerant Teacher in September 2015. She said, "One of the teachers I worked with taught at Pueblo High School.  She quit in December 2015. She was teaching three senior CR classes and two junior CR classes.  The seniors in her classes had at least 2, if not more substitutes the year before as juniors because the teacher was on maternity leave."  
Sotelo decided she would start as a teacher of the senior classes hoping that within a couple of weeks, we would be able to find someone. "From the first day of the 2nd semester, I let the students know that I was going to be the teacher.  I let them know I was not a substitute and I had the experience to teach the classes," she said.
"I was standing in front of the class greeting the students. A young man in the 4th-period class walked into the classroom.  He asked me if I was a substitute or a teacher.  I told him I was the teacher.  He happy to hear I was not a substitute because as he explained, the junior class he was in last year had a few substitutes during the year," she said, "I stepped up and took over because I did not want to see the students get cheated again.  I did not have to.  I pride myself on teaching a curriculum that is academically rigorous so that students that continue their education will be ready and successful and there are only a few substitutes who are teaching that can provide that."
Clift and Devera say the best way to evaluate the quality and efficiency of substitute teachers is to sit in a class and even step in to help. "The kids know when they have a lot of subs the community is letting them down and the community doesn't believe in them. So if parents come and volunteer, that's sending a different message to those kids," said Devera.
If you'd like the check the credentials of certified teachers and substitute teachers, you can check the AZ Department of Education. Click herefor the Educator Search page.