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Substitute shortage in county schools

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado
Dominique Taylor/Vail DailySubstitute teacher Laura Johns, center, explains to ninth grader Alejandra Elizalde how to answer the questions on her work sheet Monday at Battle Mountain High school in Eagle-Vail.
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EAGLE COUNTY ” It’s 8 o’clock on a Monday morning, classes are about to start, and no one’s surprised that there aren’t enough substitute teachers at Minturn Middle School.

It happens often, almost every day, said Symon Hayes, a master teacher at Minturn. Teachers there and at most other schools in the district know that in the mad scramble for substitutes, some schools are going to miss out. There’s always a shortage.

“It’s crazy that we can never guarantee getting a sub,” Hayes said. “We often find out at the last minute, and it impacts everybody.”

So, on any given morning, teachers, assistants, other subs and even principals have to step up and volunteer to cover for their sick colleagues during their fragmented and precious chunks of spare time.

This problem though goes beyond simply making sure that enough adults are watching students. Schools always manage to solve that one. Having a sub shortage steals teachers away from hours of planning, coaching and mentoring time, one of the most important aspects of the Teacher Advancement Program.

“The integrity of the whole program is questioned if we can’t follow through with it,” Hayes said. “Sometimes it just becomes demoralizing when we can’t do what we’re supposed to.”

The concept of master and mentor teachers is an important part of TAP. Basically, these experienced teachers have fewer classes and spend their extra time coaching, evaluating and teaching with other teachers.

So, on the surface, it may seem like mentor and master teachers have spare time. They really don’t, said Mike Gass, director of secondary education for the district.

“When we have a sub shortage, we tap into that resource of mentor and master teachers,” Gass said. “But that takes away time they’re supposed to be coaching other teachers, observing class, meeting with other team leaders.”

Spending time with master and mentor teachers, which is supposed to improve school performance, is hard to do when much of that coaching time is taken away, said Traci Wodlinger, coordinator of the teacher advancement program.

“The goals set before us can’t always be met,” Hayes said. “I might have scheduled to team teach with a teacher to give kids more individual time or I might have planned a coaching session, but it’s not a big surprise if that has to be canceled when I have to cover for a sick teacher.”

Shelly Doyle admits sub teaching isn’t the most consistent job.

“It’s not high paying, and sometimes you can go a few weeks without an assignment,” Doyle said.

But she likes working near home and being close to her son, who on occasion ends up in one of her classes. “He calls me Mrs. Doyle like the other kids, which works for him,” she said.

For a mother with kids in school, it’s a great job, Doyle said.

It’s also a great place to start for future, full-time teachers, or anyone else interested in a career in education, Gass said.

For other people, maybe not so much. The school district is, like any business, competing in a very tough job market, and when stacked up against other, more consistent jobs, it rarely wins.

“It’s a hard job to be a sub, and the pay isn’t great, so they could take on another job without the headaches and more money,” said Philip Qualman, assistant principal at Battle Mountain High School.

Substitute teaching can be a taxing occupation, requiring a lot of flexibility and confidence, Gass said.

Subs have to like children, obviously, but also be able to manage difficult, sometimes rambunctious classrooms full of kids who are basically strangers with no second thoughts on testing someone’s authority.

“You have to be in control for 60 minutes, and that can be a struggle,” Gass said.

One of the strangest things about the sub shortage is that by the numbers, there isn’t a shortage. The district has hired more than 130 qualified subs, a number far above what is needed in a day. Most of these subs don’t work though.

Where are these mystery subs? What are they doing?

Actually, many of them are on the slopes, teaching Texans, Front Rangers and Europeans how to ski.

“As the ski season winds down, we’ll see a lot of instructors come back in,” Gass said. “Sub teaching is often shoulder work for people, a transition between the ski season and the construction season.”

Many subs work throughout the entire year, but are pretty picky in choosing their jobs.

The system allows subs to set preferences of exactly when, where and what kind of classes they want to teach. If someone wants to sub only elementary classes in Eagle or Gypsum on Mondays and Thursdays, well, that’s all they have to do.

This is a good thing for the subs and one of the most attractive aspects of the job. Someone living in Eagle probably doesn’t want to teach in Vail, and they don’t have to, said Trisha Theelke, human resources director. If a teacher is uncomfortable with high school students, they don’t have to teach at a high school, she said.

“There may be subs out there to fill in an absence, but it doesn’t correspond to when they are available or what they want to teach,” Theelke said.

Staff writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.


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