Classism [in our school system] is plentiful and well-documented (Kozol, 1992). For example, compared with their wealthier peers, poor students are more likely to attend schools that have less funding (Carey, 2005); lower teacher salaries (Karoly, 2001); more limited computer and Internet access (Gorski, 2003); larger class sizes; higher student-to-teacher ratios; a less-rigorous curriculum; and fewer experienced teachers (Barton, 2004). The National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (2004) also found that low-income schools were more likely to suffer from cockroach or rat infestation, dirty or inoperative student bathrooms, large numbers of teacher vacancies and substitute teachers, more teachers who are not licensed in their subject areas, insufficient or outdated classroom materials, and inadequate or nonexistent learning facilities, such as science labs.

The Myth of the Culture of Poverty, Paul Gorski 

During my teaching experience in Title I schools, I have observed all of these to be true. And it absolutely breaks my heart. Everything that I do – from teaching, to writing, to participating in the community – is my attempt to remedy this classism and inequality that our students face.

In this post, I want to address one of these problems: the problem of teacher absences and substitute teacher vacancies. Now this is something I know my school system realizes is an issue. (We are launching Aesop substitute teacher placement system this semester, so hopefully this will solve some of these vacancy issues.) However, this is a problem that educators, parents, and school administrators must address in order to help close the wealthy-poor achievement gap.

We all know what happens when a substitute teacher takes over a class for a day — at best, students work quietly on an assignment; at worst, students enjoy a “free period” to converse with their classmates. In low-income schools and school districts, the impact on the students is felt even more because of the additional loss of instructional time that ripples throughout classrooms as teachers scramble to cover for one another.

For the entire district of DeKalb County Schools, a school district where 28.9% live in poverty (compared with 20.8% nationally), there were 10,991 unfilled teacher absences just during this past fall semester (2015). That number should trouble all of us.

It is especially troubling to me because, as a teacher, I see the chaos that ensues when a school can’t find a substitute. Sadly, districts with high levels of poverty report having higher-than-average substitute teacher vacancies and some studies report that districts serving high proportions of non-white students have higher rates of teacher absenteeism. Additionally, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future (2004) also found that low-income schools were more likely to suffer from large numbers of teacher vacancies and substitute teachers. This means that schools that serve these populations often times don’t get to have a certified teacher — let alone an actual substitute in their classroom — becoming another contributing factor to the achievement gap.

Substitute Teacher Report from Infinite Campus (Fall 2015)

High School Name % Low Income Graduation Rate Total Teacher Absences Number Filled % Filled
Arabia Mountain 51% 97% 503 454 90%
Cedar Grove 81% 77% 319 250 78%
Chamblee 37% 86% 399 297 74%
Clarkston 84% 65% 530 316 60%
Columbia 88% 76% 392 200 51%
Cross Keys 91% 55% 441 328 74%
Druid Hills 54% 79% 490 340 69%
Dunwoody 31% 78% 380 304 80%
Lakeside 42% 80% 567 425 75%
Elizabeth Andrews 58% 17% 203 160 79%
Towers 81% 70% 341 179 52%
Tucker 63% 87% 478 361 76%
McNair 91% 59% 421 152 36%
Stone Mountain 87% 67% 341 241 71%
Stephenson 67% 73% 402 338 84%
Southwest DeKalb 64% 73% 428 347 81%
MLK Jr 73% 74% 542 364 67%
Redan 81% 81% 353 255 72%
Miller Grove 79% 80% 522 334 64%
Lithonia 72% 72% 505 309 61%
DeKalb School of the Arts 27% 100% 107 90 84%
DeKalb Early College Academy 59% 98% 76 70 92%
DeKalb Alternative School 99% n/a 151 42 28%

So what happens when no substitute teacher can be found? A couple things. Both of which take away educational time from dozens of students and contribute to a loss of student achievement.

1. Teachers Have to Cover Other Teachers’ Classes

When a teacher is absent, other teachers in the school have to pick up the slack. Sometimes teachers give up their entire planning period (during which they usually set aside to grade papers, plan lessons, or meet with parents). As a mother of two children under three-years-old, if I miss my planning period, I either take time away from my own children by bringing work home, or I have to postpone completing my work until another day. I know I’m not the only parent or the only teacher who has obligations in addition to my work, so this situation is not peculiar to me.

2. Students Get Split Up Among Teachers

At times, another teacher can’t give up his or her planning period — often because they are already covering another class. In this case, the department chair or another teacher who has a few minutes to spare will quickly divide up the students in a specific class.

This is by no means limited to this individual day, nor – I am sure – is this limited to my school or other schools nationwide.

To illustrate what this is like, I’ll give you an example from the other day through the eyes of a teacher. One teacher called in sick the evening before school. When I arrived at school to assess the substitute teacher situation for the English department, I saw the SubFinder report for the day. (I’m not the department chair, but during the last few weeks of the semester a fellow teacher and I began to help arrange for coverage for teachers who were absent but had no substitute for the day.) No one had picked up the substitute request.

I checked to see if any other teachers could give up their planning periods (they couldn’t, or they were absent, too). I then had to check with three different teachers to see who could take a few students during 1st block, 2nd block, etc. The teachers each graciously told me they could take 5-10 students each. Each different teacher was given the classwork instructions. I then printed off a roster, cut the roster into strips, and — when each class period rolled around — went to each class and called roll, telling each group of students which teacher they were going to go to. I then hand-delivered each set of students to each teacher during each separate period. (Ideally, one would just tape the roster to the door, let the students figure out where they are supposed to go, and then take attendance. However, skipping is often a problem, and hand-delivering students to another teacher’s room helps reduce the chance that the students will skip class.)

I also had to divide the class set of textbooks between each group of students for every class period. If you’re wondering what my students were doing during the 5-10 minutes that this was happening, then you will be somewhat comforted to know that my co-teacher watched my class during one period, the paraprofessional across the hall watched my class during another period, and no one had to watch my class during my planning period. After all that, I returned to my class and began to teach my own students.

Other departments in our school handle substitute teacher situations differently by having a list of which students go to which teacher (in the event that something like this happens), so we will most definitely be implementing such a system in our department this semester.

However, this still should not be. The additional work falls on teachers (especially department chairs) to figure out how to get these groups of students cared for — let alone taught — when a substitute does not pick up the request. In high-poverty schools, this is simply one more additional burden that our counterparts in wealthier districts don’t have to deal with as often, leading to higher teacher turnover in high-poverty districts.

3. Students Aren’t Getting Taught

No matter what kind of lesson plan a teacher leaves for a substitute teacher, students will still not receive high-quality education during that class period. Rarely will students have a substitute in the classroom who has a teaching certificate in the classroom subject.

Every day that a student in a high-poverty school loses to teacher absences affects her learning in an even more marked way than her peers in a low-poverty school, as studies continue to show that teacher absences lower student achievement.

While our school systems try to come up with interesting and innovative ways to close the achievement gap between low-income and wealthy students, one simple component would be for school systems to have enough substitute teachers and (I hesitate to say this for fear of being a bit of a hypocrite) for teachers to reduce the amount of days they are absent from school so that students receive high-quality instruction as many days as possible.

In my next post, I’ll compare two different Metro Atlanta counties in order to explore why some districts in Georgia have a harder time filling substitute requests than others. I’ll also talk about ways that schools and districts could address these issues in a way that immediately helps solve the problem of a lack of substitutes.