No substitute for substitutes

Steamboat Springs is hoping to avoid a shortage of those who fill in for teachers

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— On a bad day, Strawberry Park Elementary School secretary Mary Beth Johnson spends more than an hour and half trying to find a substitute teacher.

On a really bad day, Johnson calls all the 61 substitutes on the Steamboat Springs School District's sub list and still comes up empty. On those days, the school pulls a teacher's aide with a teaching certificate to fill in, whether it be music, gym or special education.

"It's very difficult," Johnson said. "It's not as tight as it was last year, but it's still a scramble."

While the nation and Steamboat Springs face the threat of a severe teaching shortage in the upcoming years, it seems only rational that a substitute teaching shortage would also be fast approaching a crisis point.

But thanks to a law the Colorado Legislature passed a few years ago that allowed non-certified teachers to sub, finding a substitute has become easier.

Under the legislation, anyone who holds a high school diploma or equivalent and has successful experience working with children or youth could be eligible for a one-year substitute teaching authorization. Although these candidates must first go through background checks and district interviews, they do not need a teaching certificate.

Without these non-certified substitute teachers, administrators like John DeVincentis, principal at Strawberry Park, would have a hard time finding replacements.

"Without both (certified and non-certified teachers), there would be a tremendous shortage and I'm not quite sure what we would do," he said.

Anne Muhme, who organizes the sub list at the district level, said there are 40 substitute teachers on the list with licenses and 21 without. The law allowing non-certified substitutes to teach was designed for the more rural communities, DeVincentis said, where substitutes are not as plentiful as in metro areas like Denver.

Although substitutes represent a wide range of ages, most non-certified teachers are in their 20s and 30s, DeVincentis said.

David Schmid, principal at Steamboat High School, said being able to substitute as non-certified teachers allows those interested in teaching to test out the career. DeVincentis said it's a way for newcomers to break into the district.

"People want to do fulfilling work with kids and this is one way they can do that," Schmid said. "Some other kids desire to become teachers sometime in the future. They want to do this and get their feet wet."

Besides having an interview with a school's principal, non-certified substitutes must go through a background check, which involves a fingerprint screening with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and FBI. Even with the increase in sub supply, Johnson still has to scramble to find replacements especially on days when teachers are out for planning or training.

At Strawberry Park, four or five teachers from each grade meet for curriculum development each month for a half day. If other teachers are sick, Johnson might be left with filling six to eight spots.

The most difficult part for the district's secretaries is finding substitutes for those teachers who call in sick. Having to find a substitute in an hour or two can be a challenge, especially in the more rare subjects.

Karen Campbell, the secretary in charge of calling subs at the high school, said there are a handful of days a year when substitutes cannot be found, which means teachers or even principals will fill in.

Although 60 substitutes might seem like a lot for a district that has 123 teachers, that amount seems much smaller on days when six to eight teachers are out of one school. Campbell said a majority of the 61 subs might not be available or willing to work on certain days.

There are days when she has gone through the entire list to find a sub, but on average it usually only takes three to four calls, Campbell said.

Because of Steamboat's cost of living and the availability of part-time jobs in a ski town, substitutes often take on additional work and can only sub at schools on certain days. District secretaries also said that April and May are the hardest months to find subs because most of those on the list have found other jobs.

"I think it is difficult for people entirely dependent on subbing. They take part-time jobs and what happens then, they're not available everyday of the week," Johnson said.

"But they have to do that to make ends meet here in Steamboat."

Steamboat School District pays certified teachers $85 a day and non-certified teachers $80, which is uniform for all substitutes regardless of teaching experience or education level.

Campbell also said not all the subs on the list are willing to work in areas outside their fields, which means the 61 subs are divided between elementary, middle school and high school teachers or different subjects.

For DeVincentis at Strawberry Park, finding a special education substitute is the hardest area to fill, but his secretary said music and physical education also are tight areas especially on short notice.

Although science and math teachers are hard to come by for long-term hiring purposes, finding substitutes for the subjects is not that difficult at the high school, Campbell said, but subjects like choir and band and foreign languages are.

Perhaps one of the reason substitutes are hard to find, regardless of the subject, is because it is a difficult job. Schmid said substitutes are typically put in new environments every time they come in to teach, which means they do not know the students or sometimes even the subject.

Even with well-detailed lesson plans from the absent teacher, substitutes have to adjust to students they don't know and enforce discipline.

"Subbing is a hard job," Schmid said.

"Not everybody is inclined to be a good sub."

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