During the pandemic the need for substitutes declined as many subs found other forms of work to fill in their income. Now an industry whose purpose is to fill in for teachers is part of the growing shortage of workers in Oregon. The state has now cut back on a bachelor-level education requirement to increase the number of available educators. Leslie Polson is the president of the Oregon Substitute Teachers Association and joins us to share what this new requirement means for the industry.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Geoff Norcross: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Geoff Norcross. You can add ‘substitute teacher’ to the list of professions that is facing a pandemic-related shortage. At the beginning of the school year, there were about half as many licensed substitute teachers in the state of Oregon as there were two years ago. In response, the state’s teacher licensing board is saying you don’t need a college degree to become a substitute teacher, at least for now. We’re going to talk about this with Leslie Polson, president of the Oregon Substitute Teachers Association. Leslie, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Leslie Polson: Thank you for having me.
Norcross: What caused this shortage? Is it all about the pandemic?
Polson: What caused the shortage in 2020 when the schools closed down, they basically let the substitute teachers go. They didn’t pay them. Many of the substitute teachers had a hard time getting on unemployment. Very few school districts honored the existing jobs. For instance, all my jobs in May and April went away. There were other substitutes who work in North Clackamas and in the city of Portland that were paid for their jobs. But for the most part, most people had no work. They had no income, no money, and it was very very difficult to get on unemployment. It took sometimes two to three months for you to be able to get through to find out whether you are eligible for unemployment. So for instance, I have a group that is a contracted out group through [inaudible] staff, and somebody didn’t blind copy, they just carbon copied it. There were so many substitute teachers that were upset. They felt disrespected. They felt that they were just thrown to the wind. And they also have bills to pay. So they were dependent on working every day and they couldn’t work. So, this made them very, very angry. These were basically people that were already restricted subs. They were not the professional or the substitute license subs that we advocate for.
Norcross: What about now? Now that the new school year has begun and it is, in most districts, in person. Are those jobs not coming back?
Polson: There are lots of jobs right now. There are more jobs than you know what to do with. But for instance, I was exposed to somebody that came back to school from quarantine and wasn’t supposed to be there. So I’m expected to not work. I can’t work for 10 days. I have to sit it out. You have that going on. Plus, you also have people that are retired that are nervous about going into the schools. They are afraid that they may bring something home. People are concerned about maybe being a breakthrough case, because even though you may be double immunized, there are quite a number of people that are still getting sick. I’m taking the example of my previous co-workers at the health department in Marion county where they were all double vaccinated and everybody got sick. So there’s a concern about being exposed to health issues. For instance, the schools are really inconsistent about their sanitation. I go into one school, and I’ll clean the desks and make sure everybody has their hands clean. And then I’ll go into another school that will say we’re not doing that. 80% of our community had it and we’re not afraid of COVID, so we’re not following the rules. We are letting everybody go to the water fountain. So it varies. So if you are like me, when you go from one school to another, you will see a big variation in rules.
Norcross: If a regular teacher is out and there’s no sub available, what happens in that classroom?
Polson: Well, what happens in the classroom is that other teachers cover. For instance, I worked in one school where I was expected to cover during my prep period as a substitute. I went in and I couldn’t find the lesson plans because they were buried under piles of papers of assignments that students had turned in. It took me about three or four minutes to figure out what to do. I finally just had one of the students go next door so I could at least keep everybody busy. But that is repeated all day. Like today I had 45 calls. 45 jobs did not go filled. So that just tells you. I live in the Salem area and I work in the surrounding areas. That would have been about 12 schools that did not have a sub for today, Wednesday, which is a fairly slow day of the week. Not everybody wants that day off.
Norcross: What does that mean for the education the kids are getting?
Polson: What that means for the kids’ education, for instance, last week I subbed for two teachers who were subbing because the teachers had quit on the spot. These were algebra classes. These were high level math. I had one little boy in tears because he was so upset about not being able to understand how to work with quadratic equations. He just was totally shutting down. It’s very, very sad because students are really not getting the service that they did. Plus a lot of them have sat out a whole year in the pandemic trying to learn online. And some people loved it. Other students really miss the interaction with other students who will be able to work in collaborative groups. It’s a lot easier when you’re face to face with the person than if you’re on zoom. So, that creates a lot of tension. Currently, with the idea of dropping the restrictions down to a high school diploma, you’re talking about putting somebody in a classroom that does not have the training, does not know how to deal with discipline, does not know how to solve problems. I’ve had students have asthma attacks. Last week, I had a young lady decide she was going to practice being a stripper in the middle of the class. So I’m just wondering how would somebody that has not been exposed to a little bit of teacher training, having gone into schools and worked under licensed professionals who may have many, many years of training and can help you with feedback about what techniques you do. It’s the same thing when you went into radio. You wouldn’t just throw anybody into radio. You want to have somebody say ‘well, you know, you should pause a little bit. Give the kids some break. Stand over here. You might want to change your clothes. You might not want to do this. You have to have that kind of feedback before you go into the profession so you know how to be effective.
Norcross: But is it actually having any impact on the number of people who are willing to show up?
Polson: You’ve already had people that are refusing to show up. For instance, I know people that would support the regular teachers, but they don’t want to go into the classroom this year because they’re concerned about getting exposed to illnesses. They are just worried that they may get sick and they may develop health problems and they may die. This is a very valid fear that a lot of substitute teachers have because a lot of them are retired. And there’s also a lot of younger teachers, so it varies. So why are they under filling it? It’s a very complicated question. But if you’re depending on the retired teachers, some of them don’t want to go into the classroom because they’re concerned about health problems. I got an email from one person who was retiring this November. She said there were Tiktok videos that were encouraging students to hit teachers and giving extra points. She did not want to work in this environment. I talked to another person who’s retiring because they are just tired of being sworn at and they’re not getting the support from their administrative staff. So it’s becoming a profession that is very stressful for many.
Norcross: I’m hearing from you that the reasons for the environment being hard for substitute teachers are many, and maybe the barrier to doing it is not the regulations or the requirements from the state regarding a college degree or a high school degree or whatever. So my question to you is, what would you like to hear from the education department at the state? What would you like to get from the school districts to entice substitute teachers back into the classroom.
Polson: Well, some of the districts, like North Clackamas, have given an actual bonus so that people come in. They give them $32 extra a day. The current average salary is $198. That translates to about $24 an hour. School bus drivers are being paid $22 from their wages. So what I hear from teachers is that the pay is just not there. That if they want teachers to come back in, that they need to pay them a higher wage.
Norcross: Okay. So it’s all about the pay. It’s not about the requirements, it’s the pay.
Polson: Well, and people are working extra. I talked to one sub who worked over her lunch, who covered two prep periods and went home after working eight hours. I’ve had times I’ve been doing PE, and I didn’t even have a bathroom break. I would have to run to the bathroom because the teachers were dropping their students off. So a lot of it is working conditions as well. So if people are going to work like that, they need to be given the respect to be able to do simple things like a potty break. Plus they’re working very, very hard.
Norcross: Well, you’ve painted a pretty bleak picture of life as a substitute teacher in Oregon right now. What’s good about it and why do you still do it?
Polson: It’s a lot of fun to do. I love working with the kids. I’ve worked with some of the students from the time they’re little. They always are like, ‘oh, I’m so glad to see you. This is so much fun.’ And we have a good time. It’s really a lot of fun. Most of us are in it because we like working with the kids and we enjoy watching them grow up and we enjoy watching them develop skills and growing up into adults. It is a lot of fun.
Norcross: So what is your pitch to anybody who might be interested in substitute teaching right now, What’s your advice? My advice is to take it seriously to learn classroom management because it’s tough.
Polson: One of the ladies I consulted said that somebody had come in from the business world and he took over an eighth grade class and after he realized he needed to take classroom management. Do not look down on the teacher training classes because they provide a lot of resources and help make you a veteran teacher. It’s not a job for the faint of heart. It’s fun if you can master the skills.
Norcross: Leslie Polson, great to talk to you. Thanks so much.
Polson: Thank you.
Norcross: Leslie Polson is the president of the Oregon Substitute Teachers Association tomorrow on the show. We’ll hear about the new state rules to try to curb pollution. The Department of Environmental Quality is proposing a cap on greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels that would get stricter over time.
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