As school year nears, substitute teachers are scarce

‘We have seen in the last five to 10 years a reduction in the amount of people available to sub’

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen

Fort Dodge Middle School substitute teacher Martha Mericle poses in a classroom at the Fort Dodge Middle School with a typical message she might write for a class when she's filling in.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen Fort Dodge Middle School substitute teacher Martha Mericle poses in a classroom at the Fort Dodge Middle School with a typical message she might write for a class when she's filling in.

The number of available substitute teachers in Fort Dodge has declined in recent years, according to Rob Hughes, Fort Dodge Community School District assistant superintendent, and that creates a need.

“We have seen in the last five to 10 years a reduction in the amount of people available to sub,” Hughes said.

About 75 substitute teachers are available through a computer program that the district uses to contact subs.

However, only about half of them are active, according to Hughes.

Each substitute has their own conditions on when and where they will sub. Substitutes pick the grades, subjects and school buildings in which they are willing to sub.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen

Fort Dodge Community School District substitute teacher Martha Mericle looks over a text book in a classroom at the Fort Dodge Middle School. If she were filling in for an absent teacher, familiarizing herself with the class materials would be among her tasks for the day.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen Fort Dodge Community School District substitute teacher Martha Mericle looks over a text book in a classroom at the Fort Dodge Middle School. If she were filling in for an absent teacher, familiarizing herself with the class materials would be among her tasks for the day.

That means the number of substitutes who can actually step in to fill an absence on a given day can be limited, Hughes said.

The need for substitutes remains constant for the district, which will employ about 550 people at the start of the school year.

About 25 substitutes are needed per day, according to Hughes. An estimated 7 percent of the district’s staff is absent on any given day throughout the school year, he said. During the 2016-17 school year, 3,752 days of absences were reported.

“We never know when a teacher may become ill or unable to attend school. Our substitute teachers are unsung heroes that step in to keep the flow of curriculum occurring,” he said.

“More often than not, they step in at a whim’s notice,” he added. “The wonderful part for the sub is that they can pick and choose the positions they’d like. The substitute does not have to accept any particular job.”

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen

Fort Dodge Middle School substitute teacher Martha Mericle demonstrates how she might go over notes left for her by a teacher out ill in a classroom at the Fort Dodge Middle School.

-Messenger photo by Hans Madsen Fort Dodge Middle School substitute teacher Martha Mericle demonstrates how she might go over notes left for her by a teacher out ill in a classroom at the Fort Dodge Middle School.

One of the reasons for the decline is that more younger substitutes have gone on to take full-time positions, according to Hughes.

Another issue is having to use regular staff to fill the void left by teacher absences.

“If we can’t find a substitute teacher, we end up having to extend our own teachers to cover one another, which takes away either their prep time or we have to increase the size of the student body that they are working with to cover that need,” Hughes said.

“From an aspect of filling all of our substitute positions on a regular basis, we are oftentimes short subs and have to utilize our general staff to cover,” he added.

Martha Mericle, of Fort Dodge, is a substitute teacher who serves the FDCSD.

She has been subbing in Fort Dodge since 2015.

Mericle said she has filled in at most schools in the district, kindergarten through 12th grade.

“It’s been overall a positive experience,” she said. “You get to know a lot of the students, teachers and administrators and you build that relationship and connection with them.”

Mericle, a 2007 Fort Dodge Senior High graduate, said she enjoys helping out in her home district.

“It’s fun to get to be back in the district where I went to school,” she said. “Getting to know some of the administrators and being able to apply for jobs where they know you and know what type of classroom management you have and what type of person you are.”

Mericle, like many other substitutes, is sometimes called on at the last minute.

“I just had a baby a year ago, so going in the morning of wasn’t always an option or wasn’t always the easiest because I would need to get her ready, get myself ready, and get out the door,” she said. “If a teacher calls in sick, then the system calls the subs starting at, like, 6 a.m. If I got the phone call at 6 a.m. or 6:30 a.m. that wasn’t enough time for me.”

But the relationships she has with general classroom teachers helps.

“A lot of times teachers will actually call me in advance to see if I would be available and I would say, ‘yeah just have the secretary put me in for that day.'”

Her biggest challenge has been behavioral problems with students.

“I think that goes for any teacher,” she said. “Just knowing how a student acts or if there’s something that sets them off. How do you deal with that type of issue if a student is disruptive or disrespectful?”

Still, it’s a good opportunity for those who want to gain experience in the field of education, she said.

“If you are interested in education and aren’t sure about wanting to go to school for teaching, you can just get a subbing authorization,” Mericle said. “You can get your feet wet with the different ages to see what you like best and can pursue a full-time position later on.”

In Iowa, substitute teachers must have one of two authorizations.

One, they must have a substitute teaching license based on the completion of a teacher education program. It authorizes the individual to substitute teach on any level, in any area for a maximum of 90 days in one assignment, according to the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners.

Or, two, a substitute authorization allows a person with a bachelor’s degree to substitute for a maximum of five consecutive days and up to 10 days per month in one assignment.

A substitute authorization allows a paraeducator who completes the paraeducator training to substitute in the special education classroom where the person serves as a paraeducator for no more than five consecutive days, according to the BOEE.

The authorization is issued upon the successful completion of the substitute training program. That training program is overseen by area education agencies.

June Bacon, of Fort Dodge, is another substitute teacher. She has 40 years of experience as a general classroom teacher.

Shortly after her retirement, she decided to make herself available to sub.

That was about five years ago.

Throughout her career, Bacon has taught almost every grade and subject, she said.

“I do everything from preschool to middle school,” she said. “I do art and P.E.”

While subbing has its challenges, Bacon said it’s a way to stay involved.

“Well, it isn’t always easy, but it’s a way to still stay connected with education,” she said. “Over the last five years I have made a lot of really good relationships with other teachers, so if I can help them out I like to do that.”

Bacon said the district is supportive of its substitutes and she is particularly complimentary of the Fort Dodge Middle School’s preparedness for substitutes.

“The teachers in the Fort Dodge school system are really good with having a plan for you,” she said. “I can’t remember anytime, especially at the middle school, where I went into a classroom and there wasn’t a plan or someone didn’t get me a plan. They have support people in the pod area. If you are having a problem with someone or the computer isn’t working, someone is there.”

Her favorite part about subbing is when some of the kids she has taught recognize her in public.

“I can walk into Target or Walmart and kids will run up to me and say ‘Mrs. Bacon, Mrs. Bacon,'” she said.

In the classroom can be a different story, she said.

“Not every student is excited to see us,” she said. “For the most part it’s not too bad. I go primarily to a couple of schools where I know the teachers and the students and I get along well there. It’s not always easy. I have had some good experiences and some not-so-good experiences, but overall I enjoy it.”

As far as the need for more substitutes, Bacon said she could sub every day if she wanted to.

“I know I get called almost every day,” she said. “I could sub every day. I usually choose not to. That’s one of the perks of being a sub is you can pick and choose what you want to do, where and when.”

She added, “There are times where I have gone into buildings and there are not enough subs for that day, so I think that is an issue. There’s always sub jobs every day, somewhere.”

Ryan Flaherty will be entering his first year as Fort Dodge Middle School principal this fall. He sees two primary reasons for having a shortage in subs.

“One, is it’s hard to find educators, in general. Even as we try to hire full-time positions, applicant pools maybe aren’t as big as they used to be,” he said.

“The second thing is, substitute teaching can be a challenging job. I think part of that plays into it, where maybe you don’t know the kids and you have different assignments each day. It can be a challenging role. Hopefully there are some things our school can do to make the job a little less challenging.”

Flaherty, who previously served as an assistant principal at FDMS, is focused on creating an environment where substitute teachers can feel comfortable.

“What we will hopefully do is show them the supports that we are willing to give as a building to help them be successful in our building and hopefully help them navigate that busyness,” he said. “Because I don’t always see a busy building as a bad building, as long as it’s managed well.”

Those interested in substitute teaching can contact FDCSD human resources at 574-5649.

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