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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Joe Henderson: Leaders can’t job-out responsibility for bad substitute teachers

Sometimes, people in authority need a reality check before they can recognize a problem that should have been obvious.

In this case, it took a meticulously reported story last Sunday by education writer Marlene Sokol of the Tampa Bay Times to alert Hillsborough County public school officials to the verifiable fact that there must be vast improvement in how substitute teachers are hired and assigned.

Sokol used public records and old-fashioned shoe leather reporting to show that there is a chronic problem in how these pinch-hitting teachers find their way to the front of a classroom.

To at least partially explain that, I think you can revisit the decision in 2014 to partner with Kelly Education Staffing to hire and assign subs to cover approximately 170,000 classroom shifts every year.

The mantra "privatize, privatize" is written into the hearts and minds of every fiscal budget hawk. They believe private enterprise can do most anything better than the government.

Well, perhaps not in this case.

One teacher assigned by Kelly asked students to draw a dog eating a cat, or vice versa. Another cursed at a class and told one student she had a "stripper name."

There were physical threats and incidents. There was some creepy stuff. And there was more than enough to make one ask what kind of joint they’re running there at the school district.

"We’re opening ourselves to liability, poor perception of trust. I can’t be asking for a referendum (to raise taxes for the schools) after something like this," School Board member Lynn Gray told the Times.

"I’m dumbfounded. It only takes one bad incident for a child to be really frightened."

In a district the size of Hillsborough, that opens the door for big problems. Regular teachers routinely have assignments that take them out of the classroom for field trips, professional requirements, and other things. Sometimes they just get sick.

There are about 230 schools and 15,000 teachers in Hillsborough. That requires a reliable army of subs ready to stand in. Although many of those shifts are staffed by retired teachers who know what they’re in for, many others are filled by people who just need a gig.

Maybe they’re between jobs. Maybe there are other reasons. But many aren’t professional teachers. They don’t have advanced degrees or full command of the classroom. Some can’t even follow a simple lesson plan left behind by the regular teacher.

And some of them, obviously, aren’t fully invested in the job. I can’t think of anyone who grew up wanting to be a substitute teacher. Full-time teacher, yes. It can be a rewarding career.

But a sub? Get real.

The public still has a right to expect those who raise their hands for a job that tops out at $11 an hour to at least stay awake in class and not refer to students by derogatory names.

You know where this is going next, don’t you?

Hillsborough is cash-strapped; you may have heard that. Regular teachers are screaming about being denied raises they say they were promised. There is not going to be a lot of consensus to throw more money at substitutes in hopes of attracting better candidates.

But in addition to requiring better oversight of Kelly’s performance, solving the problem requires leaders to understand what it takes to run a classroom. It might help if more of them from the central office mimicked board member April Griffin. She ventured into a classroom last year as a sub math teacher at Riverview High.

In written comments to the Times about the experience, she noted, "I think anyone who has been out of the class for a long time could really benefit from being in front of students for a whole day, not just a drop in."

If nothing else, that might keep at least a few unqualified subs from doing any more damage.

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