April 01, 2009
Substitute teachers fill crucial position
HOMER — “Line up,” Jake Zanetti said nicely but firmly, and the fourth-graders obeyed even as they fidgeted and bounced in place.
A presentation for all fourth-graders at Homer Intermediate School had finished in the gymnasium and teachers were gathering students for the single-file walk back to their classrooms.
Zanetti watched closely as his class formed a line. The children generally know, he said later, what “Mr. Z” will put up with.
Zanetti was a physical education teacher on this day, but on other days he might be managing a classroom. The school has grades three through six.
The SUNY Cortland senior is a substitute teacher, filling in when full-time teachers are absent. While he prepares to graduate in May with a physical education degree, Zanetti is gaining experience through substitute work.
Schools throughout the region depend on substitute teachers to keep classes going when regular teachers are gone due to illness, personal business or training sessions. The “subs” might be scheduled days in advance or called unexpectedly on a school-day morning. Local districts pay $80 to $90 per day, based on whether the person is certified to teach in New York.
The substitute teachers’ duties vary from actually giving a lesson based on what the regular teacher has planned, to showing a video or conducting some other activity, to having a study period. It depends on what the teacher has planned and what the district expects.
“Every district has a different approach,” said Bobbi Krout, director of Dryden Central School’s Teacher Center. “Some give the substitute a folder that contains lesson plans, when he or she arrives in the morning. Others just tell the substitute what is expected.”
The people who do the job are retired teachers who love the profession enough to continue part-time, college students such as Zanetti who want experience, recent college graduates who cannot find a teaching job, or people thinking about changing to a teaching career.
If they have not taught before, potential substitutes can take workshops in classroom management at teachers’ centers in Dryden, Groton, Cortland and Cincinnatus.
Substitutes can face problems from students, especially if the regular teacher does not maintain discipline, Krout said. They need to know how to handle situations, especially in a litigious age.
Cortland Superintendent of Schools Laurence Spring, who began his teaching career as a substitute after graduating from college in December, said a would-be teacher can learn classroom management by dealing with different students each time he or she works in a school.
Spring said he learned to have activities of his own for students to do if the teacher had not provided a lesson plan, especially in subjects he knew little about. He values substitutes who approach the work as their job, leave the room neat and provide the teacher with notes about what was covered and how students behaved. Principals will remember a substitute with that attitude, when they have job openings.
Spring said the need for substitutes follows certain patterns, as teachers are more likely to be gone on Fridays. The need is greatest when teachers are grading state assessment tests.
The Cortland schools turn to certain people repeatedly, such as Bill Kulakowski, a retired Homer teacher, who can easily take over a class for one or two weeks.
Emily Olsenwick of Homer substitutes only at Homer Junior High School because she likes working with students in grades seven and eight. She has been doing it for three years, working for a few days per week, while she balances that with family life.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it,” said the Fabius native. An animal science major at Cornell University, Olsenwick, 29, never thought about teaching until a few years ago. She said she may study for a master’s degree in education.
Cortland resident Gary Dillingham has been substituting in the city school district for 17 years, after 29 years as a driver education teacher and wrestling coach. When the district dropped driver education, he said, part of his early retirement agreement was being a permanent substitute.
“The money is nice but I’m not doing it for the money,” he said. “I like working with kids. I have dealt with some bad kids and turned them around.”
But the 70-year-old struggles with how much to insert his views on things and how to maintain order when ways he used in the 1960s and 1970s are not allowed.
Krout said all substitutes must decide how much of a role they are actually playing in the school, in their temporary duties.
“They must understand the impact they can have, that they have little lives in their hands,” she said.
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