Substitutes at the bottom of the chain

Posted: Sunday, February 12, 2006

In the great ocean of public education there is a fishy-smelling food chain. At the top are elected officials and bureaucracies who attempt to establish order in a random system. In the middle are teachers and school support staff who swim in circles three-quarters of a year attempting to accommodate the requirements of children, expectations of parents and demands of those higher on the food chain. At the bottom of this inverted, top-heavy food pyramid, are day-worker substitute sucker fish.

Just about anybody can be a substitute "teacher" in this ocean, and in my experience doing that in the Juneau School District while seeking Alaska K-8 certification over two years, I saw that just about anybody is mostly what shows up. For all the high-sounding rhetoric of everybody on the business of public education, whatever happens in any coral reef school over the course of a school year pretty much depends on who can pick up the ball and run with it when the persons normally assigned to specific duties are absent. Substitutes are expected to arrive on short notice to do whatever was supposed to happen that day according to a plan that somebody else wrote.

In profound contrast to the negotiated pay and benefits of administrators - or teachers and support staff represented by public employee unions - in the Juneau School District substitute teachers are paid a stipend and expected to do the same job. Substitutes are glad-handed, praised for their valor, handed a script (maybe) and told to do the best they can with what they have to work with. Substitutes have no benefits. They are absolutely expendable, and when the entire public education system is at risk due to a shortage of substitute sucker fish, the big fish appeal to citizen's sense of duty to protect their own point of privilege on the food chain.

How should parents feel about having their children's future dependent upon who the school district can recruit and assign at minimum pay to serve as sucker fish once all the self-interests of everybody else in the food-chain have been met?

Donn Liston


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