There's no substitute for a regular teacher

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By John Foster

Robert Spencer is about as regular of a fixture in Oldham County Schools as any full-time employee. Since 1996, Spencer has showed up for work four to five times per week to substitute, filling in for teachers from elementary up to high school.

And he is not alone.

On any given day there are 25 to 85 substitutes in charge of classrooms in Oldham County schools, according to Oldham County Board of Education Personnel Director Genie Yockey.

For about 675 classroom teachers, the board maintains a substitute list of about 200.

While substitute pay is not the centerpiece of any get-rich-quick scheme — the most experienced and qualified subs like Spencer make $106.23 per day of work, the least qualified pull in $89.52 — all those subs do add up in cost for the school district.

School board treasurer Chuck Littrell said the board budgets more than $723,000 a year to pay for subs.

And all those subs do affect the education of Oldham County’s children.

Many of Oldham County’s substitutes are plenty capable, Yockey said. Some are retired teachers with decades of teaching experience under their belts. All have completed at least 64 hours of college credit with a minimum 2.45 grade point average or have a bachelor’s degree.

South Oldham Middle School office manager Cathy Utley said when a substitute comes to her school, she gives them a key to the classroom and outfits them with a packet of material outlining the day’s schedule, their lesson plans, emergency routes and the like.

The absent teacher’s team leader checks on the substitute and helps in case of questions, a fire drill or the like, to make sure things run as smoothly as possible.

But a substitute can never — shall we say — substitute for a regular classroom teacher. Yockey said no matter the qualifications of a sub, it is always preferable to have a regular teacher — someone that knows the students and knows what was taught the day before.

“The sub can fill in, but it’s not the same,” she said.

Spencer is as qualified as anyone to stand in front of a classroom. He has decades as a elementary teacher and principal in Jefferson County to fall back on.

He said students can learn a lot on a day when a substitute is there — teachers usually leave good lesson plans — but even with his expertise, a regular teacher is always better.

He said he has found that to be even more true for higher level classes like chemistry or physics where his own expertise cannot match that of the regular teacher.

Research confirms that math suffers when teachers are absent. Raegen Miller, of the Harvard University graduate school of education, co-wrote a paper titled, “Do Teacher Absences Impact Student Achievement?” His answer — yes. Miller found a correlation between the number of days a teacher is absent and lower test scores, especially in math.

Yockey said there are various reasons a teacher might need a Spencer or the like.

Teachers are given time off to attend professional development days. They get called to jury duty. They have two emergency days to use circumstances outside their control, such as a funeral, a house closing or a flooded basement.

Some of the days with highest demand are in the spring when teachers leave their classroom assignments to cluster together and grade portfolios, Yockey said.

Teachers each also have one personal day they can use a year without providing a reason.

As for sick days, teachers have 10 days they can use a year for a medical reason for themselves or to care for a member of their immediate family, such as a sick child or spouse, or an ailing parent.

During the course of the first semester of the school year, about 675 teachers used 2,478 sick days. According to school board records, the most common day to use a sick day during that time period was Friday.

On any given day during the first semester, more than 27 classrooms district-wide were staffed by a substitute teacher filling in for a teacher taking a sick day. On Wednesdays, that number is closer to 24.6.

But on a given Friday, there are about 32.2 teachers taking a sick day.

Another way to look at it is that on a given Friday, there are about 6.6 more teachers absent due to a medical reason than on a given Wednesday. That is a 26.9 percent — more than one-quarter — increase from Wednesday to Friday.

Teacher Leeann Gooch said teaching is like any profession. More people take off on Fridays. Gooch taught computer classes 18 years in Oldham County Schools and now teaches in Jefferson County.

She said she’s sure some abuse the system, but most teachers don’t for a simple reason — it’s too much work. There’s the lesson plan to prepare, there’s the catching up to do when you get back and there’s the constant fretting over how the class is doing.

She said many teachers share her view. “I really think they can’t run the school without me.”

She has had to miss more days than normal this year, she said, because the illness and death of her father, but her general philosophy is “if you can make it through the day, you should go.”

Yockey said she thinks an abuse of the system is not what causes the rise in sick days on Friday. She said teachers do take more sick days at the end of the week, but she believes they are for legitimate reasons. If a teacher or their child has been sick all week, by the time Friday rolls around, Yockey said the sentiment is sometimes, “I give up and just need to stay home and get some rest.”

She also thinks a percentage see the weekend approaching and the limited availability of doctors on Saturday and Sunday. In that case, they choose to schedule an appointment on a Friday instead of waiting until Monday or trying their luck at scheduling a weekend appointment.

Yockey said another scenario is that teachers may have an ill parent or other family member. To travel and care for them, it sometimes makes most sense to take off Friday and make it a long weekend.

There are a variety of reasons and scenarios, she said.

Yockey said there are incentives to encourage teachers to use sick days appropriately. First and foremost is their conscience. Teachers are required to sign a notarized legal document stating they were unable to work due to a medical reason for them or an immediate family member, Yockey said.

“That’s between them and the sick card,” Yockey said.

Beyond the moral and legal motivations, there are some monetary incentives. Teachers accumulate sick days from year to year. When they retire, they receive a payout for those days.

In the week prior to Spring Break — March 31 to April 4 — about 10 more teachers were out per day than average. That week averaged 37 teachers out per day for a medical reason compared to the 27.3 average for the first semester.

But bucking the trend, the peak was in the middle of the week, with 41 teachers taking sick days on Wednesday, and only 36 taking one on Friday.

Yockey chalks up the elevated numbers to the natural fluctuations of sickness. Sometimes more people are just sick than other times, nothing more to it.

“It goes up, down, and all around,” she said.

Spencer said based on his experience in the classroom and school office, he believes any teacher who has called in sick is legitimately sick. Just like any group of workers, a percentage of them are going to get sick, he said. And so many teachers are mothers of small children, who tend to get sick often.

“I find that teachers are a very dedicated group of people. They do not foolishly take off,” he said.

E-mail us about this story at: jfoster@oldhamera.com.