A Substitute-Teacher Culture Leaves Students Floundering

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Guest post by Dave SchorEdConnective thought partner, University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education doctoral candidate, and regional director for Springboard Collaborative.

While researching teacher retention and teacher attrition for my dissertation, I came across a compelling article by Susan Loeb, Linda Darling-Hammond, and John Luczak entitled “How Teaching Conditions Predict Teacher Turnover in California Schools.” The article notes that a culture of substitute teachers can develop in schools with high turnover, with a detrimental impact on student achievement. Given what I already knew about the factors contributing to teacher turnover, the article further highlighted the need for teacher mentorship and good, purposeful professional development in schools.

As previously mentioned, high teacher turnover frequently results in a culture of substitute and long-term substitute teachers in a school. This is problematic because students are subjected to either inexperienced teachers (in many districts, subs don’t have to be licensed teachers), and constantly varying teaching, management, and discipline styles. It also often means that teachers are providing instruction outside of their areas of expertise, with little to no curricular coherence. Susan Loeb and fellow researchers explain that a substitute culture can be more damaging to student learning than one year of poor teaching. As student growth and achievement is indeed the ultimate goal of education, this is an alarming development.   

Similarly, the authors identify a collection of studies by the SRI International, which indicated that schools with 20 percent or more teachers deemed “underqualified” or inexperienced, had workplaces short on mentors and high on poor or redundant professional development. 

Both of these findings are disconcerting and inextricably linked. My own experiences and the literature on teacher retention indicate a pressing need for mentors for young teachers. While I believe my teacher education program trained me well, there was so much that happened in the classroom during my first few years of teaching and all of the research and literature in the world could not have completely prepared me. I leaned heavily on a number of mentors who’d “been there and done that” to get me through those precarious times. 

What is also significant is that that substitute culture impacts veteran teachers too, through the degeneration of professional development. That degeneration lowers the overall professional capacity of the entire school and professional development often serves more as a ‘catch-up’ tool rather than a tool for improvement in pedagogy. I have found this to be a problem during my entire teaching career: at first professional development opportunities seemed targeted at me, as a novice teacher, but after several years I was one of the veterans shaking my head at the same training year after year.

Since high teacher attrition, especially in the early years, has been linked to a lack of mentorship and the neediest schools are often struggling to retain mentor-level teachers (as well as novices) new and innovative mentoring programs must be sought out. Virtual mentorship programs like EdConnective offer mentorship, but given that the mentors of such programs are self-selected and heavily vetted, it is reasonable to assume that their pedagogical knowledge as well as their enthusiasm could be passed on. Substitute culture is not the only factor impacting teacher turnover and student performance, but it’s one that needs to be addressed.


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Photo credit: Key & Peele

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