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Viewpoint: Remember to thank a sub

February 14, 2017 Keith Hadden, ATA executive staff officer

It’s all so confusing. Fold, whip, blend, blanch, purée. Conduction, induction, emulsion.

This was my introduction to substitute teaching — a home economics class, of all classes. They call it “foods” today. Sounded easy enough at the time. I had already had some teaching experience and knew how to get along with students. I quickly learned about the difficult work that the approximately 6,000 substitute teachers dutifully and competently perform on a daily basis in Alberta classrooms from Coutts to Alex to Rainbow Lake.

The world of the substitute teacher is a lot different than the world of the classroom teacher. As a classroom teacher I was always able to draw on my rapport with students, my knowledge of the curriculum and the support of my colleagues, but as a substitute I now faced a whole new set of challenges. As I struggled to keep the right students in the classroom, the wrong students out of the classroom, and the cake batter off the ceiling, I also gained a new appreciation for the difficult work of my substitute-teaching colleagues. 

We often hear of the heroics of so many members of our profession, teachers who perform magical feats with students everyday. This includes substitute teachers, often the unsung heroes of our profession.

Whether it’s that substitute teacher who takes extra time to get to know a student and build a bond, or the one who brings an activity to augment lesson plans that have been left by the classroom teacher, or the one who volunteers to help out with supervision or with a student activity, students and teachers across Alberta owe a debt of gratitude to our substitute teachers. Substitute teachers keep schools running when there is an influenza outbreak, a professional development activity, committee work, or any of the myriad reasons a teacher is called from the classroom.

There is also a very committed group of provincial volunteers that meet throughout the school year to advocate for substitute teachers and to plan an annual conference. These volunteers, most of them substitute teachers themselves, work tirelessly to create and update resources such as the Substitute Teachers Monograph found on the ATA website on the Teachers as Professionals tab under the Publications heading. A planning document is also available on the website to assist in preparing to have a substitute teacher in the classroom.

The Substitute Teachers Committee has an extensive action plan that includes advocating for the participation of substitute teachers on local committees and executives, encouraging substitute teacher participation in teachers’ convention associations and on specialist councils, including substitute teachers in the bargaining process, promoting fair hiring practices by school boards, and encouraging substitute teacher attendance at the Annual Representative Assembly as well as the ATA annual Summer Conference. The more involved substitute teachers are at the local level, the more they and their colleagues across the province benefit.

March 13 – 17 is Substitute Teachers’ Week. This week was first declared by Provincial Executive Council in 2003 as a means of showing appreciation to our substitute teacher colleagues across the province. And appreciation they deserve. Think of how long it takes you to get to know all of your students at the beginning of a new school year — all their strengths, needs, personalities, what motivates them and what triggers them. The substitute teacher has no such benefit of time to get to know all the classroom and student subtleties. A substitute teacher walks into a classroom every day, sometimes several different classrooms in one day, without the benefit of knowing students, staff or routines. Imagine picking up your briefcase and going to a new job every day, a job where you might not know anybody or even where the washroom is located. That’s the job of the substitute teacher.

The provincial Substitute Teachers’ Committee hopes that teachers and administrators across the province will plan some events and actions to show their appreciation for the hard work of their substitute teaching colleagues.

Take a quick moment this spring to post a tweet (#subteachers2017) to thank substitute teachers, offer support, or just connect with a colleague. Take an extra minute to buy them a coffee, invite them to your table, check in on them during the day and let them know they are an important part of your school. Remember that we are all part of the same profession. As President Mark Ramsankar said at the annual Substitute Teachers’ Conference held earlier this year, “We are all Alberta teachers.”

Keith Hadden is the secretary to the Substitute Teachers’ Committee.

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