Schools scramble for subs

By KYRA LOW, The Mirror

They say journalists have to become an expert in any given subject on any given day.

Substitute teachers often ride in the same boat.

Substitute teachers are in high demand right now. The Federal Way School District, along with many school districts in Washington state, faces so much of a sub shortage that it also employs emergency subs.

These are community members with at least a bachelor's degree, although a teaching certificate is not required.

"Over the last few years, we've had fewer and fewer subs," said Lori Simmons, director of employee services for Federal Way School District. "Most of the subs have been taken in full time."

Another aspect hindering the availability of certified subs, or a sub who has received a teacher's certificate, is that many subs are registered in several districts. If a job closer to home becomes available, they will take it, Simmons said, leading to the creation of emergency subs.

Emergency subs are required to have a bachelor's degree and some experience working with kids. This can be from camp, sports or church groups — some setting where they developed a relationship with youth.

Then emergency subs, like all other district employees, are fingerprinted and undergo an FBI background check.

Those who qualify to become emergency subs then participate in a brief training with videos on class management and a clinic developed by Utah State University on substitute teaching.

Federal Way School District uses about 30 emergency subs as well as between 50 and 100 certified subs, Simmons said.

Most of these subs are able to work almost every day they want, whether that is one day a week or five, especially during the high implementation time — which runs now through February because of all the vacations and flu season, Simmons said.

‘But you're a sub’

Ray Stewart is an emergency substitute teacher for the district. It's something he started doing after retirement, taking a lead from his daughter, who once worked as a sub in Federal Way.

After retiring from the Marines 20 years ago and Boeing a few years ago, Stewart, who has a few master's degrees, thought emergency subbing sounded like a good idea due to its flexibility.

"Subs have it more difficult than the regular teacher," Stewart said. "I've gone into classes and asked, 'Gee, is this class always this rowdy?' and they'll reply, 'No, but you're a sub.'"

However, this former Marine has ways of calming a class.

"When the rascals get a little rambunctious," Stewart said, "I pull out the old Marine tricks."

Subs can call in any morning and see what classes are in need of a substitute — and there are always plenty of options.

A sub is encouraged to get to the school as soon as possible, Simmons said. That way they have time to get keys for the room as well as the lesson plan that will allow them to function as a regular teacher.

Even then, sometimes there's a need for a little inspiration.

"Every sub has a bag full of tricks," Stewart said. "You pick topics like global warming or political issues like elections and have class discussions to fill the time."

Sometimes subs are called in for a long-term position. Kelsey Milligan is currently a permanent sub for first-graders at Brigadoon Elementary School.

Milligan isn't an emergency sub, but is a certified teacher who began subbing after she finished her student teaching. She was only subbing for two weeks before she got her first permanent subbing job. This year's gig is her second.

"I talk to the teacher fairly often, at least once a week," Milligan said. "She gave me an overview, but then pretty much lets me do what I need to."

The timing of Milligan's subbing plays a factor in the relationship she'll have with a class. This current job contrasts with her last permanent teaching job.

"This year, since I have been here since the beginning (of the school year), the kids know me better than their actual teacher," Miligan said. "The other class, though, was a bit different since I came in at the end (of the school year), so it was a bit more challenging for them to think of me as their teacher."

Sometimes a substitute teacher's biggest challenge is keeping an orderly class, which Stewart said can be solved by allowing the student to leave, via the principal's office. The other major challenge is teaching a subject that the sub isn't all that familiar with.

"I am 70 years old and was a math major, so there's nothing at high school or below that I can't step into pretty well," Stewart said. "But you tend to call on class participation to get some help."

And while subbing allows a sub to leave the job behind once the day is done, it's still a lot of work.

"I always say, it's the hardest $100 a day you'll ever earn," Stewart said.

Contact writer: or (253) 925-5565.

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