Parra: A More Effective Approach To Covering Teacher Absences Requires Creativity And Courage

Teach Plus New Mexico

My daughter Maddi is a joyful, bright, and kind 7-year old. She wakes up every morning ready for school to see her friends and to learn new things. Last year, there was not a single day that Maddi didn’t come home with stories to tell about all the things that she explored and practiced that day. Of her school subjects, math was her favorite.

At the beginning of the school year, a substitute teacher was assigned to Maddi’s class. Her stories and tone shifted. “We still have a sub, the work is too easy, my friends are wandering the halls, and I don’t know what we are learning in math this week,” she’d say when she came home. Common milestones in school such as meet-the-teacher night, open house, and parent-teacher conferences were canceled or postponed. Graded work with feedback and newsletters with important school information were not available.

Teacher shortages remain an issue across New Mexico and like any other profession, educators deserve to take leave. The need for a new plan of action to alleviate the strain placed upon schools to ensure learning continues when a teacher must miss a day or more is critical.

In fact, national research shows that during their K-12 experience, the time students are taught by a substitute teacher adds up to almost two-thirds of a school year. We absolutely need substitute teachers to step in for absent teachers, but they need our support, too. Knowing how to best serve the academic needs of all students and maintaining a classroom community that is inclusive and responsive is no easy task, even for the most seasoned teachers. Research has consistently shown that teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling. We need to ensure that all teachers, including substitute teachers, are prepared to guide that learning and grow opportunities and outcomes for our students without disruption.

New Mexico’s education leaders put specific policies and practices in place for how long-term teacher absences are addressed in order to keep the needle moving in the right direction to increase student outcomes.

These can include the following: 

  • Utilize known talent within the school community, such as community members with teaching credentials or retired teachers, to ensure quality instruction can proceed uninterrupted.

  • Ensure that core subjects, such as math and reading, are taught by certified teachers so that more students have access to the instruction they need and their individual needs are met.

  • Leverage professionals like instructional and content specialists to fill classroom vacancies and/or support substitute teachers with the curriculum, mentorship, and best instructional practices.

  • Require substitute teachers taking on long-term positions to receive more in-depth training in the areas of classroom management and instructional best practices.

By taking a closer look at in-district resources and supports, we can ensure that teachers can take leave without disrupting the flow of education. Substitutes can then feel empowered in their role of guiding our students, and our students will have consistent access to the curriculum and learning supports they need to thrive at school.

Ultimately, my family decided to make a school change. If Maddi’s teachers had the right support, we may not have had to make that really hard decision. It is up to us to ensure that we fully prepare and set all our teachers up for success, so that students like Maddi can remain in schools they love.

Aimee Parra has been an educator for over 13 years. After being a part of the Teach Plus New Mexico  Policy Fellowship in recent years, she now serves as the Teacher Network Coordinator for the non-profit organization.

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