Their phones ring — sometimes before dawn — with a last-minute request to show up for work shortly after the sun rises.
If they accept the assignment, they often don’t really know what sort of activity they’ll be doing until they actually arrive at work.
The pay isn’t anything to boast about. And benefits? Don’t bother asking.
We’re talking about substitute teachers, of course, and every day, the Davis school district hires dozens of them. The reasons that subs are needed vary; at this time of year, the flu can be a factor. But there are also times when a teacher needs to be out of the classroom to attend an important meeting, or a training session for the new Common Core academic standards, for example.
Assistant Superintendent Matt Best, who runs the school district’s human resources office, said that last year, the Davis district used 154 different substitute teachers. Of those, 94 worked 20 days or fewer. And then there were nine who worked for 120 days or more. Clearly, some subs get hired — or perhaps more accurately, accept a sub assignment somewhere in Davis — more often than others.
Some schools, Best said, have a “favorite sub” who is familiar with the layout of that particular campus, understands the way things are done — you could say “campus culture”— and likes to substitute there as a result.
There are also some subs who seem to specialize in long-term assignments, like covering for a teacher who has a baby. “And we’ve had a number of new babies in the district this year,” Best added.
The Davis district has been offering substitute teachers the same rate of pay for many years. A sub with an emergency credential (i.e., who has passed a state test) earns $95 per day. A sub who has earned a regular teaching credential earns $107 per day. After 10 consecutive days, a sub receives an extra $10 per day, and there can be other small enhancements in pay as well.
By way of contrast, the Woodland school district pays subs a minimum of $100 per day, with retired Woodland teachers earning $30 more, and long-term subs who are retirees getting $203 per day. West Sacramento’s Washington Unified School District starts subs at $105 per day, with higher rates for long-term subs.
Best added that typically, there is more need for substitute teachers on Mondays and Fridays, and the need for subs drops off a bit in midweek.
He said it’s a lot easier to hire a sub if the process starts a day or more in advance. When a sub is requested in the early-morning hours for an assignment that same day, it can be hard to come up with a sub, he said.
The comparative shortage of available subs is impacting the Davis school district’s ability to give teachers training related to the Common Core academic standards, which are being phased in around California. Best offered this example: “Say you want to give every teacher in the district three days of professional development at a conference, or at the district office. That’s a little over 400 teachers, for three days, so you’ve got 1,300 sub days. And you’ve basically got around 36 weeks during the school year — you can’t do it during the first week of school, or the week before Christmas, or at certain other times.
“So we are having to be very careful how we schedule our professional development, even though we have some state funds to do that,” Best said, because sometimes, there just aren’t enough subs available.
Blair Howard, president of the Davis Teachers Association, said “substitute teachers are essential to the functioning of the district when teachers must be outside of the classroom. As educators, we have a strong interest in having capable substitutes in our classes. We know that substitutes, like the teachers they replace, and most other employees in the district, are not paid in a manner that respects the work they do. This dynamic has an influence on the availability of substitutes.”
Best confirmed that substitute pay has remained the same for about 15 years. Regular classroom teachers saw some cost-of-living raises up through 2008, but haven’t received one since then.
“And there are also people who would like to see a return to smaller class sizes, and restore some of the groundskeeper positions” (that disappeared during the budget crisis), Best said. “It’s a question of where sub pay fits in on a long list of priorities.”
Nele Smith is a substitute teacher who lives in Davis. These days, she substitutes primarily in Woodland, most often at Science and Technology Academy in Knights Landing.
Smith said when she was working as a short-term sub — sometimes in Davis — her phone would ring at 7 p.m., or sometimes at 5 or 6 a.m. with offers for work.
“I think it takes a very flexible person to be a short-term sub,” Smith said. “Typically, you haven’t been to the particular classroom before. You arrive, and you have 30 minutes to figure it all out. Some people leave detailed sub plans, others leave little notes. It really varies.”
And once the students arrive, “maybe you are supposed to walk the students to the cafeteria, but if you didn’t figure it out when you arrived, maybe you don’t know where the cafeteria is.”
Smith said she prefers subbing at a school she’s become familiar with.
“You know where things are, you have built a relationship with some of the students and many of the teachers,” she said. “And as a long-term sub, you have added responsibilities in terms of lesson planning, doing report cards and meeting with parents. You’re basically like a regular teacher, but on a sub rate. You kind of jump in.”
— Reach Jeff Hudson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8055.