In the latest shooting in a national epidemic of gun violence, a gunman identified by police as a 17-year-old student at Santa Fe High School in Texas entered the school building with a shotgun and a pistol, and opened fire in an art class on May 18. He killed 10 people and wounded at least 10 others.
Among the dead were two teachers temporarily working in place of regular teachers at the school, about 30 miles southeast of Houston. They were substitute teachers, who, as this post says, are “truly the forgotten force of the education world.”
This is a tribute to those two substitute teachers, written by Sara Stevenson. She is a librarian at O. Henry Middle School in Austin who is retiring at the end of this school year. This was first published on historian and education advocate Diane Ravitch’s blog, and I was given permission to republish it.
By Sara Stevenson
After each school shooting, I usually have to wait a couple of days before I can read about the victims. Once they are personalized and named, the force of the tragedy strikes another blow. In this latest mass shooting, at Santa Fe High School, I noticed that two of the fatalities were not full-time regular teachers, but substitute teachers.
Substitute teachers are our unsung heroes. In the Austin Independent School District, substitute teachers earn between $75 and $85 per day of service, the latter if they are Texas-certified teachers. (Long-term substitute commitments receive an additional $20 after 20 consecutive days). Still, the typical rate is $12 per hour. This compares to an average of $9 per hour for beginning workers at McDonald’s.
I went to high school in the 1970s, and I’m still ashamed at how we treated one of our more famous substitute teachers: Mr. Story. He was a retired teacher who wore a suit with a “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” cap and rode his bicycle to school. Times were a’changin’, and Mr. Story was far from cool, so we ignored him, talked to our classmates, and didn’t take him seriously. We snickered when he got angry.
Classroom management is difficult, both a subtle art and practice that takes a career to master. The regular, full-time teacher has the great advantage of setting the tone, the parameters, and, over time, building relationships with her students.
The substitute teacher often enters hostile territory, where children trade names with their peers, pretending to be each other, and often treat the guest teacher disrespectfully. And it’s not just the students. In some schools, both staff and faculty treat the substitutes disparagingly, ignoring them in the lunchroom or faculty lounge.
With so many teachers being women of childbearing age, hiring strong, effective, and committed substitute teachers is especially important during the minimum six weeks’ maternity leave, a sixth of the entire school year. Many substitute teachers are retired teachers who need the extra funds.
Austin ISD is one of only 20 Texas school districts that contribute to both the Teacher Retirement System and Social Security. Forty percent of teachers nationwide depend solely upon their TRS pension. In Texas, retired teachers often go many years before seeing a cost-of-living increase.
Other substitutes are prospective teachers, wisely practicing and “shopping” for a school they would like to work in permanently. Still, I worry that the demanding and often frustrating, sometimes humiliating, experience of subbing will discourage them from the teacher career path, especially in Austin, where the unemployment rate is now a low 2.8 percent.
Substitute teachers are truly the forgotten force of the education world, and these two, Cynthia Tisdale and Ann Perkins, lost their lives so that the instructional day could continue in the regular teachers’ absence.
I looked at their photos in the newspaper and read:
They lost their lives in the service of educating young people on the lowest rung of the teacher-appreciation ladder, while our elected officials refuse to deal with the epidemic of gun violence in our society.
Sara Stevenson is a librarian at O. Henry Middle School in Austin. She is retiring at the end of the school year.