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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Substitute says Nashua teachers should pay for their own replacements

NASHUA – Just days after The Telegraph reported on teacher absence rates and the costs of hiring substitutes in the Nashua School District, a frequent substitute teacher came to the Board of Education on Monday with his own idea on the subject: Require teachers to pay for their own replacements.

“There’s no reasonable reason why the School District should have to pay twice, once for the sick days and once for the substitute coverage,” said Howard Coffman, of Nashua, who has worked as a substitute in the city for about four years. ...

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NASHUA – Just days after The Telegraph reported on teacher absence rates and the costs of hiring substitutes in the Nashua School District, a frequent substitute teacher came to the Board of Education on Monday with his own idea on the subject: Require teachers to pay for their own replacements.

“There’s no reasonable reason why the School District should have to pay twice, once for the sick days and once for the substitute coverage,” said Howard Coffman, of Nashua, who has worked as a substitute in the city for about four years.

As part of its Sunshine Week coverage, The Telegraph took a look at data on teacher absences in the city from the 2011-12 school year and the cost to hire substitutes for those teachers.

About 1 in 4 teachers called in sick 10 or more school days last year, according to data provided by the district. In that same school year, about $1.03 million was spent on substitute teachers.

Lessening the burden of paying for substitutes, Coffman said, could help fund changes to the substitute programming overall, encouraging schools to always use the same substitutes and integrate them into their teaching teams, providing initial training and ongoing professional development for subs and increasing the respect paid to them by faculty and students.

But the likelihood of dramatically changing the
way substitutes are funded is slim to none.

Superintendent Mark Conrad called the idea of asking teachers to pay for their own substitutes “ridiculous,” while board members said the costs are simply part of doing business in a school system.

“Any job where you have to have someone in the position, there is some cost to providing sick time to those individuals,” board President Robert Hallowell said. “We don’t want them coming in sick, either.”

Still, board member Sandra Ziehm, who encouraged Coffman to speak at Monday’s meeting after hearing his concerns, said it’s important for district administrators and board members to hear from the people working directly with students.

“I think he had some very relevant comments,” she said. “When people who are on the ground, doing the work, speak, you hear the truth.”

Coffman told board members that he felt substitute teaching in the district was “glorified baby-sitting,” focusing more on student discipline and trying to keep students entertained with a movie, worksheet or other busywork supplied by the teacher.

“Substitute teachers are perceived by some administrators and teachers alike as necessary evils – nonprofessionals with unknown knowledge, experience and teaching ability,” Coffman said. “Students ignore the busywork and view substitute-led classes as an opportunity not to do any work. I view these as lost teaching hours for the students.”

Coffman said if the district valued substitutes more, the students would, as well.

Integrating subs into the schools, assigning them to particular schools and grades on a regular basis, and including them in school planning and curriculum discussions would be one way to give subs more value and help them provide a better education for students on the days when teachers aren’t there, he said.

“I’m not here to beat up the substitute program, I’m really here to help you see another way of doing something,” Coffman told board members.

Conrad said teachers are expected to have three lesson plans prepared in advance that substitutes can use with students. Teachers who know they’re going to be out ahead of time will often work to provide more detailed help for substitutes.

Doing much more than that to help prepare substitute teachers, such as assigning them consistently to the same school or grade level and including them on a schoolwide planning or curriculum development team would be costly and unrealistic, Conrad said.

“The idea of providing additional training to subs is worthwhile, and would most likely come in a more in-depth orientation when they’re hired,” he said. “But there’s a reason they’re a substitute and not a regular staff member: We may not have work for them every day, or that work may be at a different school or different grade level.

“This has always been a difficult issue for school districts because of the nature of the need for subs.”

Not only would additional training for substitutes cost money on its own, Conrad added, it would also take more time out of administrators’ days, an already rare resource.

Hallowell said that while he understood Hoffman’s point of view and concerns regarding the district “paying twice” for teacher absences, it simply isn’t feasible to require teachers or other critical employees to fund their own replacements.

“It’s the cost of running a business,” Hallowell said. “When the air traffic controller calls in sick, you have to get someone to replace him. It’s the same here.”

Danielle Curtis can be reached at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashua
telegraph.com. Also, follow Curtis on Twitter (@Telegraph_DC).