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Substitutes fill awkward school role

When Osvaldo asked Olga if she liked babies, the second-grader in the lemon yellow sweater glared. "I know that trick," she said, and scooted past his desk.

Substitute teacher Dion Boykins was a far easier target. When students in his class at Jaworek Elementary School in Marlborough posed the babies question and the follow-up "Do you like food?" it took only seconds to snare him. Children squealed: Boykins likes baby food!

Second-grade humor aside, it's not easy being -- or having -- a sub.

Geoffrey G. Smith, director of the Substitute Teaching Institute at Utah State University, said between 8 percent and 10 percent of US teachers are absent each school day, and that by the time a child reaches 12th grade, he or she has spent an entire school year being taught by substitutes.

Despite this, substitute teachers inhabit an awkward place in education. Although staples of school operation, they're not treated as "real teachers." Pay averages $65 a day and usually lacks health or other benefits. While some are highly qualified individuals who carry out teacher plans, others are little more than warm bodies in a classroom.

Hudson High's principal, John Stapelfeld, said that even though some substitute teachers are familiar with the school's 90-minute block schedule, about 60 percent of the time, "we are trying to maintain order, trying to work with the students, almost as if it's a directed homework session."

Shirley Kirsten, president of the National Substitute Teachers Alliance, said more than 25 states don't require substitutes to have college degrees. She sees a "lack of concern about who is going into the classroom."

In Massachusetts, Department of Education spokeswoman Heidi B. Perlman (a one-time sub herself) said there are no state requirements for substitute teachers. As a result, quality and training vary dramatically.

Some districts farm out finding substitutes to temp agencies. Public schools in Marlborough, Chicopee, Lexington, and Stoneham, for example, hire Kelly Services. The company, which offers health coverage and training seminars, is more expensive, but Joseph Casey, assistant superintendent in Stoneham, said the cost is worth it. The Kelly markup -- the district pays Kelly $68 per sub per day, while Kelly pays subs $51 per day -- results in less wasted time because Kelly finds substitutes 98 percent of the time, Casey said.

"If you don't have the coverage and you can't pull in other teachers or aides, what you wind up with are very large [study halls]," he said. As Casey sees it, having a guaranteed sub means "you are buying instruction" as opposed to baby-sitting.

Marlborough assistant superintendent John Petrin said that while the goal "is to find a reasonable person who can come in, who will not lose the entire day of that class," he concedes that it's not a normal day with a sub.

Boykins's substitute teaching of the second-graders went smoothly because student teacher Jill Guertin was running the show. Boykins followed her instructions, acting more like a teacher's aide than a substitute teacher.

Boykins, a former college football player who works 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. driving a Zamboni at Ken's Foods, is an oft-requested sub, appreciated for his gentle manner and good classroom management skills. Boykins substitutes in Marlborough four to five times a week in classes from Spanish and physical education to middle and high school history and math.

"If you have a hyper kid, you want to use him in your plans to help you, help pass things out," he said. For example, Boykins expertly mopped up spilled glue without damaging a student's model Wampanoag home and prodded students to think during a math test without giving away answers. But as a sub, he didn't know students' names and was nearly tricked at lunch when one boy who ordered a sloppy joe tried to take pizza instead -- a move halted by cafeteria workers.

Such minor missteps nonetheless illustrate the challenge: maintaining a sense of normalcy for students when the regular teacher is out. Some districts are doing what Dover-Sherborne has done at the elementary level: Hire a permanent substitute.

Some teachers say having a substitute is not necessarily a break, but a burden. Hudson High music teacher Jason Caron said it's tough when subs don't know music.

"To prepare the lesson is time-consuming itself. To be able to make it available to someone who doesn't have a background in music is challenging," he said. "It always feels like it is three times as much work to be out of school."

Katherine Merseth, senior lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education and director of teacher education, said the state should consider minimum requirements and criminal record checks for substitutes -- and schools should train "a cadre of semiprofessional people who, for whatever reason, don't want to sign onto a full-time five-days-a-week job, but are qualified and knowledgeable."

They might be talking about someone like Sue Hogan, mother of three who has an engineering degree and passed teacher certification tests. Hogan plans to be a math and science teacher someday, but is now a long-term substitute. She's been teaching fifth grade at the Ryan School in Tewsksbury since September, and even she finds herself critical of substitutes who don't know the ropes.

"When you go in for a day, you don't know the nitty gritty of what a child needs," Hogan said. "Some kids don't like change. I was out one day and one of the kids came up to me and said, `How come you were out? I didn't know you were going to be out. Are you OK?' "

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