Care and Feeding

Long-Term Sub Nightmare

More than half of my daughter’s classes are taught by substitutes, and now she hates school.

A middle school student holds the straps of her backpack and looks frustrated.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jonathan Kirn/The Image Bank/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Matthew Dicks
, fifth grade, Connecticut
Amy Scott,
eighth grade, North Carolina
Brandon Hersey,
second grade, Washington
Katie Holbrook,
high school, Texas

My daughter recently started middle school and has seven periods a day. Unfortunately, two of her teachers are out on medical leave (one since the first week of school, another since mid-October), another is on maternity leave until February, and a fourth just told us she is leaving teaching. That leaves her with three remaining permanent teachers—one of whom teaches P.E. My daughter is extremely frustrated at school, facing long-term subs who barely get the job done and do not teach with any of the charisma or talent of her permanent teachers. I understand that the administration’s hands are tied—it’s a terrible confluence of events that’s led to this situation. It looks to continue for another one to two months, at least (it remains to be seen whether one on medical leave will be able to come back at all). How can I help get her through this? I’ve told her it’s temporary, that some of them will be back soon, and that the school is hard at work on a permanent replacement for the teacher that’s moved on. But I’m worried, too—that my daughter is turned off of school for the first time, that the kids are missing instruction, and that the instruction she’s receiving is second-rate. It’s generally considered an excellent public school, but right now it’s really falling short. How worried should I be? Is there anything I can do? I’d love any advice you can offer.

—Tired of Subpar Teaching

Dear Tired,

That is a truly awful situation but fortunately one that’s unlikely to repeat itself.

Let me start by saying I don’t think you should be too worried. A few months, even half a year, of interrupted instruction is not going to destroy your daughter’s academic career. Kids are resilient, even in middle school, and they will learn what they need to learn when they need to learn it.

Thanks for acknowledging the bind the administration is in. Teachers are evaluated by how their students perform, but so are principals. They don’t like the situation any more than parents and teachers do. And it’s extremely difficult to find full-time teachers midyear—the administrators are probably tearing their hair out.

That said, you can communicate your concerns, especially if you acknowledge their struggle upfront. Maybe frame it not as a critique but instead as a query, like you did in your letter. Ask for their advice. “I know this period of long-term teacher absences must be a nightmare for you, and I’m thankful I’m not in your shoes. My daughter is struggling with the upheaval. What can I do to support her during this time? How can I make sure she’s getting what she needs academically and socially? Also, here’s a bottle of wine to get you through.” Just kidding about that last part.

As for my advice, I’d go for a combination of empathy and “That’s life.” Tell your daughter it sucks, that that’s not how school is supposed to be, that you’d feel the same way if you were in her shoes … and, since she’s stuck with it, what can she do about it now? Life is not about what happens but about how you respond to it. Sometimes you’re dealt a bad hand—how are you going to play it?

—Ms. Scott

Enjoy Slate’s Holiday Advice From the Experts series from our beloved advice columnists. Keep your sanity intact this holiday season with Jamilah Lemieux’s self-care tips. Nicole Cliffe presents classic gifts for children of all ages. Teacher Carrie Bauer recommends educational gifts your kids will actually enjoy.

My son is currently away with the entire fifth grade of his school at a two-day camp experience. This is pretty much a universal experience for fifth graders in our county and across much of our state, although some school districts have dropped it for financial reasons. (Our school district has passed more of the cost onto families: It now costs parents $90 for this “field trip”—in a district where 38 percent of the kids receive free or reduced price lunches.) I went to a similar camp in fifth grade in the ’80s in a different state. For me the fifth grade camp experience was pretty disastrous socially, having ramifications that lasted into middle school. Reminiscing has led to this question in my friend group: Why do we send fifth graders to camp with their school? Is there a curriculum or developmental goal that is met by this experience?

Lord of the Flies for Fifth Graders?

Dear Lord of the Flies,

I’ve been taking my fifth graders to camp for the past 21 years, and my school has been sending fifth graders to camp for the past 49 years. In fact, I’m in charge of the trip now, planning, coordinating, and assuming responsibility for every aspect of the excursion, so you’ve come to the right place with your question.

Our trip differs slightly from your child’s trip in that we spend four days and three nights at camp, and financial assistance is provided by our parent-teacher organization to families in need because our parent community is a huge supporter of the trip. Placing a financial burden on families who are already struggling without offering any support makes no sense to me.

But in terms of curriculum and development goals, yes, there are many. Here are just a few.

For many of my students, our trip to camp represents the first experience away from home. Some have never even experienced a sleepover with a friend, so overcoming this barrier—both for themselves and for their parents—is an important step as they prepare for middle and high school, where overnight field trips are more commonplace. In fact, in the two decades I’ve been taking kids to camp, the burden has shifted from convincing children that camp will be fun to convincing parents that sending their children away to camp will be OK.

But I can’t tell you how many parents have spoken to me about how their child’s trip to camp opened doors to sleepovers with friends, summer sleep-away camp, and the like.

It’s also a time for fifth graders—often on the cusp of middle school—to become more independent. For many of my kids, camp is the first time that they brush their teeth without being told, the first time they make a bed, choose the appropriate footwear for the day, report for breakfast on time, and the like. Absent parental reminders and ingrained routines, kids start to find their own way through the day. This is an enormous step for so many kids.

I also have many students who are afraid to go to camp. The prospect of the unknown, absent any parental support, is frightening to them. We take our kids to camp in September and October, making it doubly challenging because the kids don’t know their teachers all that well yet. For many kids, it requires coaxing and prodding to get them on that bus, but by the morning on the second day, 98 percent of all students are thrilled to be at camp and will speak openly about how ridiculous it was to be afraid of such a wonderful place. Overcoming your fear of the unknown and discovering that you have the strength to launch yourself into a strange and new adventure is an enormous leap for kids.

For some of my students, camp is also the first time they have experienced nature outside of a city park. Surrounded by forests and streams, they marvel at the absence of noise, the brightness of the stars, and the darkness of a night in the forest. These are kids who have never hiked, ascended a climbing wall, held a bullfrog in their hands, or fished. They fall in love with nature over the course of four days, and I like to think that will change the way they view a hike up a mountain or a canoe down a river at some point in the future.

I’m sorry that your experience at camp was so negative, but after every trip, I ask my students to complete an anonymous survey about their experience. The three questions I focus in on most are:

1. Did you enjoy camp?
2. Would you like to go back to camp?
3. Would you have liked to stay another day or two at camp?

All three questions are answered affirmatively 95 percent of the time, and very rarely does any student say that they didn’t enjoy camp. When this is the case, the reasons are usually related to homesickness or separation from technology, so my kids aren’t reporting Lord of the Flies scenarios, at least in our case.

I know that camp is an expensive prospect for many families and can put a lot of stress on parents and students, and it’s also hard for teachers to be absent from their families for four days and three nights, but both parents, teachers, and students in our school recognize this trip as an important and valuable rite of passage that changes lives in significant ways.

I hope your child has a similar experience.

—Mr. Dicks

My second grader has been suspended from school twice this year for behaviors like running out of the classroom, hitting/kicking, and spitting on another child. He does not view suspension as a punishment and wants to get suspended again. Given the suspension rate at the school, he will probably succeed.

For context, I’m a white parent of white kids, and we’re at a majority-black neighborhood school in a district where many white families opt out of public schooling. We are new to the community, but many have confirmed there is a pattern of our school being a high-suspension school (about one-third of kids got suspended in the data I have), and I have seen many instances of teachers and administrators yelling at kids, taking away privileges, making the kids sit on the blacktop at recess, etc.

The school psychologist said that in spite of his efforts to change this practice, he has not seen a lot of change over the years. When I look around the school, I don’t see a lot of bad kids, but I do see a lot of kids that need support self-regulating, need support to stay on task, and need to get movement during the day, which keeps getting taken away because of “bad” behavior.

Our school is offering Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which the school thinks might help our kid, and the school psychologist is going to give him an evaluation for an Individualized Education Program and additional support services. But these efforts seem to contradict the overall approach to discipline at the school. Our child is acting out much more aggressively and seems to be regressing in his ability to handle transitions/change both at school and at home. He keeps saying he wants to go to a different school with “less fighting,” that is “more quiet,” where the teachers “don’t yell as much.” And the suspensions are weighing on our family (and other families as well) because of lost work time and the fact that our child does not experience it as punishment. He is unhappy at school and wants to get suspended.

I want to ask the principal what it would take to make our school a no- or low-suspension school (there are even other majority-black schools in the district with low suspension rates), but right now all the time and energy I have is taken up dealing with my own kid’s “bad” behavior.

I think most people would suggest leaving the school. But leaving the school for another public school feels like a failure to support our new community and like we are just following every other white family in contributing to segregation. Plus, switching midyear will be hugely disruptive for his education and disrupt the IEP evaluation process.

At the same time, it seems like staying at the school is a recipe for more punishment for our kid and more harmful behavior (he has started punching his younger brother, hard). Is it wishful thinking to think that things could get better at this school?

—Feeling Hopeless

Hi there, Hopeless,

I’m sorry to hear about your son’s school. This seems like a place that is really struggling to get its act together. I’m happy to hear that you are getting connected with PBIS and potentially supporting your child with an IEP. While I obviously can’t make this decision for you, I can give you some additional context that might help you make your decision. As its name suggests, PBIS is a way for schools to encourage good behavior, and schools that use it teach about behavior as if they were teaching reading or math. It’s a great first step in improving a school’s culture, especially if it is struggling with student behavior. However, fully implementing this program is a multiyear process and requires complete buy-in from the educators and administration—I say that speaking from personal experience. If you don’t have that, PBIS will not work in your school. Your first step might be asking your principal about the school’s implementation plan.

The IEP may be more helpful than PBIS alone because it’s individualized and comes with very clear accommodations and guidelines that the school is legally obligated to meet. If you do go through with the evaluation and your son meets the qualifications for an IEP, I suggest you take an active role in shaping the plan for your desired outcome. As an educator, I advise you take great consideration in having your son evaluated, though. While an IEP can drastically improve your son’s educational experience, if not followed with fidelity, it can often do more harm than good. IEPs really need staunch oversight to be effective, and based on what you’ve shared about your school’s current culture, I would proceed with caution.

I appreciate your commitment to your school and community, and I share your concerns. We have to be wary of white flight and trends of de facto segregation in elementary schools. A potential solution may be to find your son an outside counselor to work on his aggression and coping skills. I’d talk to the school counselor or principal to get a referral. Whatever you decide, I hope your family finds a solution that will best support your son and your school community.

—Mr. Hersey

My husband and I are both teachers. I have been a teacher for about 10 years. My husband taught English to adults for a few years, and he has been a teacher in public education for five years. Teaching is hard. It’s all-encompassing. Working with kids is wonderful. It’s the rest of it—paperwork, crazy parents, and unrealistic administrative expectations—that makes it a 60-hour-a-week job for teacher pay. My husband is burned out and wants to do something else. I get it! I have faced teacher burnout before. I want a happy husband. The problem is we have a baby, a house, and bills to pay. We can’t make it on my salary alone. He has no clue what he wants to do, and he isn’t doing anything to figure it out. On top of it, he wants to move across the country to be closer to my family. I love the idea of being closer to them, but all of this change is stressing me out. My family lives in an area where the cost of living is three times as much. To make this move happen, it would mean we both quit our jobs, sell our house (which needs a lot of work before that can happen), and move across the country, where I will have to find a new teaching job, and he will hopefully find a new career. Whenever I try to talk to him, he just tells me how miserable he is. I want him to find a new career path that makes him happy. But we also have responsibilities. What should I do?


Dear Dream-Crusher,

First of all, let me say that I’m sorry you’re going through this. It sounds extremely stressful.

I empathize with your husband. Five years after I started teaching, I began to feel burned out. I considered leaving the profession altogether but decided to try a different environment first, so I got a job at a new school. Ten years later, I’m still there! When I had children, I also found that my pre-motherhood approach to teaching wasn’t sustainable. It’s possible your husband would be happier at a different school or in a different position. But it sounds like you probably know all this because you have also dealt with burnout.

What I’d recommend is that your husband revamp his résumé. This can be a daunting task, especially after five years in the same job. Take heart! I know people who have left teaching for careers as real estate agents, legal assistants, account managers, and corporate trainers. And he doesn’t necessarily have to decide the job he’ll be doing until he retires—he just needs to figure out his next step. I had a friend who left teaching and got a job as an administrative assistant. She described it as a “transitional job”: She wasn’t planning on being there forever, but she was glad to have the job at the time. She had comparable pay and less stress while she plotted her next move.

The hard part is you can’t take these steps for him. If he’s miserable, he owes it to himself (and his family) to be proactive. If he’s making you miserable, I think it’s OK to tell him so. Tell him he needs to seriously rethink his career and you will not consider moving across the country until he does.

One last thing: Is it possible he’s depressed? Sometimes depression makes it difficult for people to help themselves. If that’s the case, he needs to seek the help of a mental health professional.

Best of luck! I’ll be thinking of you both.

—Ms. Holbrook

To get Dear Prudence’s perspective on this letter, click here.

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