After years of low pay, little help, less respect and no benefits, the average substitute teacher has quite a bit to say about life in the San Diego city schools. The problem is, no one really cares to listen.
"We go into the school. We sub. We don't talk to anybody. We have no connection with the district," said Sandra Creech, who has substituted for 18 months.
Now, for the first time, the San Diego Unified School District and its more than 1,000 substitute teachers are getting together to discuss the problems of people who make up about 7% of the district's daily classroom work force.
Creech and three other teachers this fall established a substitutes' support group, which allows substitutes to discuss and advise each other about the hassles they face each day. And earlier this month, the district held the first meeting of a 22-member advisory committee to begin considering some of the substitutes' criticisms.
"We feel we're just dumped on. We're on the bottom of the pile, of the professionals anyway. We're just swept under the rug," Creech said.
In a survey conducted by the group, 202 substitutes listed salary and benefits, better communication, professional rights and respect and job evaluations as their primary concerns. Most say they continue because they love teaching, students, or both, and are seeking full-time teaching jobs.
George Flanigan, director of certificated personnel for the school district, said that the school system's attention to substitutes' problems is long overdue.
"This is something that probably could have happened any time in the last 10 or 15 years," Flanigan said. "It probably should have. But what's happening now is there is a shortage of substitute teachers."
While the district started the year with a list of about 1,600 substitutes to choose from, the number has dwindled to about 900 now, Flanigan said. Many have taken hourly tutoring jobs in the school system, and some have signed on as full-time teachers with other districts.
Normally, 300 to 325 substitutes teach in the city's schools each day. But an average of 500 or more were working during the 10 days before Christmas, when flu and the holiday season cut into the full-time teaching ranks, Flanigan said. Twice this year, there have been fewer substitutes than needed.
Despite the shortage, both sides agree that substitutes have little hope for higher wages than the $65 they earn for daily work and $75 per day they are paid for long-term assignments. In Los Angeles, substitutes earn $80 a day; in San Francisco, they are paid $60.
The city school system raised the daily wage $10 this September and is not inclined to increase it again in the near future, Flanigan said. And though the San Diego Teachers Assn. is trying to add substitutes to its union, Creech sees little hope of substitutes exerting pressure on the district as a labor force.
"I don't think we'd get enough substitutes to do it," Creech said. "People are afraid they'll be blackballed by the district. There are people who are afraid to join this (support) organization."
Another issue on the substitutes' support group agenda is the system by which their teaching skills are evaluated. Because most substitutes are trying to land full-time teaching jobs, evaluations are crucial to their futures.
The substitutes are evaluated by principals and vice-principals who watch them for a few minutes at most, and often never step into the classroom. Some evaluations are based on a following day assessment made by the regular classroom teacher or on comments from nearby teachers, a procedure some substitutes consider unfair.
For day-to-day substitutes, evaluations are filed only when a performance is considered poor or outstanding. If no evaluation is filed, the day's performance is considered adequate. Long-term substitutes, those who teach in the same classroom for 10 consecutive days, are always evaluated.
But copies of evaluations are not sent to the substitute because of clerical costs. Substitutes say that years can pass before they review their personnel files and find negative evaluations.
One substitute, who asked not to be named, said four or five negative evaluations during three years of teaching cost her a long-term substituting job that one principal offered.
"When I went down three years later to see my (personnel) file, I thought I was going down to get a job," she said. "That's why, when I found out these (evaluations) were in here, I was flabbergasted, just shocked."
"I did not know that these evaluations were being done," said Vernice Simmons, another three-year veteran, who admits she is growing discouraged at her prospects of landing a full-time job. "We should know what's going on in our files. These are ours."
Substitutes also want classroom teachers to help by leaving clear lesson plans, by laying down the law about student behavior, and by treating substitutes like equals.