Lack of substitute teachers burdens BUSD educators

In recent years, Berkeley High School has grappled with a severe substitute shortage, which began during the pandemic. BHS students are no strangers to being greeted by vacant classrooms with no substitute available. 

Becoming a substitute requires a four-year college degree, a California Basic Educational Skills Test pass certificate, and the patience to handle students’ casual dehumanization. The district may also resort to ‘emergency substitutes’ whose assignments cannot exceed 30 days, requiring the less intensive Emergency 30-Day Substitute Teaching Permit. With these requirements, and minimal benefits beyond flexible scheduling, substitutes have little incentive to apply for the job. Incentivizing educators through increased compensation on a state-wide level is necessary to ensure that teachers aren’t pushed to overcompensate for the substitute shortage. 

This shortage burdens BHS teachers every week through a general email requesting that they substitute during their prep periods. Laura Power, a BHS math teacher, said that these emails are her “least favorite thing about this high school.” Every day, she must decide if it is worth 47 dollars to give up her prep period. 

“A lot of times I think, yeah, I should, it’s worth money, right? But then it comes with the sacrifice of, my day is much more hectic, I’m more stressed…I prepared less for the class.” Power added that she weighs if it is her moral duty to step in, or if she should devote attention to her own students. “Should I say ‘no, I am not going to offer to help you with your substitute shortage. I’m going to do the job that I was hired to do, that I signed up for’? That’s a huge loss for the students in the class that are now sent to the football field.” 

Power says she works 60-80 hours a week, a non-stop effort not uncommon among her colleagues. It is not sustainable for educators to be spread so thin. However, the issue perpetuates itself. As the substitute shortage worsens, full-time teaching becomes harder and less appealing, worsening the shortage. 

Teachers make a decision to prioritize contributing to the well-being of society by nurturing students and informing beliefs that will outlast them over going into a career that will lead to more money. However, not everyone has the privilege to make this choice. Teacher and substitute benefits are strikingly underwhelming, especially considering the prerequisites and demand. A substitute who worked every day of a school year would make an estimated $30,000. Full-time teachers are also notoriously underpaid. Rather than piling their plate with more burdens towards resentment, we must reward them for the superhuman energy they possess. 

“With my credentials, my work experience, my degrees, I could get a job where I don’t get talked over all day,” Power said. “I could get a job where I make four times as much money. I could get a job where my health insurance is paid by my employer.” 

While the substitute shortage is not caused by student behavior, it doesn’t help that decency is often discarded when a different adult steps into the classroom. It is fundamentally important to treat people like people. This extends to the student perception of their everyday teachers. 

“A healthy person has a healthy dose of mistrust in things…I don’t think I instilled mistrust in these kids. I think they came with it because of their experience in the school system,” said BHS AP Patterns in Black Literature teacher Meikko Lee. Students cannot immediately assume that inconveniences or disruptions hail from a lack of teacher effort or care and push themselves to assume positive intent in them. These delicate interactions are the human core of the imperfect educational system. While larger forces must reshape the overarching structure, assuming positive intent in teachers is the grease between each little moving part.

In order to provide necessary compensation, we must turn to the school board, voters, and politicians to make these changes and implement them on a larger scale. Attracting a larger generation of educators involves increasing compensation so that BUSD can better support its staff and its students.