The NFL replacement referees were broadly and angrily crticized for their work during the first few weeks of the NFL season. With limited training and experience they stepped up to the challenge of officiating these games so that America (and gridiron enthusiasts around the world) could enjoy professional football uninterrupted by the labor dispute with the referees' union. As should be expected, mistakes were made--some that were game-changing and invoked the righteous indignation of coaches, players, announcers, and arm-chair quarterbacks.
Should the replacements be faulted for not being as good as the regulars?
Don't the regulars make mistakes, too?
Shouldn't people just learn to deal with the subs and stop complaining about the bad performance?
As with the referees, a subtitute teacher isn't nearly as good as a well-trained, professional teacher.
Great teachers miss class only as a last resort.
They are so dedicated to their students and their craft, that being absent from class is avoided if at all possible. Rather than trying to maximize sick or personal days, great teachers are enthusiastically present and engaged with their students.
What is the real impact on students due to teacher absenteeism? Student academic progress is directly proportionate to teacher presence in the classoom. The more days the teacher is absent, student academic progress is worse. ("Taking Attendance with Teachers," a study conducted by Dr. Jonah Rockoff at Columbia University) One might think that spreading out teacher absences across the year would lessen the impact, but the evidence says otherwise:
Somewhat surprisingly, shorter absences have far more detrimental effects on a per-day basis than longer absences: 10 single-day absences spread out over a year will be significantly worse for student achievement than a single two-week medical leave.
Substitutes are Valuable
Substitute teachers are valuable to a school because some teacher absences are unavoidable. This is an extremely tough role to play, however, because the sub often lacks:
- High expectations for student behavior and performance
- Effective classroom management skills
- Adequate time to prepare
- Sufficient expertise in the field(s) of study
- Understanding of the school's best practices
- Healthy relationships with students and parents
Good substitute teachers are also valuable because they provide some level of continuity in the classroom experience for students. Proper investment should be made by the school's leadership to prepare and train subs. They need to continue their studies in effective pedogogy and relevant academic disciplines.
Some schools employ a "permanent sub," who is present in the school most days to fill-in for teachers who are absent or who must be out of the classroom. If the school can fund such a position, it's a good way to improve the quality for students because this person is able to connect with peers in other classrooms and provide consistency.
Classroom teachers should be expected to provide high-quality lesson plans for days when they must be absent. Today this can be more than a file folder of activities. For example, videos can easily be created for subs that model the lesson plans and convey the instructional practices to be employed. Teachers should meet with subs regularly, and subs should be compensated to participate in professional development opportunities.
I, for one, am grateful for the commitment of the NFL replacement referees because they kept the season alive as the owners and referee's union settled their differences in a new long-term agreement. I didn't expect them to produce results at the same level of quality as the regular officials, and overall thought they performed admirably--especially with the pressure and outlandish behavior of some players, coaches, and fans. Thank you, gentlemen!