I’m a long-term substitute. The pandemic revealed just how vulnerable teachers like me are.

We do essential work, but without more pay and protections, many of us could walk away.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

In the school ecosystem, substitute teachers play an essential, if unheralded, role. We are asked to adapt on the fly, teaching a multitude of subjects to a wide array of learners. We frequently sign up for a particular assignment and are given a completely different one when we arrive at the job site. We are an essential resource for classroom teachers, providing them relief when they need time off and when urgent needs arise. We have relatively little agency within the school power system and many substitute teachers will tell you that they have felt patronized by leadership teams and ignored by faculty. 

Walt Stallings (Courtesy photo)

Yet, many substitutes love the variety of work they perform and the flexibility of the job. For me, substitute teaching has not only offered a convenient daytime schedule as I take graduate classes in the evening, but it has also been a great way to explore the secondary education landscape of Chicago. When I was offered a long-term assignment to teach reading from January through June, I was overjoyed. This assignment not only provided me with a consistent routine, but it was also a chance to build relationships with students and faculty that are sometimes difficult to cultivate when moving from school to school.

I felt fortunate to be requested for my particular long-term assignment. I worked in an incredible K-8 school with supportive teachers and faculty who encouraged me in my work and treated me as an equal. I grew close to many of my students, and I felt lucky to be working in education while I attempted to grow roots and finish my degree. 

When COVID-19 began to spread through the city, I followed the news closely each evening. Working in a school and relying on public transportation each day, I worried about my risk of exposure. My substitute work paid hourly and did not include an option for health insurance, leaving me to scour the marketplace for an inexpensive private plan. I received a text from school leadership on March 13, informing me that schools were ordered to close for at least two weeks and to await further instruction. As the shutdown extended indefinitely and schools went online, my role was excluded from these virtual plans. I found myself suddenly out of work. For the vast majority of this country, those early days of shutdowns were a blur of anxiety-inducing news reels and governmental press conferences. For hourly workers, the fear of a public health crisis was compounded by the uncertainty of income. 

Out-of-work substitutes, including myself, looked to the government for unemployment benefits, often without success as state unemployment agencies were overwhelmed with new claims. The sub agency I worked for stopped replying to emails. I spent the summer applying for restaurant and retail jobs, with no call-backs, as these industries had also been cratered by the pandemic. Eventually I took loans out and cashed in some of my graduate scholarships so I could continue to pay rent and buy groceries. I felt fortunate to be able to do so. 

In August, I was offered another long-term position with the same school to fill in as a middle school math and science teacher for a faculty member on maternity leave. I happily accepted. Despite the new challenges I anticipated of teaching in a virtual environment, I had truly enjoyed my time at this school in the winter and I was certainly in need of income. We have now finished our ninth week of school and I am a week away from my current assignment ending. I am now faced with a difficult decision: whether or not to stay on. 

The faculty and staff I work with are just as supportive in a remote setting as they were in person last winter. The students I teach are incredible. Yet, with all the safety measures put in place for school systems, there has been no increased safety net for long-term substitutes like me. I still work without the option of health insurance. I am still paid only for the hours I’m teaching despite spending every night and weekend completing prep work. In this strange school year, there are no traditional sub plans, so I spend an incredible amount of time each week developing digital material for my students. 

Full-time substitute pay for an entire year of work is around half of the median income in Chicago. It is comparable only to jobs in which it is illegal to ask employees to perform work off the clock. This is not a problem with my particular school, but with a system that doesn’t differentiate between day-to-day substitute work and those roles which ask us to perform all the work of a regular classroom teacher for a fraction of the pay. I truly love both the work I do and the people I work with. I have been offered a chance to stay at the school in a different long-term substitute role following the completion of my current assignment. This is a testament to my caring, supportive coworkers who go out of their way each day to thank me and other support staff for the work we do. But without a reform of our pay and benefits, I believe that many substitutes (including me) will walk away for good. Though we truly appreciate the gratitude, we are unable to live off of it. 

Walt Stallings is currently a substitute teacher in Chicago and a second-year master’s student at DePaul University. Upon graduation, he hopes to continue to work in education in the city.