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We Asked Teachers: Should State Lawmakers Be Required to Serve as Substitutes?

Lawmakers in Louisiana are considering a proposal that would have state representatives serving as volunteer substitute teachers to get a better idea of what teachers face. We asked North Texas instructors if they thought Texas should do the same.

A few days ago, an intriguing tweet from former Little Elm superintendent Daniel Gallagher appeared in my Twitter feed.

In the tweet, Gallagher shared a story about the Louisiana state House committee unanimously advancing a resolution that would require state representatives to volunteer as substitute teachers.

“We need our Texas State Legislators to volunteer as substitute teachers,” Gallagher tweeted. “This will provide them some insight into the challenges our teachers face before their next vote on educational laws.”

And that’s what the resolution’s authors felt, too. But I wondered, how much exactly could a lawmaker glean from a few volunteer hours in a classroom, pre-arranged with carefully selected students?

So we assembled a panel of local educators and asked them to read the article, and then give their unvarnished thoughts on the whole idea. Allen ISD teacher Angela Barretto, Dallas ISD teacher Melody Townsel, Irving ISD teacher Bernadette Blakely, and elementary school speech pathologist Jamie Stone stepped up to give their impressions.

Maybe a week after a mass shooting at a school and two years deep into pandemic teaching was a bad time to ask a panel of teachers how they felt about this—or maybe it was a perfect time. 

D Magazine: What do you think of having lawmakers spend time as substitute teachers?

Barretto: I think it’s a great idea to introduce legislators to a fraction of what teachers deal with, as well as to help alleviate substitute shortages. It’s better than teachers giving up their conference periods (as some do) to cover the classes of absent colleagues. I have no problem with uncertified substitutes, as long as they have a college degree. Honestly, very little teaching gets done on a day with a substitute anyway.

Townsel: I think the idea sounds good on paper and in the media but, like so many similar ideas, the devil is in the details. There is already a lot of dog and pony show in public education, and this will clearly generate more. NO WAY will administrators be willing to assume the risk of plugging legislators into actual openings as they occur; they handpick and preschedule this stuff, and/or — per the article — limit legislators’ in-classroom experiences to a class or two or the odd half-day.

As a result, I sincerely doubt that these “real-life” experiences will generate much change. They won’t be real, so they won’t generate real results. The best teaching comes when solid relationships have been established. Mental-health issues and real student needs will all be pushed to second place behind photo ops, sound bites, and the like.

Blakely: Interesting. I think the idea has potential, but I worry that it’ll be a dog and pony show. It sounds like the videos we watch of strategies being implemented in classrooms. The kids are prepped on how to behave, what to expect, and how to reply. My classes act like that, too, when other adults enter the room. It’s the game we play. 

Stone: I think it’s absurd that people who have no experience in the classroom are voting on things having to do with public schools.  I like the idea of making sure our lawmakers are more involved with what goes on in our schools but I’m not sure subbing a day or two is an effective way to do that.  It would only be a glimpse of what goes on. They’d need to sub a minimum of 10-30 days but even then, subs don’t get an idea of what went into planning for the sub to be there, figuring out how to pay for things in the classroom, how to do report cards, lesson planning that aligns with the TEKS, analyzing test data, providing Tier 2 and Tier 3 supports. 

The regular teacher does so much more than the sub!  They probably won’t have been there with a group of kindergartners on active shooter drill day, and likely wouldn’t choose to go to a school in a lower-income area. They’d probably all head to Highland Park.

D Magazine: Do you think if Texas implemented such a measure, outcomes would be different in the state legislature when it comes to public education?

Stone: One thing they’d really need to see is how very different each student is in terms of learning ability. Then they’d have to see their little friends freaking out from anxiety during STAAR testing. They’d have to really get to know and love the kids and see what it feels like when one of them, especially a special needs or ELL kiddo, fails the STAAR test to be able to understand how we need to go back to the days when it was appropriate for schools to decide to exempt certain students from taking the state exams. 

They’d also need to be sent to classrooms that are designed for our most behaviorally challenged students to see how understaffed and ill-equipped we are. Same with schools with high numbers of non-English speakers. 

I sincerely doubt that these “real-life” experiences will generate much change. They won’t be real, so they won’t generate real results.

Dallas ISD teacher Melody Townsel

But even if they don’t do this, I think it’s a great idea to propose it to them. If they turn down this opportunity, we’ll see how our lawmakers don’t want to do something our teachers are expected to do every day without complaint and for not nearly enough money. Their “no thanks, we don’t want to do that!” will be heard loud and clear.

Blakely: I’ve had interns and student teachers before. Shadowing me has been the most eye-opening thing for them. They watch me in action and they’re stunned to see everything I REALLY do every day. I think if legislators experienced that, it might make a difference. I worry that they’ll sub in Highland Park, or at Jesuit, or some other district/school that doesn’t have as many challenges. 

Barretto: I believe such a measure in Texas would make a small difference in outcomes for education legislation, because of the increased awareness and empathy of the lawmakers. However, a sub for a day or two is spared much of the conditions that drive teachers out of the profession. A sub doesn’t do paperwork. A sub doesn’t have to spend days or weeks prepping students to take a state assessment, the results of which reflect directly back on the teacher. A sub doesn’t have the frustration of students with academic or discipline challenges that persist throughout the year, sometimes with minimal or non-existent support from school administration and parents. A sub doesn’t deal with parents at all, some of whom are hyper-critical of teachers, while others have no interest in what their children do or don’t do at school. 

I did a lot of subbing before I was hired full-time, and one of the best things about subbing is that even if it’s a bad day, you can go to another assignment the next day without seeing any long-term outcomes for the students.

D Magazine: What do you think legislators would learn if they had to substitute for your typical day?

Blakely: If they had to sub for my typical day, they would think my life is easy. They wouldn’t see the students I check on daily because they’re depressed. They wouldn’t see the ones who are awkward and at risk of being bullied. They wouldn’t see my kid with dyslexia who was worried sick about his EOCs (end of course exams). They wouldn’t see the ones who love coming to my class because I don’t read them the riot act when they can’t stay still. They wouldn’t see the kid who takes care of his siblings every afternoon while his mom looks after the dad with MS. They wouldn’t see that my co-workers and I are first responders every day as we try to balance our students’ personal growth and the academic growth the state says is so important. 

At the end of the day, I’m cheering for the kid who has been depressed for two years and never turned in anything, but who finally cut her bangs to show her face the last two weeks of school and still passed my EOC. I’m cheering for the kid with dyslexia who passed his EOC. I’m cheering for the awkward kid who will go to high school next year and find her people. I’m cheering for the kid who came to my school barely speaking English, was placed in my advanced class, and spent the last month smiling and greeting me daily. 

They wouldn’t know that every day I come in and rethink our escape routes because I plan for all of us to go home in an active shooter situation.

They wouldn’t see that my co-workers and I are first responders every day as we try to balance our students’ personal growth and the academic growth the state says is so important.

Irving ISD teacher Bernadette Blakely

Townsel: What would a legislator learn in my class? I would hope they would learn that the current “outrage” over library books is completely manufactured. To walk among 10th and 11th grades today is to realize that our students are gay, they’re trans, they use profanity, and they’re not the idealized, “Leave It To Beaver”-styled teens so many “protestors” posit them to be.

Barretto: I think legislators serving as substitutes would be shocked at the patience and versatility it requires. Days rarely go exactly as planned, and with students on so many different ability levels, it’s really tough to make sure some kids get the extra help they need without boring the kids who catch on and finish work quickly. I also think they’d be surprised by how quickly a half-hour lunch goes by, and how long you sometimes have to hold a full bladder!

D Magazine: Any other thoughts?

Barretto: I like this idea. It would give legislators a taste of what teaching is like, even though many of the long-term stresses of the job would not apply to them.

Stone: I like the idea of a panel of teachers acting as delegates from various areas within Texas being able to go to Austin and be treated as experts in the field of education. They can give feedback about what these legislators are doing and guide them in what needs to be done and what needs to go. The Texas legislators need to stop acting like they’ve got all the answers without consulting our Texas teachers directly.

Blakely:  I don’t know what the legislators would put in their reports, but it wouldn’t come close to capturing what we do every day. However, they’re welcome to come observe and participate because they have no clue.


Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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