Adapting and adjusting.
That is what substitute teachers at every school in the Huntington Beach Union High School District have had to do ever since the second semester began.
After HBUHSD leaders announced in December that teachers would need to return to campus in January or take a leave of absence — a decision that they quickly modified, then temporarily suspended, then reenacted in February — the district’s community erupted in a discussion from students, parents and teachers alike.
In a furor that has involved everyone from district leaders and teachers to students and parents, however, one group has gone overlooked: substitutes.
When the second semester resumed on Feb. 2, and with it, hybrid learning, teachers who opted not to return to campus to teach in-person were replaced by long-term substitutes — many of whom took over on short notice.
“I found out I was subbing for this particular teacher on Jan. 28,” Fountain Valley High School substitute teacher Benjamin Yasutomi said.
Some, like FVHS substitutes Ashely Pruett and Michael Thomas, had even less time to prepare. Pruett found out she was subbing the day before the second semester started; Thomas’s timeline was similarly tight.
“I got the textbook and the lessons two days before class started,” Thomas said.
To weather this abrupt transition to taking over a regular teacher’s class, for many substitutes communication was key. Yasutomi, Pruett and Thomas, despite not knowing the teachers they took over for personally before this year, say they have established good communication with them.
“I have not talked to him recently; however, I feel he is really responsive,” Yasutomi said. “If I email him about a question, I feel he would get back to me in a timely manner.”
Pruett says the teacher she’s currently subbing for providing her with lesson plans for the upcoming weeks as well as classroom policies and procedures.
“I worked with [math teacher Shannon Atkins] and I didn’t want to change the format, so with her help we had lesson plans organized,” Thomas said.
An important part of the teaching and learning experience is interpersonal connection — something that has been strained by online learning, and which has made starting as a substitute teacher extra difficult this year. As a result, substitute teachers are finding ways to actively connect with their students virtually and in-person.
“The situation is difficult for all parties but it is something we have to adapt and get through together,” said Yasutomi.
Yasutomi asks his students how they are, created a Google Slide presentation for them to use in sharing about themselves and their learning styles and even brings produce from the farmer’s market for in-person students in case they’re hungry.
Pruett connects with her students by playing “About Me” Kahoots, reading responses to their warm-up questions and talking about popular food spots. These efforts to connect, she said, have made all the difference in adapting to unusually challenging circumstances.
“For me, this situation is interesting,” Pruett said. “When I began graduate school, I never anticipated that school and teaching would look like this. But I am trying to make the most of it. I have learned that I need to take this day-by-day and that everyone deserves grace. I feel for all of the students, and staff, who are struggling with the current situation.”
Thomas expressed similar sympathy for his students.
“I think the students are pawns in a political game as far as COVID-19,” Thomas said. “Students are going to be hurt because of it because, in the long run, this isn’t the best teaching tool for high school and junior high students, so it’s a tough situation.”
Despite these difficult circumstances substitute teachers are facing, they say FVHS students are giving them the respect and ease that they need.
“Every student that I have worked with has been so polite and welcoming towards me,” Pruett said. “I am new to this district, but it truly speaks volumes how everyone has treated me — especially because I am a substitute, and I am still trying to figure out how the class prefers to operate while trying to run the class smoothly and effectively.”
Substitutes need more recognition. They are making lesson plans, grading, keeping in contact with their teachers, starting zoom calls, teaching and trying to create bonds with their students, all because they care. They care for our well-being, they want to make sure we are learning, they know how important we are.
In return, we should show them how important they are by giving them our respect, understanding and patience.