Return of the Building Sub

Last week, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission began the the process of privatizing the 1,300 employees who serve as substitute teachers. And the response was the sort of groan you might hear before a pop quiz, or at a Bill Green selfie-video.

Normally, privatizing on this scale1 would normally send shockwaves of anger through the teaching community. But the SRC wisely hit upon the one area where teachers and political appointees can agree – our substitute system is a disgrace.

I worked at a substitute my first year home from college. I spent much of my time at a handful of charters, learning a heck of a lot more than I did in my education classes. I was offered one job, probably could have pushed for a second. But the company who hired me mysteriously disappeared from the their offices. Capitalism!

So I see history repeating itself, but I also see the SRC’s point. I can count 3 substitutes in all my years who were worth a damn, and a lot more who weren’t. There was the guy who showed up an hour late and asked me to watch his class while he ran to the store. One gentleman, my kids told me, had hooked his computer up to the ethernet and was constantly on the phone, leading us to believe that he was being paid substitute wages to run a side-business with my classroom as his internet cafe.

But the SRC’s solution, to no surprise, is outsourcing the work to a private company. That seems like a mistake. In order to be competitive, whichever staffing company will almost certainly pay less than the District. Whichever company wins, how are they going to make sure they people they hire aren’t simply those who couldn’t hack it in Darby?2

So here’s an old idea whose time may have come: Bring back the building sub!

The short: Hire people with some child care credentials to work in the same school every day. They would be responsible for covering day-to-day absences, with no lesson planning or grading required. Every building gets one, budget extras based on enrollment3.

Why schools would win: The key to thriving in any school is building relationships with the kids. That’s nearly impossible as a substitute. I worked in one school for so many days that teachers thought I was on staff – yet I rarely built a rapport with the students. It’s the inconsistency and the labeling: at the end of the day, I was “just a sub” who couldn’t really help.

A building sub would be there every day. I cannot emphasize enough how much that means to the kids. Nobody succeeds in school without an adult who can dedicate time to them, so why not add more caring adults? And when someone calls out, the person filling-in isn’t a warm body or a pushover, there the gentleman who says “good morning” and talks about Empire on Fridays. They are much less likely to experience, or cause, significant havok.

Why the substitutes would win: The hard part about being a sub is the chaotic nature of employment. Are you going to West Philadelphia? Northeast? Elementary or High School?  The building sub’s life would be more steady: Steady paycheck, steady location, the same kids and the same parking lot. There are some substitutes who really care about doing a great job. This system rewards them with the opportunity to build relationships and keep a schedule

Why the SRC would win:  This is not a career job. Offer this to every retired employee, every college kid in graduate school, any neighbor (within reason) taking night classes who needs a steady pay-check. We might spend more in benefits, but we would get a lot more bang for the buck.

What if nobody is out? That’s the beauty – schools in Philadelphia cannot have enough caring adults. I’m currently teaching on crutches, and having an extra set of hands would a blessing.

This would be a far superior response than hoping the private sector does better. It would not, however, solve the fundamental problem that people don’t like working in dysfunctional places. The District reports they can only fill 64% of the vacancies. Here’s an educated guess: Central, Greenfield, Penn Alexander – they don’t have this problem. The really challenging schools, the ones more-or-less abandoned by the state and city, they struggle to find subs the same way they struggle to fill regular vacancies. These schools are tough, and the constant battering has only made things tougher. Neither building subs nor the cult of the private sector can fix that.


  1. permitted through a contract where, I kid you not, the PFT agreed to privatize anything on two legs 

  2. And if your response is “The free market will do more with less!!”, go away. The grown ups are talking 

  3. any number would be fine, more for K-8 

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