Substitute teaching isn’t typically an activity a school district superintendent participates in, but it appears that desperate times call for desperate measures.
Durango School District 9-R is so lacking in substitute teachers that Superintendent Karen Cheser had to fill in Nov. 12 and serve as substitute teacher for an Academic Life Skills course within the school district. She worked with students who have some of the most severe needs or disabilities in the district.
“We don’t have a ton of people in the district office that can sub, but they are all very willing and committed to if needed,” Cheser said.
She said the schools have only about four district office employees who are licensed to practice substitute teaching, in addition to herself.
“We are working tirelessly to recruit more substitute teachers,” Cheser said. “We’re very thankful that we’ve been able to keep the quarantines down and positive cases in the district. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t just have the normal illnesses that are happening.”
School district spokeswoman Julie Popp said the school district tries to be accommodating to teachers and staff members who need to fulfill other obligations or take sick days or vacation time. That said, the district doesn’t have enough substitute teachers to keep up with the number of requests for time off it’s been receiving, she said.
“We’re probably just in that workforce shortage with everybody else in the community and, actually, in the nation,” Popp said. “Everybody keeps talking about the ‘Great Resignation,’ and I don’t know, it’s just a workforce shortage everywhere.”
Cheser said Durango School District 9-R typically does professional development, or continued learning and lesson plan development, during weekdays. Teachers might observe other teachers in order to learn from them. But the district hasn’t been able to conduct as much professional development because its number of substitute teachers is down, Cheser said.
“As I’m sure of all of Durango and La Plata County, we have a lot of jobs that we need people to fill for a variety of reasons, and substitute teachers are in that same realm,” she said.
Despite the stresses of the substitute teacher shortage, Cheser said that filling in for the Academic Life Skills instructor was fun and made her miss her days of teaching regularly in the classroom.
Not that it’s been a long time since she has been inside the classroom.
The superintendent said substituting in the last district she worked as superintendent was fairly common during the pandemic.
In June, Cheser and two deputy superintendents taught a teaching and learning pathway course (a college course offered to high school students aiming for a job in public education) at Fort Thomas Independent Schools, Fort Thomas, Kentucky, before she started in the Durango school district in July.
“We taught the class of students who were training to be teachers,” she said. “And we’d like to do something like that here in Durango 9-R to create our future generation of teachers of students in high school who are interested in that.”
Before that, in 2020, Cheser was substituting in a range of classes at Fort Thomas during her role as superintendent because of a lack of substitute teachers. She filled in for everyone from kindergarten paraeducators to middle school science teachers and high school choir instructors.
Cheser said she stepped up to the role of substitute teacher because the district was trying to remain open “the entire time through COVID,” a goal that Durango school officials have emphasized as well.
On Nov. 12, Cheser instructed about nine ALS students throughout the day. She said she had the help of paraprofessionals and an occupational therapist.
“I feel that all of us should do this,” she said. “It definitely helps you empathize with what our teachers go through, and our staff, every single day.”
Cheser said it isn’t easy teaching in a mask or working under the constant threat of potential COVID-19 exposure and quarantine around every corner.
“That just adds so much more of a burden to teachers as they worry about students and trying to teach students both in the classroom and at home,” she said. “Plus, the students do have major gaps from not having that regular instruction and not being in that regular setting the last year and a half.”
She said school districts in general are having to “pull all the stops” to remain open and functional.
Substituting here and there aside, Cheser admits that it’s otherwise been a while since she’s formally taught in a classroom.
“You also always remember how hard it is for our teachers and our staff members during the day, especially as the pandemic continues to weigh down on us and we worry about our kids and we worry about our families, our children,” she said.
“Anything we can do to help relieve that, we want to. We are committed to keeping our students in school. We’ve seen the impact of not having normal schooling the last year and a half and the impact that has on children, students, with regards to academic gaps but also behavioral and social-emotional needs.”
Teachers’ wages are entangled in the topic of real estate costs. In September, school board director Katie Stewart said one of the most important issues facing the school district is that of teachers’ pay.
Stewart said she wants to increase teachers’ pay because the district is missing out on good hires because of the ever-increasing cost of living in Durango and La Plata County.
She said the high-priced housing market in Durango is affecting the school district’s ability to hire strong teachers who want to move to the area but cannot make the sacrifices needed to do so. She said she’s spoken with staff members at local schools about that very issue.
Todd Sieger, a Durango Realtor with Coldwell Banker Distinctive Properties, said that although the La Plata County real estate market is “healthy,” it’s not always good when residential home prices are exceptionally high.
“All of a sudden you’ve priced out so many people that are important to our community,” he said. “Teachers, first responders, medical – all those really important people that make Durango.”