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Helmut Schmidt, Published April 08 2012

Fargo-Moorhead schools need hundreds of subs daily

WEST FARGO – It’s just after 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, and Christina Snider squares away her latest classroom for a day at West Fargo High School.

A science teacher by training, she faces two sections of world history and two of American history to teach to English Language Learners.

Snider writes her name and the assignments on the board. She skims the material again, then checks to be sure her literal “bag of tricks” – a container with pens, pencils, calculator and anything else she thinks she’ll need in her substitute teaching gigs – is at the ready.

Her other “bag of tricks” are the classroom skills she’s picked up living and working in Minnesota and Nevada.

First up for the class will be a review of the alliances in World War I.

“It’s kind of a work day, so we’ll see how it goes,” Snider says.

And then the students pour in to the room.

“Good morning! How are you? As a reminder, Mrs. Butenhoff will be back tomorrow,” Snider says. And her work begins in earnest.

Daily deluge of needs

On any given school day, the West Fargo, Fargo and Moorhead school districts need a couple hundred substitutes to take the place of regular classroom teachers because of sickness, training, appointments, maternity leave or emergencies.

The districts cast about in a large – but not large enough, by most administrators’ reckoning – pool of “subs” for help.

“You can’t go without a teacher. You have to have a teacher,” says Lorna Skavlem, human resources manager in West Fargo.

Generally, substitute teachers are people willing to take on the temporary teaching jobs to get their foot in the door for full-time jobs, or because part-time work fits their lives now, or in the case of some retirees, to be true to their old schools by helping out.

“There is absolutely no question, they are important for us,” said Nancy Jordheim, the Fargo School District’s assistant superintendent for human resources.

Jordheim calls them “guest teachers” and insists they be treated well.

The need for substitutes varies, though training classes for all of the district’s teachers are a big driver for demand. Tournament times may also pull a lot of coaches out of classes.

In Fargo, for example, there were 127 substitutes for teachers, paraprofessionals and secretaries on March 19; 120 on March 20; 92 on March 21; 142 on March 22; and 174 on March 23, said Jackie Prowse, who helps with the substitute system in the human resources office.

West Fargo schools may need 45 to 100 substitutes a day across the system, Skavlem said, though the average is usually 50 to 70.

The Fargo and West Fargo districts share an automated substitute scheduling system called Aesop that shares job listing notices for both districts, eliminating mix-ups and streamlining use of the system for all users.

Substitutes can shop for where they’d like to work or for certain teachers. Teachers can also pick favorite substitutes, including a “favorite five” who get first calls for a job.

Moorhead, on the other hand, uses a separate automated scheduling system to find substitute paraprofessionals and teachers, said Julie LeRoux, a human resources assistant.

On Thursday, the system called substitutes for 47 teachers and 16 paraprofessionals, along with secretaries and other employees who needed replacements, LeRoux said.

Like Aesop, the system allows both teachers and substitutes to enter their preferences.

Gauging ability

Corey Steiner, principal at West Fargo High School, says “good substitutes allow learning to continue. Our first goal is to have the teacher in the classroom. …. That’s really important, so we’re not losing a full day of instruction.”

The arrangement also can be viewed as a way to gauge a teacher’s ability, to see if they might be a good fit in the school if a position opens up, he said.

“It’s not the easiest thing in the world. I have the greatest respect for our substitute teachers,” Steiner said.

In Fargo, substitute teachers are paid $95 a day, with a $100 bonus after each 25 days.

If a teacher is in the same classroom for more than 20 days, their salary rises to where education and experience puts them on the regular salary schedule. If they’re in the same classroom longer than 60 days, then they receive the difference in pay for the first 20 days they worked.

In West Fargo, substitutes are paid $95 for a full school day. If they have a long-term teaching situation, after 10 days they earn $101 a day. After 30 days, they receive base contract pay of $172.37 per day, Skavlem said. Substitutes also earn a bonus of $125 for every 25 days worked.

In Moorhead, substitutes are paid $90 a day. That goes up after 10 days to $113 a day. Over 30 days, the pay is $173.90 a day.

After 25 full-time days, Moorhead substitutes get a $100 bonus.

Keeping on track

Back in Snider’s West Fargo classroom, she keeps her first class on track.

A student is shooed away from time on a computer until her homework is done.

Other students get one-on-one help through the reading and worksheet.

Snider’s goal with substitute teaching is to get her foot in the door and to figure out which school system she’d like to teach in.

“I’m surprised how much I enjoy it,” she says of the substitute gigs.

“It’s so much easier and enjoyable after you’ve taught. The key is confidence,” Snider said.

Plus, subbing can be that elusive key to getting a full-time job.

“That goes a long way,” Snider said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583