No Child Left Behind and Substitute Teaching: A Personal Perspective


In April 2004, a little bit more than a year shy of Social Security eligibility, I started substitute teaching in two public school districts in northern Virginia.


Like several other jobs since my “forced retirement” from a long I.T. job on 12/31/2001, I did view this as an interim job. Virginia does not require substitutes to hold teaching certificates, and I believed that someone with thirty years of real-world experience in the work and business world could offer something to high school (and perhaps middle school) students. That sounds like a no-brainer. I still believe that, and I want to offer some perspectives on the issue of substitute teaching given the difficult challenges to today’s school systems, especially as they implement the No Child Left Behind legislation.


My concerns lie in at least three overlapping areas. One of them is the quality of education itself, particularly for more challenged students. A second is how this relates to the way substitute programs are managed. A third is more personal, how a job like this relates to my own ideas of ethics and professionalism developed in my decades in the private enterprise “real world.”


I graduated from Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, VA in 1961, as one of fourteen valedictorians. At that time, Washington-Lee was one of the ten top public schools in the nation with respect to academic achievement. Today the gap between the “haves” and “have-nots” in terms of academic competence is overwhelming.  I have enjoyed the privilege of sitting in on and looking at the work of a few Advanced Placement and Honors classes. I have seen high school seniors who can do college level advanced calculus, work quantitative analysis chemistry problems, and write book reviews or other essays fully worthy of commercial publication in visible periodicals. (These are the “super teens” on TheWB dramas: Clark, Chloe, Lana, Ephram, Amy, Martin, Simon, Bradin, Cameron, etc – or the “kids” who make it on to “It’s Academic.”)   But the best students are usually segregated from the “average” and underperforming students, who, compared to the circumstances when I went to high school, seem to lack visible role models among their peers. Despite the efforts so far of NCLB (and I won’t get into the controversial “disaggregation” of student performance here), the language and mathematics skills of many average students seem very poor by comparison. When writing an essay, the best students will always try to be original, whereas other students will try to parrot what they think they are supposed to say.


The poor performance of many students reflects the tremendous public investment required for education. Libertarian-like solutions have encouraged privatization, vouchers, and home-schooling, and these all may work for many families. Nevertheless, our individualistic culture has, for the past thirty years, allowed many adults (me included) to live in a competitive world that excludes children or family responsibility completely.  Many relatively affluent people have fewer (or even no) children and are less willing to help pay for or support the education of other people’s children. Furthermore, a technological culture, with television and computers (and, as Norman Mailer pointed out in a January 2005 Parade article, too many distracting commercials), may well benefit children of well-run homes but creates serious learning and attention problems for children in (often less affluent) homes that do not manage the use of entertainment technology well.


But one goal of NCLB now comes into focus: to put a highly qualified teacher (and sometimes more than one) in front of every classroom and every student, every school day. From the point of view of the education of students, this is what makes the management of substitute programs an important issue.


As I mentioned, Virginia sounds like it is pretty lenient with substitute requirements. In most cases, 60 hours of college is the main requirement. Of course, the applicant must pass a criminal background check, fingerprint check, provide reference letters, and pass a tuberculosis test (which seems anachronistic by today’s medical standards). The substitute teacher is, in theory, the “authority figure” in charge of a particular class.  In mainstream classes with certain special education students, there must be two teachers in the room, but now a substitute can fill in for the special education teacher, also. There are also substitute positions for assistants and for after-school extended day, and the requirements for these are less.


The pay is fair (no benefits), and substitute teaching is sometimes an appealing interim job for some people, such as retired persons; graduate or law students; musicians, actors (theater, commercial, or motion picture), writers or artists looking for a big “break.”  Arguably, as I said, such persons usually have a lot (in terms of future “real world” perspectives) to offer good high school students with incidental interaction. The job does not require some activities of other jobs that some people find objectionable, such as graveyard shifts, register balancing, extreme weather, uniforms, or excessive personal regimentation. It usually does require a dependable car that must start every cold morning and the ability to get to a new destination shortly after accepting an assignment, and it requires the ability to manage changing assignments, usually with home computer skills.


What becomes more controversial is the matching of the substitute’s background with the assignment. Substitutes submit a “profile” of the schools at which they will teach and the subjects they can teach. Automated substitute assignment networks systems generally allow any combination of schools and subjects, regardless of the substitute’s resume. That is, it is up to the substitute’s personal judgment to decide in which subjects he or she is best qualified, although a substitute who wants to work every day (and most school districts prefer this) will put down many subjects.


Most classroom assignments in high school and middle school require little actual “teaching.” Regular teachers leave lesson plans, which typically include a classwork activity, often a test, to be handed in at the end of class. This works well with “normal” students who can work on their own, and it works extremely well with advanced students, who like to be left alone anyway. I tell students that they are getting ready for the workplace, where they will have to budget their time to accomplish specific tasks.  With weaker classes this does not work as well, as restless students (often students with poor skills who feel embarrassed if expected to “perform” on their own in class) may become disruptive. Frequently, in many larger schools, there are last minute absences, and school administrators are glad to find a last-minute substitute who can sit in on the class, even if it is for an unfamiliar or unprofiled subject. As one can see, this kind of circumstance tends to contradict the notion of quality instruction for every student in every class, as goal of NCLB.  What is worse, it may cause the substitute to lose credibility with students, contributing (from weaker students) to disruptive or evasive behavior. Some students will believe that the substitute is a babysitter and not a “real teacher,” and is essentially a failed or non-competitive person looking for “easy money.”  This credibility gap does not help with classroom discipline or learning.[1]


Furthermore, substitutes are often called for hard-to-fill non-profiled subjects (though only at the profiled schools). This is particularly true with special education. About one-third of the calls that I get are for special education. (Most of them I cannot accept, but more about that later.)  Now, “special education” refers to a wide variety of special-needs students. These range from moderate learning disabilities (those that do not obviously affect ordinary demeanor, functioning or behavior and that may or may not have medical or physiological causes, or may be related to household environment problems) to outright mental retardation (from genetic or congenital conditions). Some special education students require unusual personal attention to be taught basic skills, some do have behavioral problems, and some may even require personal custodial care to daily needs, even in a high school program. In some cases, a substitute may not know what to expect with a special education assignment. Special education requirements of NCLB account for a sizable percentage of staff in today’s public schools, and there are fewer students per employee than for any other group of student. NCLB, when applied to special education requirements, does partly account for the need for substitutes, and school districts obviously may not have the time or money to train substitutes working with special needs students or even interview the substitutes for proper interest and personal motivation.


Substitute assignment systems always provide for “special instructions” which allow regular teachers to describe in detail any unusual expectations for an assignment. However, often many teachers do not use them. They can be particularly important for long term assignments (which for unlicensed substitutes may run up to ten days at one class).


This brings me back to the nature of a substitute teaching job itself. It is a contingent, “relief pitcher,” bullpen job. It is somewhat, in temperament, like the duties I had my last two years (2000, 2001) in my I.T. career, end user and technical support of a mid-tier and GUI for a large insurance company. There is, in these jobs, a mentality that you have to “learn in the trenches.”  One has to be quick and flexible. But one has to be dependable also. In one sense (as is also true of on-call rotations in information technology), one is the “person of last resort.”  The human resources term for such an employee is often asset person. There is a certain intrinsic contradiction with this kind of arrangement with professionalism as we normally understand the concept. If one is a jack of all trades, one is a master of none. But a per diem support job is often desirable for someone in my circumstances. I am a public person with my self-published political writings and therefore should not, in most cases, have direct reports or a normal “career” until I can make my writings pay. Support jobs avoid this apparent conflict of interest.


This brings me back to the question of licensure. Many states actually require their substitute teachers to be licensed, therefore excluding it as a potentially “easy money” interim job, as some workers may perceive it. (Actually, “easy money” is quite a pejorative, often associated with spam or multi-level-marketing schemes or even cash flow.)  These states may have experienced teacher layoffs, or they may have policies of paying substitutes more but hiring fewer of them and requiring them to work steadily and be well trained. In the Washington, DC area, it seems that Maryland also does not require licensure, but the District does. (Some districts may have separate registers for elementary, middle and high school, and for special education.)


Virginia actually appears to have a provision that a substitute teacher may not accumulate more than ninety days in one school year, which would cap the amount that a substitute could earn (necessitating other part-time jobs or contracts). This seems to date back to a 1950 law. I believe that a substitute teacher, such as someone in my position, should make up his mind within one year of starting the job as to whether to pursue licensure (or else stop substituting). Licensure should be pursued in an orderly manner, according to an agreed timetable, to include the two Praxis tests[2] and required coursework. (which can sometimes be finished in a few weeks of 8-hour days for about $4000).


In deciding whether to pursue a teaching career, I would have to determine whether it could be based on academic skills alone (in my case, brushing up on mathematics again up through Calculus for the Praxis II exam), or whether the teaching market and moral considerations would encourage me to pursue special education certification as well. There will still be a subtle moral and cultural issue: whether every teacher should be willing to “pay his dues” and work with disadvantaged students, before getting to handpick or teach the students he or she might personally prefer.


I think that, in practice, some school districts are counting on those substitutes without formal teacher training to use their own personal experiences with child care to deal with sudden “surprises” of discipline problems or with special education assignments. The trouble with this for me is that I have never been a parent and was an only child, so I have no practical life experiences relating to non-intact persons or below-age-of-reason children. I have tried to handle this by not including elementary schools (I did have up to two of them for a while), and by being very careful about accepting certain other assignments, but there have been a very few cases where I have arrived at an assignment (not fully understood and decided upon quickly) and found it inappropriate, resulting in its being shortened. This is very troubling, and I realize that this could make me look unprofessional or unethical. In the normal business world this would not be acceptable, but school administrators may find it an unavoidable reality in the environment of staffing shortages.


I’ll state here, also, how I justify my own subject profile. Mathematics is the most preferred subject, since I have a 1968 M.A. in it; English and social studies are included since I have written three self-published political books, and science courses are included since I have a good general knowledge and at one time was a chemistry major. Technology is included since I spent thirty years working in it!  Music is included because I had nine years of piano and know the classical repertoire very well (but this would not give me the skill, say, to conduct a band or chorus without help from a knowledgeable student), and drama and film are included because I have networked with the film business regarding my books.


Based on all of this, I can certainly make some suggestions. Unlicensed substitutes should not be placed with elementary teaching positions (below middle school) or in charge of special education classes unless they can demonstrate some specific experiences (parenting, caring for younger siblings, or some other relevant training or work experience).[3] This advice comports with the earlier observation that in our modern technological society more adults are going through life without experience in child care or without any interest in it.[4] That seems to be getting to become a social problem, as the responsibility for the next generation, given the “family values” arguments of some people, ought to be shared more equitably by everyone. Then, as I noted above, all substitutes should commit themselves to begin the licensure process within one year of starting employment, according to some reasonable timetable. In Virginia, The “90 total days” rule would seem to encourage this anyway.[5] 


I plan to comply with these suggestions. I would complete ninety days of teaching in both districts by mid April 2005, and would be able to decide about pursuing a teaching career by early May. However, upon starting a full-time teaching position (which would probably be fall 2006), I would have to pull all of my self-published writings and websites from circulating, stop other pursuits, and be fully committed to teaching and to my students. So this would be a big decision. If I was not able to make such a commitment, however, I would eventually stop substituting. And, for the sake of professionalism and the spirit of NCLB, that’s how I think it should work.[6] [7] (See also my subupdate link, mentioned below.)


(10/2005): As noted above, some states do not allow unlicensed teachers to serve as substitutes. Some areas have “reserve” teachers who must be licensed or in the process of licensure. This may be common in areas which have had budget shortfalls and teacher layoffs in the past, despite the shortages today. A reserve system would offer the opportunity to pay a smaller number of substitutes more, and give them more constructive performance feedback, especially in sensitive areas like classroom management. Easy-hire systems like in Virginia commonly have “three strikes and you’re out” systems, where three “do not send’ (or “do not use”) requests from schools will cause a substitute to be fired. In some cases these complaint memorandums are made on a “no fault” (or “with or without cause”) basis and are not reviewed with normal workplace due process that is normally expected (even with “employment at will”). A substitute accepts this practical risk as part of no-licensure interim employment (a significant embarrassment if he or she has to report a firing on a subsequent employment application). A reserve system could make the performance management much fairer for substitutes.




There is one other side issue here. I have publicly stated my homosexuality in publicly accessible places (the Internet, and books for sale), for possible commercial gain. Legally, I believe that this means that I should never give another incapacitated male personal care for informed consent reasons and because of possible contingent liability.[8] Sometimes retarded persons do make inappropriate movements. Teachers generally carry liability insurance, and in some school districts student teachers must also; I am not aware that substitutes are required to, but nevertheless I will avoid situations that carry undue risk of accusations.


The Virginia General Assembly recently introduced a bill to ban homosexuals from adopting children with a “must ask must tell” (or “do ask do tell”) policy. This bill might be piggybacking upon the federal definition of “homosexual” in a 1993 law that implements the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military.[9] [10] Were such a bill to pass, religious conservatives might feel emboldened to try to ban gays from teaching, or at least some teaching positions (such as elementary or special education). This is possible even in view of Lawrence v. Texas because the 1993 law exists (it is being challenged).[11]  I would have to weigh the likelihood of such a law in view of the financial and time investment required for eventual teacher licensure. I think one can see how such laws can, with their chilling effect, exacerbate what is reported to be a growing teacher shortage in Virginia and other states, given the requirements of “No Child Left Behind.”[12]


©Copyright Jan. 30, 2005 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use.

This letter was sent to Va. General Assembly state representative Daniel Eisenberg on Jan. 31, 2005. Footnotes were added after the letter was sent.

For reproduction of many copies, please contact me. 

See also a commentary (10/2006) at


August 16, 2005: Update on my substitute teaching situation and commitments: see this link.


Nov. 9, 2006: Major blogspot entry on teachers and COPA.


Feb. 13, 2006, Related link on teachers legal rights (and free speech rights) in book blog: here. 


The National Education Association has a state-by-state discussion of the licensing or expiration requirements for substitute teachers, at this link. The following states do have meaningful licensing requirements for substitutes: CO  IA  MI  MN  ND  PA . Typically, unlicensed substitutes (or substitutes without permanent positions) have no teacher's union bargaining power and often no benefits, and in some states the pay is quite low. Public concern about substitute teachers seems to have increased since Aug. 2006, when a former substitute teacher John Mark Karr made a false confession (later retracted when no physical or DNA evidence could be found linking him to the 1996 crime) to the JonBenet Ramsey murder in Colorado. Initially commentators considered the “confession” pathological, and evidence of a personality that wants others to experience its own pain; others have since seen it as a “brilliant” way to get out of prosecution in Thailand and return to the US (a New York daily called him a “snake on a plane”) where he might have known he would be found innocent; his Larry King Live interview as intentionally ambiguous but he said that he would always see himself as a teacher and educator, even if he wasn’t working.


Here is my blogspot entry on substitute teaching.  I also have another blogspot entry about whether I could resume licensure (12/2006).


June 2007. There has been a troubling case of a substitute teacher in Norwich CT convicted for endangering minors when the evidence suggests that there was spyware on the school’s computer and security was poorly maintained. Here is the blogger writeup.


Return to resume 









[1] Substitutes have to sign bathroom passes and may be asked to enforce rules regarding overuse issues, and they can be hard to enforce. Ian Shapira, “How Bad Do You Have to Go? At some schools, it’s bathroom breaks vs. grades; limiting bathroom breaks to reduce class interruptions draws fire,” The Washington Post, June 6, 2006

[2] Apparently, as of the end of 2004, Va allows SAT or ACT scores to be substituted for Praxis I in most cases; visit this site:


[3] For what teacher training offers, the buzzword is “assertive discipline,” developed by Lee Canter. Here are a couple of links: also the Honor Level System of Kohlberg,   For teachers below high school (including middle school), the key concept seems to  be that they are teaching children (progressive steps in taking personal responsibility) and not just subject matter. Another pedagogical concept is “differentiated instruction,”  which, frankly, involves some manipulation. In today’s world, anyone entering teaching is challenged as to how her or she feels about reaching out to someone who is not totally intact and needs some sort of pseudo-parental attention. See the next footnote.

[4] A gay male is more likely to go through life separated from child-rearing responsibilities, perhaps. But some gay men have been married and fathered children and would have parenting experience. Some gay couples in many states have provided foster care or adopted children (though some states try to ban this). So some gay people, even men, may have relevant parenting experience or childcare or role model experience with younger siblings. Some heterosexuals married with children in a conventional fashion may not have had much experience with special needs if it did not occur within their own families, so training is still an issue. Generally, people need to have been sexually competitive to develop the inclination to raise children—unless they have had some other specific socializing experiences (as nuns would have, or as someone with many younger siblings could have). So while this whole discussion sounds like a “politically incorrect” invitation for discrimination against some GLBT people, in a larger context of education of younger students or less intact students it is simply unavoidable.

[5] On Feb. 4, 2005 I talked by phone with someone at the State (Va.)  The state applies this rule only to a substitute teacher filling a vacancy and accumulating ninety days during the school year filling that vacancy.  Individual school districts or school boards are free to make additional requirements for licensing or Praxis tests after various amounts of service or for assignments over given lengths. It is common for school districts to require substitutes serving over ten days in one position to have passed Praxis II for that subject. Read literally, however, I believe that the 90 rule could apply to all combined service.

[6] Despite all of this, I think that school systems could bring intermittently non-teachers from the “real world” to present students with all kinds of content, including the values of the work world!

[7] USA Today published a Forum “The state of No Child Left Behind” on May 31, 2005.  It would appear from this article that substitutes would have to be properly qualified by the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year. I will announce my own plans by July, 2005.

[8] Timothy Inklebarger, “Bill Would Let Patients Pick Nurse Gender,” AP. April 4, 2005, is about a bill in Alaska that would allow mental patients to pick the gender even of professional nurses who give them care. Could they demand that the nurses not be homosexual, following the logic of the gay military  ban?


[9] It’s important to note that in the 1993 debate that led to the “don’t ask don’t tell” law for the military, no one seriously considered fragmented military service and proposing, say, that gays be eliminated only from the most intimate duties like submarine duty. (Women, though, can  be excluded from some combat jobs.) Public service jobs often have a “contingent” aspect. In medicine intimate care situations obviously occur, but these would normally be covered by patient consent waivers, a concept not applicable to public schools. It is important to note, also, a distinction between “telling anyone” (as an event that creates a rebuttable presumption of certain acts) in the military policy, and publicizing one’s sexual orientation for potential commercial gain, which sometimes can create a conflict of interest problem.

[10] A related issue is the Solomon Amendment, discussed at  There is a parallel with the public schools. Under “no child left behind” public schools receiving public funding must release names of students to military recruiters.  See Dean Dean Paton, “Rift over recruiting at public high schools: A Seattle high school bars military solicitation, touching off debate over Iraq war and free speech. See

[11] It would recall the Briggs initiative in 1978 in California, which attempted a military-style ban of gays in teaching. See around note 157.

[12] An ancillary difficulty could occur if a school district required that every teacher, no matter what subject, “pay his dues” by taking turns in a rotation of providing custodial care for disabled students. If is often very difficult to staff positions doing this with “trained” people.