Consistency critical component in students' success, experts say

Garrett Graff, a substitute teacher at Norwin High School, conducts class on Thursday, December 6, 2012.
Garrett Graff, a substitute teacher at Norwin High School, conducts class on Thursday, December 6, 2012.
Photo by Brian F. Henry | Tribune-Review
| Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, 10:34 p.m.

For as long as she can remember, Grace Pesselato has had a plan: She would graduate from high school, work hard in college and pursue a veterinary career.

But her plan hit a snag: college chemistry.

The University of Pittsburgh junior said chemistry has been her Achilles heel since high school when her regular teacher, whom she called “awesome,” took an extended leave and a substitute took over her class.

Pesselato said the substitute lacked a chemistry background, so the students did not receive the instruction the full-time teacher outlined in a lesson plan

Years later, “I still struggle with (chemistry),” said Pesselato, who does not believe she was adequately prepared for college-level coursework.

Consistency at all levels of education is vital, said Nancy Waymack of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and policy group.

“Having a teacher absent one or two days throughout the year in a way that's planned ... (the students) could very well have a very successful learning day,” she said. “But certainly ... if a teacher's habitually absent ... then it's much less likely that the children are going to be able to have a consistent effective learning experience.”

Raegen Miller studied teacher absenteeism for eight years and authored a widely cited report for the Washington-based Center for American Progress. “There's some pretty good evidence ... that more absence leads to lower achievement,” she said.

The study cites other research showing that every 10 absences lower mathematics achievement by the same amount as having a novice teacher versus an experienced one, Miller said.

The quality, training and creativity of a substitute also play a role, said Garrett Graff of Shadyside, who substitutes in 10 local districts.

Graff, with a degree in social studies and history, covers classes ranging from math to English to home economics, “which is incredibly intimidating because it's not your specialization.”

But he said, “There's no sense in wasting a day,” so he tries to make sure “he's teaching the kids at least something.”

Still, he knows there are substitutes who simply pass out a packet of papers left by the full-time teacher, then read their own books.

Graff said he learned classroom management skills and how to set up impromptu lesson plans in college and tries to use whatever knowledge he has when substituting.

Because substitutes are used so widely, training them has taken a front seat in recent years., a national organization focused on training substitute teachers, works with interested districts, said Director Geoffrey Smith. The group, which provides a free online course, has the lofty goal of training every substitute in the nation by 2013.

“The better they know that they can do the job, the better they actually perform,” he said.

Click here to see teacher absentee rates for all districts.

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