In a challenging year for schools, substitute teachers in high demand

  • Substitute teacher Colleen Couhie in a fourth grade classroom at the Weare Middle School on Wednesday, November 25, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Substitute teacher Colleen Couhie filled in for a fourth grade class at the Weare Middle School on Wednesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Deb Conley in her Concord home on Tuesday, November 24, 2020. This is Deb Conley’s first year as a substitute teacher but she is not new to teaching. Conley retired from John Stark Regional High School in June after 42 years of working as a special education teacher. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Substitute teacher Colleen Couhie in a fourth grade classroom at the Weare Middle School on Wednesday, November 25, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Deb Conley, shown at her Concord home on Tuesday, retired from John Stark Regional High School in June after 42 years of working as a special education teacher. She’s now in her first year as a substitute teacher. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 11/28/2020 7:53:14 PM
Modified: 11/28/2020 7:53:03 PM

When a fifth-grade teacher at Weare Middle School had to quarantine unexpectedly in October after a possible COVID-19 exposure, substitute teacher Colleen Couhie was called in to help.

Couhie, who lives in Weare, has been a substitute teacher in the Henniker, Weare, John Stark and Stoddard districts for 16 years. She worked in all the schools before the pandemic, but now she’s staying at Weare Middle School to limit exposure.

Couhie works five days a week and there’s always a class for her to cover, whether it’s a class like fifth grade or a subject like gym. But when the teacher quarantined in October, it was her first time supervising a remote class.

“He taught remotely from his house and I was in the classroom with the kids, helping the kids log in, making sure kids were on task. It was definitely a new experience,” Couhie said. “This has been a very interesting school year, to say the least.”

Substitute teachers are in high demand this year during the pandemic, as school districts juggle staffing shortages, due to quarantine requirements or re-shuffling of student cohorts.

“Keeping our schools open depends on having adequate staff and we absolutely could not be open without our substitute teachers,” said SAU 24 superintendent Jacqueline Coe.

At Henniker Community School, students have been divided into 33 small cohorts to limit co-mingling and the school has barely enough staff to supervise all the groups. The school librarian and the math interventionist have both been reallocated to classroom teaching positions. Principal Matthew Colby sometimes steps in to supervise classes as well.

“When you’ve got five regular substitutes, they’re in use almost every day,” Colby said. “If there is no substitute for, let’s say a classroom aide, those teachers aren’t even having a break for lunch. They’re taking their students out for recess. And I am going room to room to give them bathroom breaks.”

Due to the need for additional substitutes, the SAU 24 district recently raised its pay for substitute teachers to a flat rate of $95 per day. Previously, pay ranged from $75 to $90 per day based on teacher certification status and number of days.

This is Deb Conley’s first year as a substitute teacher at Henniker Community School – but she is not new to teaching. Conley retired from John Stark Regional High School in June after 42 years of working as a special education teacher. She made the decision to return to the district as a sub this fall, in part because she wanted to help schools stay open.

“I believe strongly that students should be in school, so I wanted to be part of the involvement to make that happen,” Conley said.

Substitute teachers set their own schedules, deciding what days they can or cannot teach. But the pandemic has placed a high demand on substitutes’ time, and some find themselves working more.

Conley started out working two days a week, but that has increased to four. Every morning when she arrives she gets a different class assignment, ranging from kindergarten art to eighth grade English. She is always needed for a job.

“That’s why they tell me ‘come in any day you can,’ ” Conley said. “They always have something for me to do.”

Conley said that when she’s goes to work she does feel like her services are in high demand.

“I feel like when I walk through the doors there, I am a very important person,” Conley said. “That’s the way they make me feel.”

Colby said many teachers at Henniker Community School have been trying not to take time off, because they want to spend as much face-to-face time with their students as possible in case the school had to go remote. He said one teacher recently rescheduled a dentist appointment to January, thinking that if the school is remote then, it would be a better time.

Henniker Community School went remote last Monday, after a possible COVID-19 exposure left some staff in quarantine and upcoming holidays created a lack of substitutes, many of whom come from nearby New England College.

Many districts around the state are looking to hire more substitutes right now, including Concord.

Conley said she hopes that other people will make the same decision she did, and become substitute teachers this year.

“The role of the substitute teacher is very important and I hope other people join,” Conley said. “It’s so important to keep the schools open.”




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