Brooks: Minnesota’s irreplaceable replacement teachers

Star Tribune/TNS
·3 min read

On her first day as a pandemic substitute teacher, Kitty Kremer got a face shield, a mask, a microphone, some wipes and directions to the classroom where the children were waiting behind plexiglass.

"I felt like a space person, walking from room to room," Kremer — one of Minnesota's irreplaceable replacement teachers — said with a laugh.

When it feels like the pandemic is tearing Minnesota apart, remember the people who help hold it together.

Kremer is a veteran educator who taught art in the St. Paul Public Schools for nearly 30 years. After she retired, she turned to substitute teaching. All the joy and creativity of teaching without all the paperwork and professional development courses.

Then came COVID.

"It was a learning curve like no learning curve you could imagine," said Kremer, who navigated the distance-learning software of half a dozen different schools, then navigated those school hallways, pushing a cart piled high with art supplies from classroom to classroom.

She was teaching students at school, students online, students who were offline but might watch the video of her lesson sometime later, and students interrupting art class to ask if she knew the password to get them into science class.

Through it all, through the past two years and into a third, teachers have really wanted only two things: Keep everyone safe. Keep everyone learning.

Some days, it felt like you could have one but not the other. Some days, you didn't even get that much.

Teachers are getting sick or sidelined by COVID exposure. Teachers are burning out and walking away.

"You're still here?" Kremer remembers one school staffer asking her during her first pandemic assignment. "And you're going to keep coming back? Thank you so much."

Kremer, and thousands of other substitute teachers, keep coming back. For the kids, for the job, for the full-time teachers who have been doing far too much for far too long.

"Every building I go to," she said, "they are so grateful to have me there."

We don't have enough teachers. We don't have enough substitute teachers.

The governor of New Mexico just asked the National Guard to deploy as substitute teachers to fill some of the 800 vacancies created by the omicron surge. Minnesota schools have hiked substitute teacher pay, sent district administrative staff into classrooms, and coaxed parents to step in as subs.

"We've moved from fatigue to exhaustion," Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff told the Star Tribunethis month, on a day when 285 teachers called in sick.

Many of Minnesota's substitute teachers come from Teachers On Call, a Bloomington-based service that contracts with 103 districts around the state.

"Demand is up significantly, and I think our staff is feeling it," said Al Sowers, practice leader for Teachers On Call, a substitute teacher staffing service. "There is not a single day this school year where if a substitute has wanted to work, they could not work."

So far, demand for substitute teachers has outstripped Minnesota's supply. Sowers estimates he can fill about 70% of the need in some parts of the state. Some districts are barely able to fill a third of their teaching vacancies in a given week.

"We're hiring about 175 substitutes each week and we could continue that pace throughout the school year," he said. "We have that much demand."

Anyone with a bachelor's degree can apply to be licensed as a substitute teacher in Minnesota. To be a truly great substitute teacher, consider the test Kremer had to ace before she could teach summer art classes at St. Paul's celebrated Freedom Schools program.

"Can you love our children?" she was asked.

"You know what?" she said. "I already do."

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