momlogic's Vivian: Some of my dearest friends are public-school teachers. That said, I understand from their perspective that substitute teaching can be a rough hang. It's not easy to walk into someone else's territory and govern 20 - 30 kids you don't know. But even so, one would hope that under a substitute teacher's care, your child would spend the day being taught -- not tormented. And that's not always the case.
For example, a few weeks ago, my first grader was noticeably upset when I picked him up from school on a day he'd a sub. After speaking with him and bunch of other parents of kids in his class, it turned out that this sub had yelled at the kids constantly, used inappropriate language and, at the end of the day, gave out toys to just five of the 26 kids in the class. The guy should've just put them in a ring to duke it out. (Mind you, toys in class are against school policy.) When I asked the sub about what had happened, his response was, "Well, your kid's the only kid who cried!"
Anyway, my kid might have been the only one who got his feelings out of his system on the spot, but it turns out that a bunch of other kids in his class went to bed in tears that night -- and had lingering feelings of anger and fear about this sub throughout the weekend.
I wrote an e-mail to my son's regular teacher and copied our principal, in hopes that I could prevent this sub from making an encore appearance. The teacher explained that it was out of her jurisdiction; this kind of thing was the principal's call. And the principal? From what I understand, she's out of town -- so I'm still playing the waiting game.
Was my approach off the mark? How should a parent proceed if her kid gets a bad sub? I reached out to Pamela Wheaton, director of Advocates for Children, a nonprofit New York City-based education-advocacy group. She says that each school handles substitute teachers differently, but many keep a running list of reliable subs they can call on when they need to.
Here are her tips on how to handle it next time your kid suffers from what I now call "bad-sub syndrome":
Always greeting your child's regular teacher and principal with a smile can go a long way when issues arise later. "Make friends before you need them," says Wheaton. "If your child's teacher knows you, he/she might be more amenable to hearing about problems that crop up during the school year."
When problems do arise, tread lightly. "Ease them into your concerns," advises Wheaton. "No one wants to feel like they're being attacked. School officials and parents should aim to be active partners in student education."
Respect the Chain of Command
"Rules about substitute teachers can vary greatly from state to state," says Wheaton (who points out that many subs are not union members). Some schools have classes elect a parent to act as a liaison between the teacher and parents. If your child's class has one such liaison, letting her in on the issue might be a good place to start. After you try that, Wheaton advises that you notify your child's teacher, parent coordinator (if your school has one) and a higher-up in your school's administration -- either the vice-principal or the principal. (It's their job to address parent concerns and issues in a timely and respectful manner.) And if none of that garners a response? It might be time to step up to a leader in your area's PTA -- or even contact your school district's chancellor's office.
Organize Amongst Yourselves
Talk to other parents in the class, and encourage those who had similar issues with the sub to speak up. "It's more effective to have as many parents come forward as possible," says Wheaton, "so you aren't dismissed by the administration as a helicopter mom."
Time It Right
Attempting to discuss your kid's experience with his or her teacher at drop-off or pick-up might not garner the best response. Instead, Wheaton suggests that you drop a note or send an e-mail requesting to meet with the teacher or school official at a time when they can be receptive and give you their full attention.
Keep a Record
Wheaton advises that parents keep a clear, running record of all communications with other parents and school officials. You might need that information later on.
Overall, Wheaton feels that situations like mine can usually be resolved at a school level -- but only if parents are willing to speak up. "Parents need to be their kids' best advocates," she says. "Because if they aren't, who will be?"