Craig Gordon, a substitute teacher, works with individual students at Oakland High School as part of a new program for substitute teachers. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Three times a week, Jacquelyne Jackson meets virtually with a handful of second graders at Hoover Elementary School in West Oakland and helps them with their reading skills. Last week, they worked on the “th” phoneme. Jackson, using a virtual program, hovered her mouse over the words “them” and “that” as the students sounded them out.

Jackson isn’t these second graders’ regular teacher. A credentialed substitute teacher with the Oakland Unified School District, she’s working with them as part of a special program that was included in the contract between the teachers’ union and OUSD this semester. Through this program, substitute teachers can receive assignments to provide students with extra support, on top of their usual classes, through one-on-one and small group sessions. 

“Kids are squirmy. They’re looking at a TV screen while they’re sprawled on the bed, sisters and brothers running in and out, parents shouting from another room,” Jackson said about distance learning. “They really need much more than the regular instruction. It’s a concern that they get as much as they can get.”

Funding for OUSD schools to work with subs in this way comes from the district’s CARES Act money, extra funding that school districts across the country received from Congress for pandemic relief. To take part in the program, teachers should determine how many substitutes they need, create a sample schedule for the substitutes that outlines the days, times, and classes they would be working, and submit the request to the school principal.

But in order to request substitutes for extra support, teachers and principals first have to know the program exists—and according to substitutes and principals we spoke to for this story, not all do. 

Though the program has been in place since the contract was signed in August, Jackson was only able to get a teaching assignment last month. Craig Gordon, another regular OUSD sub, said he only knows three or four other substitutes who have received these special assignments. 

Jacquelyne Jackson, an OUSD substitute teacher, received an assignment to help second graders improve their reading skills after she helped circulate a list of substitutes who were available for work. Credit: Amir Aziz

Jackson and Gordon have taken it upon themselves to spread the word. In October, they created a spreadsheet listing names and contact information for dozens of substitute teachers who were available for work, what their schedules are like, what grades they’re willing to teach, what schools they prefer to teach at, and their teaching experience, and shared the list with teachers and principals. 

Shortly after the list began circulating, Jackson, who had not had a substitute assignment since before the coronavirus pandemic, got a call from teachers at Hoover Elementary. The week before Thanksgiving, she started working with second graders there. 

Gordon, who taught history and social studies in the district for 24 years until retiring in 2014, is now working individually with special education students four days a week—an assignment he learned about from Alex Webster Guiney, a full-time teacher he has worked with before. In the two months that he has been working with Guiney’s high schoolers, Gordon said he’s received thanks from both the students and their parents for his support.

“It becomes very obvious when you’re working one-on-one with a student that they’re having difficulty, that there’s much that isn’t clear, there’s words that they don’t understand,” Gordon said. “I can see that and give them that help. I can guide them to figure things out. That’s just not possible in a large class, whether it’s in person or on Zoom.”

While Jackson and Gordon have been able to find work through word of mouth, they know that others have not been as lucky, and are asking the school district to take a bigger role in connecting subs with these special assignments and training them on the several virtual learning platforms that schools are now using.

To address some of the issues, Oakland Unified School District staff have been meeting with the substitute contingent of the teachers’ union, said district spokesman John Sasaki. To help with technology barriers, the school district is lending out Chromebook laptops to substitutes on Dec. 9 and Dec. 16. “Overall, the substitute program has been working quite well, and we deeply appreciate all the hard work each one of them has been putting in to support our students,” Sasaki said.

Substitutes are also asking for more certainty around what their job prospects with the district will be like in the spring, given that the current contract, which outlines their job responsibilities, expires after Dec. 31, and the school district and the teachers’ union have not negotiated a new contract yet. 

School leaders say more awareness of the program is needed

At Burckhalter Elementary School in East Oakland, two substitutes hired in October have been especially valuable in helping students get up to speed on the lessons they may have had trouble with at the end of last year, when school went virtual, principal Carin Geathers said. Some of the current first graders struggled to meet their end-of-year kindergarten targets last year, but those students have shown more growth this year with extra support from substitutes.

One of Burckhalter’s substitutes works with kindergarten through second graders, while the other works with third through fifth graders. They host small group sessions several days a week while teachers work with the rest of the class.

Geathers learned about the program from the substitutes themselves, who who had been volunteering at the school. “Unless the substitute has reached out to a particular principal or school site and said, ‘Hey, I’m available, and Oakland is going to pay us to support small groups in the school,’ [principals] might not know,” she said.

Geathers, who joined the school as principal in 2008, said the program has led her to think about other nontraditional ways that substitute teachers can be used in the future, even when students are back in the classroom. Small groups and one-on-one attention will still be needed after the pandemic, and substitute teachers could be useful in those roles.

She’s also considering how the extra support could be more flexible, and spread throughout the day, once students are back in school. One option would be a virtual component to Burckhalter’s after-school program, to help the kids who may not be able to be part of the program but still need extra time for learning.

“It really has given me a lot of different ways to think about how we can best support students both while they’re in the building and when they’re not,” she said.

Learning to use virtual teaching programs

Jackson, who has been substituting in Oakland for three years, had to rely on her class’s teachers to help her learn the virtual programs, she said. “You cannot just parachute into these things and do them smoothly with students’ comfort. Teachers, in the midst of all the things that are demanded of them, did point me and help me be able to access that program.” 

Other subs, like Pamela Chinn-Scoffern, have sought out their own training. Also a retired teacher, Chinn-Scoffern has been working as a substitute with kindergarteners in small groups at Global Family Elementary School since mid-October, she said. She found some online training to teach herself how to use Zoom and had another teacher help her learn techniques for the classroom.

“I do know subs personally who just say, ‘We’ve had no training, we don’t know how to do the Zoom classes,’” Chinn-Scoffern said. “You’re doing your own thing. You find out things on your own and practice.”

Guiney, a special education teacher at Oakland High School, initially reached out to Gordon about the special program for subs after she surveyed her department at Oakland High about the kind of support teachers needed. With fewer hours of instruction than during pre-COVID school days, there’s also less time for individual attention for students, Guiney said. 

“A lot of this is not just content support—it’s tech support. It’s ‘I don’t know how to get into my Google Classroom,’ or, ‘Once I’m there, I’m not sure how to upload my document and submit it,’” Guiney added. “If you’re a classroom teacher and you have 18 to 32 children, there’s no possible way you can provide that level of step-by-step support.”

Guiney has been coordinating the substitute assignments for her department since September and wants to see more substitutes working at schools across the district to support classes. “The subs are not being used in their normal capacity right now because teachers aren’t getting sick or are getting more rest or whatever it is,” she said. The district paid regular substitutes last spring even if they weren’t working, but not the fall semester. 

To Guiney and others, the CARES Act-funded program is a win-win—as long as it’s used to its full potential. “Every teacher should have access to a sub that can provide this kind of support to kids during a pandemic when they may not have any other supports,” she said.

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Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.