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Technology Offers Opportunities, Challenges for Substitute Teachers

Education apps and netbooks help substitutes engage high school students, if they have access.

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High schools add apps, technology, but substitute teachers don’t always benefit.
Not all substitute teachers benefit from classroom technology.

The life of a substitute teacher can be a challenging one.

They can bounce from grade school to high school, art to chemistry—all on a moment's notice. As the new face in class, they're often met with resistance from students aiming to pull a fast one on an unfamiliar teacher.

For substitutes teaching at multiple schools, there is the added challenge of knowing the schools' policies on everything from dress codes to hall passes and, increasingly, technology ranging from personal devices such as cell phones to school-provided technology like laptops and iPads.

"One is a positive and the other is the bane of my existence," says Susan May, a substitute teacher at Georgia's Cass High School for the past 17 years. "Things like iPods and musical devices—those are horrid in the classroom."

While students texting and listening to music in class is an issue, educational technology—such as computer labs or digital whiteboards including SMART Boards—helps transform her role in the classroom from babysitter to educator, May says.

[See photos of U.S. News's Best High Schools for 2012.]

"The teachers [will] leave stuff on their computer, which goes directly to the SMART Board… You can go on the computer and pull up whatever they need you to," May says. "Those are really nice substitute days."

But those days are few and far between even for seasoned substitutes such as May, who says often she is just a warm body in the classroom.

"I would say probably 75 percent of the time my job is crowd control and volume control. I'm supposed to know where my students are and keep them reasonably quiet," she says.

Lack of access and training are two of the reasons substitute teachers don't use classroom technology, says Joyce Gifford, a substitute in the Oregon City School District for the past 14 years.

While Gifford took it upon herself to complete the necessary training, many of her fellow substitutes in the district haven't, she claims. For substitutes not trained on school devices such as laptops and interactive whiteboards, lesson plans left by the absent teacher can often default to silent reading or study time. Shifting from tech-facilitated learning to a lesson with no technology can be challenging for both students and substitutes.

[Read how some high schools are receiving technology training.]

"For the laptop carts, I can use them and we continue on the lesson that the teacher wanted, but I've talked to other substitutes who were frustrated because they were told they couldn't use the laptops ... Then the kids were just supposed to use it as a study hall day," Gifford says. "It's really a wasted day for the teacher and for the kids, and it harkens back to the old days when substitutes were considered babysitters."

To avoid this scenario, Gifford encourages other substitutes to take stock of the technology in the classrooms and seek training independently or from the school's administrators. The Oregon Substitute Teacher Association, of which Gifford serves as treasurer, will help prepare its members to teach in the 21st century with technology training at its upcoming annual conference.

[Read more about technology in the classroom.]

But even substitutes without training or access to in-school iPads and laptops can get creative with educational technology, says Melody Velasco, a substitute teacher in Hesperia, Calif.

Velasco uses her personal iPod Touch as a teaching tool, downloading apps and educational material, and uses sites such as Cybrary Man and Twitter—Velasco recommends posting to the "new teacher chat" using the hashtag #ntchat­—to find online resources such as Wordle to use in lieu of silent reading or study hall.

"I know substitute teachers who go in and want to watch a movie," Velasco says. "I have an investment even if I'm there for just the day—I want to engage them."

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