They are former judges, NASA employees, lawyers, principals and teachers. They can be ready with as little as 10 minutes' notice and stay for three weeks at a time if necessary. They are Pinellas County's substitute teachers, an often-overlooked but crucial part of the county's school system.
To celebrate their efforts, Pinellas County senior human resource specialist Melissa Hill and director of human resources Seymour Brown hosted an awards reception Tuesday at Frontier Elementary School. Nearly 100 substitutes attended, each nominated by his or her school for demonstrating excellence in the unusual craft.
"They're kind of like our unsung heroes in the district, so we're excited to do something for them," Hill said.
The county's substitute teacher force totals 1,600 teachers, up from 1,200 last year. On a typical day, between 600 and 750 subs are scattered in classrooms throughout Pinellas. According to Brown, the county is revamping its substitute service to increase the fill rate, or how many subs show up on a given day versus the amount of openings. Pinellas' current fill rate is above 90 percent for the first time.
"It's disruptive when substitutes aren't there in the classroom," Brown said. "That's why we have such a huge initiative to make sure that we're running as close to 100 percent as we can."
Often, the turnover rate is high among substitutes because many use the job as a transitional step instead of a career. To combat this, Pinellas is using a combination of increased hiring and technology. The district uses both a mobile and a Web-based app to let teachers and substitutes notify one another of need and availability. The district also advertises for substitutes on its website, as opposed to solely through a substitute service.
The pay varies, depending on a substitute teacher's education level. Those with associate's degrees earn $9.29 an hour, while subs with bachelor's degrees are paid $10 an hour.
Bettie Wickersham of Largo just finished her 17th year as a sub. She is one of a few substitutes who gets personal calls from teachers.
Giving more individualized attention for students who are struggling is what draws her to substitute teaching. A self-proclaimed farm girl who "was never supposed to make it" in education, Wickersham takes a tough-love approach with her students.
"I proved them wrong," she tells them. "Now you prove someone wrong. You do the best you can to the best of your ability, and you will succeed."
Malena Carollo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8215.