Parents at Florida's Fort Myers High School might be surprised to learn their children are sometimes taught by very recent graduates: teenagers who were students at the same school just last year.
With absentee rates among teachers at record levels, school districts across the country are facing the same problem: too many teachers who fail to show up for work and too few substitutes to replace them.
On any given school day, an estimated 5 million American students have a substitute teacher, because 10 percent of the teaching corps has taken the day off. That's the highest absentee rate in decades, three times higher than almost any other profession.
Desperate for subs, Fort Myers High School began hiring 18-year-olds this fall. "What you try to do when there's a substitute there is do the best you can with what you have," says principal Jim Browder.
That's how Ellen Watkins was hired. Watkins, who graduated from Fort Myers High School last year, wants to be a teacher and is taking classes at a local college. She works evenings at a local Olive Garden restaurant.
"The parents come up and say, 'So you're the 18-year-old sub?,' and I'm like 'Ye-es!,'" she grins.
Although Watkins, who is now 19, gets high marks for her teaching, educators are worried about the high number of subs who, like her, lack even basic teaching qualifications.
"We're not looking at the bottom of the barrel, we're looking outside the barrel," says Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University's Center for Urban Education.
In a nationwide survey by Utah State University's Substitute Teaching Institute, 56 percent of school districts said they do not hold face-to-face interviews when hiring substitute teachers, and 30 percent said they do not conduct background checks. In at least 28 states, substitute teachers need only a high school diploma or a GED.
"If you need no degree and no educational training and no experience, then why not just hire baby sitters and pay them an hourly rate?," says Marvin Goetz of the Professional Substitutes Association.
Educators worry that students suffer when taught by subs. "It's worse than a lost day of learning. It's a day of confusion for the kids, no matter how good the sub is," says Radner.
Part of the problem is money. Schools have a hard time attracting subs in today's economy, when qualified teachers can make more money in other jobs. Even Watkins makes twice as much money serving drinks at the Olive Garden than she would from a day of substitute teaching.
Teachers Skipping School
There are legitimate explanations for the high number of lost days by regular teachers. School reform means teachers have more training days. And higher rates of maternity leave have an especially pronounced effect on teaching, a profession dominated by women.
But educators suspect there is another reason: burned-out teachers are simply skipping school.
"Every now and then I'm sure people take a head day, as it's called, a psychological rest-my-brain day," says Paul Loper, principal of Richardson Park Elementary in Wilmington, Del.
Morale among teachers is generally low. Teachers say their profession is becoming more and more stressful and cite school reforms that make them subject to performance monitoring and testing, school violence, and little respect.