Subs are key members of the teaching profession

Q & A

March 15, 2022 Dennis Theobald, ATA Executive Secretary


Question: What is the Alberta Teachers’ Association doing to support substitute teachers?

Answer: In the spring of 1986 my very first paid teaching gig was as a substitute teacher with Edmonton Public Schools. I got the call out of the blue, sight unseen, to report to Rosslyn Junior High School. Being entirely new to teaching, desperate and broke, I wasn’t going to ask too many questions or be fussy about what subjects and grades I was going to be covering. Having pulled on my $75 suit, purchased from the Army and Navy the previous week, I arrived at the school, was warmly greeted by the principal and then directed by the school secretary to the absent teacher’s office … in the gym.

I discovered there that I was going to be teaching Grade 8 girls’ phys-ed. Although I had absolutely no training, experience, competence or natural aptitude for physical education, I was provided with a beautifully detailed set of plans that outlined how I was going to take the girls through classes that involved tumbling and vaulting. I thought about this for a few minutes, then went back to the principal’s office, plans in my hand, to seek collegial advice. Specifically, I asked him “How badly do you want a lawsuit?”

After a brief consultation, the principal suggested an alternative pedagogical approach: “Dodgeball — and if they won’t do that, threaten them with laps.”

So back to the gym, where the first student soon poked her head out of the changing room, took a look at me and retreated back announcing to her friends “We’ve got a sub and it’s a guy.” After some cajoling through the door and a promise that co-operation would spare them having to run laps, most of the girls emerged and my career in education was born.

In the months between April convocation and June, I picked up a series of diverse assignments, one of which involved a hamster that went missing from a Grade 3 special ed class.

My experience is not unusual and, in a sense, that is part of the problem. There is still a perception that substitute teaching is something that teachers do at the outset of their careers in the hope of finding a permanent placement or as a segue into full retirement. While many teachers do follow this path, it is important to recognize that substitute teaching entails special skills, has its own unique demands and requires focused support. There are also teachers whose professional practice takes place entirely in substitute roles. Our collective experience over the last two years has highlighted the critical role that substitute teachers play in our ability to continue to deliver instruction in the most difficult circumstances.

If you are a substitute teacher, there are many ways the Alberta Teachers’ Association can help you.

As a substitute teacher, you become an active member of the Association on your first day of teaching in a school year. Should you require it, your Association provides legal advice relating to your employment, and if you have been treated unfairly, you can ask us for assistance. We can help you decipher the complexities surrounding applying for employment insurance, and we can help you appeal a decision if needed. And you can always call Teacher Employment Services for help with contracts, collective agreements or any other issues that come your way.

As an active member of the ATA, you are eligible to stand for local and provincial elected office or be named as a delegate to attend the Annual Representative Assembly and, in these respective roles, inform the policy and programs that serve you. You also have access to all the Association’s many scholarships and fellowships and are eligible to attend teachers’ conventions and local professional development opportunities. You may also apply to serve on ATA committees, including the provincial Substitute Teacher’s Committee, which meets three times a year and advises Provincial Executive Council on the concerns and needs of substitute teachers.

Substitute teachers should consider participating as members of their local’s substitute teachers’ committee, and if your local doesn’t have such a committee, you can start one. You also have the opportunity to attend the annual Substitute Teachers’ Conference that is held every fall. This is a fantastic learning opportunity with speakers and workshops dedicated to the unique challenges of working as a substitute teacher.

The Association has been working over several rounds of collective bargaining to improve working conditions, benefits and compensation for substitute teachers. We’re making progress, although not as quickly as we might like, but staff and elected leaders remain committed to advancing the interests of substitute teachers through negotiations.

In closing, on behalf of all of us at the Association, I would like to thank our substitute teachers for the work they have done and will continue to do to ensure our public education system continues to be one the of best in the world. ❚

Questions for consideration in this ­column are welcome. Please address them to Dennis Theobald at


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