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Long-Term Substitute Teachers Reflect on Experiences

Jacob Reich
Junior Ella Litsur meets with AP English Language substitute Dana Perkins.

Dana Perkins started teaching AP English Language at Menlo in January as a leave replacement teacher for Oscar King IV. Perkins described the challenges of quickly adapting to a new environment. “It has required way more patience with myself than I anticipated […] — learning new systems, tech platforms, meeting a whole new group of students and adults, learning a school’s culture,” Perkins said.

Although a vast majority of employees cannot take paid parental leave, California’s Paid Family Leave offers employees 60-70% of their salary for up to eight weeks. Menlo also offers employees multiple additional weeks of paid parental leave. However, many teachers end up using accrued sick days to take multiple months off of work.

Currently, two Menlo teachers, King IV and Alexis King, who bear no relation, are both taking parental leave. King IV had a baby last year and King — who teaches biology and honors chemistry — had a baby in February of this year. Additionally, Upper School Counselor Jake Fauver took paternity leave earlier this year, while Spanish teacher Patti Frias is on leave recovering from surgery after a physical injury.

Most teachers at Menlo teach four or five classes. When a teacher is gone for multiple months, it’s extremely difficult for another Menlo teacher to take over their classes in addition to their own. Therefore, the school hires leave replacement teachers, also known as long-term substitutes.

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Due to the nature of the job, nearly all long-term substitutes have to continue the permanent teacher’s curriculum. “I stick to the plan/agenda as best I can. […] I think it’s important to stay the course, but I also know that I don’t have to do exactly what Mr. King would do,” Perkins wrote in an email to The Coat of Arms.

Now-permanent music teacher Joshua Charney, who started teaching at Menlo in 2022 in a temporary leave replacement role for instrumental music teacher and Creative Arts Director Leo Kitajima Geefay, also primarily followed Kitajima Geefay’s set curriculum for some of the classes he taught. “For the orchestra and jazz band […] the curriculum was kind of set because they had the pieces they were working on,” Charney said. However, he had more freedom to add his own lessons and projects in some of the classes he substituted for.

Still, Charney had to navigate integrating his teaching style with a mostly solidified curriculum from another teacher. “The biggest challenge is […] if you do something differently, is that gonna be weird with the students because they’re used to doing it a certain way?” Charney said.

Meeting the needs of students can be difficult when a teacher joins them midway through the school year. Perkins had each of her students fill out a questionnaire so that she could get to know them.

Khori Vondenbenken is the long-term substitute for both King’s honors chemistry and biology classes. “This is my first time subbing. I have always been a classroom science teacher,” Vondenbenken wrote in an email to The Coat of Arms. “My transition has been somewhat smooth. Every adult I’ve been introduced to has reached out at some point to offer support and assistance.”

Reflecting on his time as a long-term substitute, Charney sees it as a fitting introduction to his current position at Menlo. “It’s nice to have had those few months. […] I kind of learned how Menlo works a little bit, how the classes work, how the students engage with the material, so it was a good introduction for teaching this school year,” Charney said.

Perkins, who hopes to find a permanent role at an independent high school next year, also appreciates her time substituting long-term. “I’ve learned a lot in the past seven months from being on two different campuses with two very different groups of students,” Perkins said, referring to both her time filling in for teachers at Menlo and Crystal Springs Uplands School.

“I also love watching a student gain confidence in their ability to express themselves and come to enjoy writing. […] Every day presents opportunities to learn — you just have to be open to them.”

This story was originally published on The Coat of Arms on March 21, 2024.